I know what you're thinking. If you have kids, or live in close proximity to kids, you have probably been to a martial arts tournament or two. You see all the kids out there in their cute uniforms, punching and kicking and trying their best, and it just warms your little heart to see them work so hard and care so much about something. They perform a kata and everyone claps. They fall on their face and everyone holds their breath to make sure they're okay. They play and compete with their friends and learn valuable lessons about things like sportsmanship and being a 'team player'.
You're thinking that tournaments and trophies are great for the kids in the martial arts, they give them a fun reward for hard work and accomplishment, but what does that really do for the adults? If you're a 30's or 40's business professional, what is one more ribbon to wear around your neck, or a commendation in the form of a trophy going to do for you? How is it going to enrich your life?
Well, you're right, it won't. But you're also wrong, because it will.
Ha! Didn't think that was possible did you? Let me explain. Just last week, I took a little trip to Lexington, Kentucky. The Shaolin-Do Association hosts a Fall Gathering every autumn which boasts a tournament of skills on Saturday and then a special seminar with Grandmaster Sin The' the following Sunday.
Now, I've been in Kung Fu for 15 years now. But only lately have I made an effort to make it out to Kentucky when I can, and it's not for the bluegrass hillsides and fine local bourbon. (Okay, the bourbon is nice.) It's so that I can stand up and compete with my fellow Shaolin-Do brothers, putting my skills to the test and my money where my mouth is, so to speak.
Let me make something clear. This isn't the Olympics. We have a good time, and we compete at high levels, but we're all friends. This isn't about making places and getting ahead. It's about showing others what we can do, and becoming inspired to do better by what we see in others.
Far more children compete in the tournaments than adults, and that has always baffled me. I know to some extent that it has to do with busy moms and dads, work obligations, family requirements, and so forth, but I don't think that quite explains away the gap. I think a lot of the adult students of martial arts are just plain afraid. Afraid they'll embarrass themselves by not living up to their expectations. Or worried that someone will judge them and demean their efforts.
I have participated in every tournament possible since I went to my first one, and let me tell you some things that have happened to me along the way:
I have thrown my weapons across the gym and had to make a long, embarassing trek to retrive them, and then re-start my form knowing that I've already screwed up.
I have fallen and hit my head on the floor all by myself, just by trying to throw a high kick.
I have been kicked in the head and nearly knocked out more than once.
I have gotten stuck and been unable to finish my form, something easy that I should have down cold.
I have been disqualified for excessive contact to the head.
I have had my face bloodied and continued fighting.
I have been kicked in the groin without a cup on, twice in one match.
I have had to tap out of a submission hold within seconds of starting a match.
I have tried to punch a board that stubbornly wouldn't break.
I have finished my form facing the wrong direction with no understanding of exactly how that happened.
And on, and on, and on...
Every one of these things has made me a better martial artist and a better person. Without this abysmal list of terrifying failures, I never would have learned from my mistakes and been able to replace them with an equally long list of tournament victories. I won't list those here, because those aren't the important ones.
What you get out of your participation in a tournament is not the medals you take home or the applause you generate. It's measured in small levels of humble progress, and unconcious yearning to do better, be better, present more.
We compete, not to win, but to better ourselves. By placing myself in that field of my colleages and performing in front of hundreds of people, I'm forcing myself to rise above the obstacles in my mind and expand to greater things. The embarassment, the shame of failure, are actually freedom. They let me let go of whatever holds me back and perform without fear. (Even though I still get nervous.)
If you think it's about winning, think again. It's about brotherhood and team spirit, as corny as that may sound. It's about reaching inside and seeing what you're made of.
I'm made of a stack of mistakes and trivial failures that carried me further than I could ever have imagined.
What are you made of?
Sifu Michael Sandham is a 4th Degree Black Belt who likes writing these kinds of things. Occasionally, he goes to tournaments and does stuff. Sometimes people dig it.
Train with him at:
Shaolin Martial Arts
2009 Ranch Rd 620 N Ste 740
Austin, TX 78734