Winning feels amazing. Speaking as someone who doesn’t win often, winning makes me want to do my happy dance and shout from the rooftops. American culture loves winners—we have no patience for second place. But there are all kinds of ‘wins’ in life that go unrecognized, and some winners who, frankly, aren’t really winners at all.
This past Saturday I competed at the Bryan Hawkins Kenpo Karate Invitational Tournament in Granada Hills. I won some, lost some, cheered my friends, explained the formalities to newbies, offered advice when requested, commiserated when things didn’t go our way, contributed to the fundraiser—about the only thing I didn’t do was chow down on the yummy hot dogs they were selling.
In short, I had a blast.
The tournament is about competition, but it is also about camaraderie, community and sportsmanship—something we see too infrequently in professional sports. I met some lovely people from other schools, often while we were competing against each other. One incident stuck out, however, mostly because it was such an anomaly.
As I was warming up, I overheard a young man, maybe 18 or 20, coaching a little 7-year-old student. The young man was a black belt from another school I was not familiar with. “You’re doing it wrong. Do it again. No, it’s still wrong. Again.” His tone was angry, harsh and full of contempt. The little boy executed an imperfect spinning kick, and was rewarded with, “That’s not good enough. Do it better.”
I moved away from this pair and looked around to see other black belts gently coaching their youngest students, smiling and nodding, giving firm but kind final advice. I saw teams of young people working together to make sure they were in sync. I saw mothers and fathers checking uniforms, tying belts and whispering encouragement.
Later, I saw the young black belt in competition. His kata was beautiful, his weapons form impressive. But I couldn’t forget his interaction with the young boy earlier. I’m certain the black belt placed well in competition. And though he performed flawlessly, he blew the most important moment of the day—beyond the trophies, beyond the amazing execution of physical skill, he failed his young student.
Karate beings and ends with rei. Rei means respect. It is one of the Seven Virtues of Bushido. It is why we bow at the start and end of every class, every sparring match and every round of competition. It permeates the culture of a healthy dojo. It is the antithesis to contempt. Respect is both given freely and is earned. Respect can only be two-way; students respect the knowledge and character of their teachers and good teachers respect the dignity and efforts of their students. When “respect” is demanded without being returned, all a student can give is fear.
The masters of many different martial arts know that the purpose of training was never simply to be the best fighter. Hollywood may try to convince us how cool it is to have to the best fighters, but the purpose of the martial arts has always been the improvement of one’s character—to be the best human being one can be. By challenging ourselves physically, mentally and spiritually, by learning to accept loss with dignity and victory with grace, by learning patience and trust, by forgiving others for their mistakes and by becoming part of a community of people on different legs of a similar journey—all this and more is part of the perfection of one’s character.
When competition makes us forget our purpose, the art is lost. We become part of a martial sport—much like the UFC—focused on winning first place and demolishing our opponents. I take no issue with martial sports for adults, but they hold only a limited interest for me, and have no place in the way we teach our children.
The culture of a dojo comes from the top. The character of the grandmaster, chief instructor or school owner shines like a beacon to their students. Every student, but especially black belts, is a reflection of the ethos set by their leader. When the ethos changes from becoming better people to winning at all costs, there is no winning to be had at all.
I saw plenty of true ‘wins’ at Saturday’s tournament that had nothing to do with trophies. I saw kids (and even a few adults) who fell on their butts jump up, dust themselves off and keep going. I saw moms and dads teaching their children who didn’t place how to accept defeat without letting it define their self-image. I saw first-time competitors pledging to come back next year, filled with new ideas about how to train. I saw young girls put on their pink (gah!) sparring gear and take on the boys—and the boys being totally ok with that. I saw an entire community rise to their feet to honor and applaud a martial artist, who, having given a lifetime to his students, was now facing medical difficulties. I saw my teacher turn part of the day’s profits to assistance for his colleague and friend.
Winning feels amazing.