At the beginning of ATA Taekwondo Tournaments, competitors agree to an oath to compete in the spirit of Songahm Taekwondo, demonstrating safety, courtesy, and respect towards fellow competitors, the judges, and the spectators, and to always remember that
to compete is to win.
If you know me at all, you know I have an ambivalent relationship with competition. When I began taekwondo, I attended tournaments, but after a knee injury I went to them only to watch my family participate. After my knee had healed, I found excuses for avoiding competing: I was testing for black belt soon and didn’t want to risk re-injury, I had to drive a child from the tournament to another commitment, aliens had stolen my gear bag…(I didn’t say they were great excuses!)
A couple years ago, I began competing again. I don’t remember what compelled me to enter the ring (it was probably Mr. Shields’ incessant badgering–hello, Mr. Shields!). I do remember that I didn’t like it. I would become nervous and perform poorly. I would prepare as well as I could, changing my techniques according to feedback I’d receive, only to have my hopes dashed when at subsequent tournaments my efforts didn’t result in better outcomes. Keep in mind, I’ve held this attitude as recently as the end of last May when I competed at the Mid-West District Tournament in Kansas City, Missouri.
If you’ve ever seen me at a tournament, you may have overheard me muttering “to compete is to win, to compete is to win, to compete is to win…” as a reminder to myself that I haven’t wasted my time. Knowing I’ve found competing this distressing, you may wonder why I’ve continued.
I do it because I value the growth I gain every time.
Each time I compete, I evaluate what I need to learn. Sometimes I need to tweak my technique in forms or learn a new sparring strategy. More often than not, and more importantly, I need to grow mentally and emotionally. I realize that I’ve valued performance and scores over my inherent worth as a person. I don’t usually struggle with this in daily life, but once I’m in the ring where others judge me, I realize I still need to grow and heal in this area. This self-knowledge is its own prize, and therefore, I can honestly say that to compete is to win.
Worlds Taekwondo this year was no different. I came home devoid of medals and trophies, but I won in personal growth. Here are just some truths I learned:
- Compete for myself and no one else, not even the judges. Because I was not competing in forms at the Tournament of Champions, I had the rare opportunity to objectively observe the competitors’ performances and the judges’ scoring. I came to an interesting conclusion: I can make no rhyme or reason as to why judges score as they do. Scoring is a subjective activity. Judges score based on what they value, and that differs by school and region. On any given day, judges in my ring may like how I perform, or they may value traits other than what I offer. Therefore, I need to stop placing so much importance–including my worth as a person and as a martial artist–on how others evaluate me. My scores are simply information that has little to do with me and says more about the judges themselves. So, I’ve decided that the only judge I care about anymore is myself. How do I feel I’ve performed? Does it reflect what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown? If I can put my best out there, I will feel content.
- Learn what only competition can teach me. We can learn many things in our classes. Our teachers can help us tweak our basics or give us sparring tips. But when we face judges and competitors, we gain a new feedback loop. Forms scores give us opportunities to evaluate our techniques and decide whether we need to adjust them. Sparring matches allow us to see how quickly we respond and to face a new person’s sparring moves and develop counterattacks. At both the Tournament of Champions and the World Taekwondo Tournament, I faced a woman who was basically a one-trick pony. She competed in both sparring and combat weapons sparring, and in each event, she used only one strategy. That single strategy worked for her, because she won everything. I couldn’t get past her raised right leg in sparring or her combat weapon to my head in weapons sparring, even though I knew they were coming. She was quick! But since then, I’ve figured out how to combat her strategies, whether I meet her in the ring again or someone else who uses the same tactics. So, I’ve grown as a martial artist.
- Everyone feels nervous, including the stars. I used to believe that the people who win all the time know they’re good and walk into the ring with confidence that I don’t possess. This past week, I competed against people who were either in the Top 10 or had won District Championships. I had conversations with some of the women who took first, second, and third place. You know what I discovered? These women were incredibly–almost debilitatingly–nervous, just as I have been. I am not alone! This gives me grace towards myself, and it helps me relate to the women against whom I compete. Which brings me to my next point…
- Competitors are amazing people. When we step into the competition ring, we don’t step in alone. Other people from other walks of life step in with us. We have something interesting in common: taekwondo. We can discuss our joys and challenges, the hard work and long hours of time we’ve put in, the aches and pains, the mutual pursuit of a common goal–excellence in the martial arts–even amid being pitted against each other. Sometimes our conversations revolve around this similar pursuit alone. Other times, our conversations vector off into other aspects of our lives. I’m fortunate to have landed in the Moms on the Mat crowd, where we discuss our journeys as moms with kids who do taekwondo. Sometimes I’ll find someone with a common interest, such as a writer. Other times, someone might share vulnerably, such as struggles at work or with family, and I gain the privilege of listening. We may compete in the ring, but we are fellow travelers along life’s path, and sometimes people need a listening ear or someone to lean on. And sometimes, I’m that person.
Perhaps I didn’t return home from World Taekwondo with bragging rights. While I would have enjoyed placing or even winning an event or two, and I revel in the victories of my son, husband, and Mr. Shields, I am content for myself. I came back with treasures that won’t gather dust and that I can take with me wherever I go: the lessons I’ve learned. Indeed, to compete is to win!