Don’t Wait Until You Are a Brown Belt to go to Your First Tournament

Don’t Wait Until You are a Brown Belt to go to Your First Tournament

-or-

Go to your first tournament now,
especially if you are a novice,
and especially if you are no longer a novice.

Here I am in Yakima at my second tournament in 3 weeks. I never thought I’d ever be going to 2 tournaments so close together. Yet here I am. The thing that strikes me about this tournament is the enormous number of Novice competitors. And how differently Novice competitors are treated. The judges know they are Novice competitors, and there is a good chance this is their first competition, so any errors in where to stand, what they do, and the order they do it are taken seriously, but corrected without prejudice. That is the only division where that will happen. Take advantage of the chance for gentle and understanding treatment. Of course Novices act like Novices, that is their role.

The second most nerve-wracking tournament I went to was my first (the ignorance softened the blow a bit). The most nerve-wracking was the second. Then I had a firm grasp of what to get nervous about. I’m glad I got this out of the way when I was a Novice, and am even happier I don’t let too much time pass between tournaments. That scary monster of “the unknown” can get awfully large if I don’t confront it with actual experience.
This is also why I have made tournaments a part of the whole karate experience for my son, even before I was competing. (Yes, going to my first tournament as simply a parent contained a certain amount of anxiety. “Am I doing this right? Did I bring everything I was supposed to? Where do I sit?”) How is he ever going to learn to deal with the tumultuous emotions of competition and the pressure of performance? He gets to learn how to get through the stressful and fraught day of a tournament, good or bad, win or lose (and yes, there are losses), and then crash land in safety. If he doesn’t start now, when he knows he’ll be OK at the end, no matter what, how will he ever prepare for this sort of thing when he’s on his own? Especially when he comes up empty?
Also – without the tournament, where’s the payoff? Sure, now that I’m (ahem) middle aged, I am much better at taking the long view. I am in for this for the long-term (even life-long) goals. But to a 9 year old, what’s the point of a sport that never ends if there aren’t some perks, challenges and prizes along the way? Working towards a goal he can actually see (in just a few weeks, in a couple of months) is a time scale he can wrap his head around. Tournaments are that thing. And they don’t get old since they don’t happen all the time.

Finally, there is something about competition that focuses the mind. When I’m sitting there on the edge of the ring, all my other accomplishments melt away. Those judges know nothing about me, and can only judge me on how I perform the task they are there to judge. While I’m in the dojo I can get hung up on a part of the kata, or only practice pieces, or at slow speed, or half speed, or even fast. I have shied away from the intense experience and commitment of practicing at full tournament intensity. But sitting there, on the edge of a tournament ring I wish I had practiced more with full tournament speed and tournament pacing with full tournament intensity. So when I return to practice I have a new focus on what I want to accomplish, and what I need to do to get there.
When I’m back in the dojo, the 10th or the 20th or the 50th repetition is no longer boring. I know what I’m practicing for. Back at home, showered, clean and rested, I can see, (as a grown up), that it is the hours and hours of experience, disappointment, hard work, modest success, more disappointment and further hard work that make success possible. I would never be able see that if I didn’t compete. No one can have that experience for me, and I can’t have that experience for anybody else. And that isn’t just karate, that’s life. I feel lucky we have karate at the USA Karate Dojo to help us work this all out.

And after all this philosophical writing, I would be fibbing if I didn’t mention that while working my way through several competitions, and coming out on the bottom has been hard. And winning something; that was sweet.

Some answers to questions I had when preparing for my first tournaments:

How long will we be there?
Make a day of it – leave other responsibilities for a day, and give the Karate, and the overall experience the time and attention it needs to focus your and your child’s minds. The more you all can watch, the more familiar, and less paralyzing the whole experience will become.

What do I need to bring?
A large bag with all your child’s equipment, a clean and ironed gi (I don’t iron much, but for tournaments, I break out the hot metal).
If it is a long drive, arrive in loose comfy clothes, and change at the venue.
Bring a check or money for the entry fees. (Unless you’ve pre-paid)
Bring small munchy, non-colored snacks (string cheese, nuts, apples, crackers, rice cakes, water YES! cheetos, red Gatorade, blue yogurt, chocolate bars NO! They practically jump onto white uniforms.)
Maybe a book for you and a book for your child. But mainly the intention to watch what is going on and learn from the whole experience, so it will be easier next time.
Bringing money to be able buy a few snacks or an important souvenir might be worthwhile, but not essential.

When will we be done?
That entirely depends on how a particular tournament is organized. See the above advice about turning the day over to the adventure. Worrying about being late for your next commitment will add unnecessary tension to what can already be a day with tense parts, and take attention away from the adventure of the tournament.

Where do we sit?
At the USA Karate tournaments in Edmonds, we will stake out a section where we can gather. The first time you go to a tournament with people, sit together as a dojo, and start cheering on the team – turns the whole thing into an exciting event. You get to cheer on your team, and your team cheers for your athlete (or you!). You have a home base for leaving your belongings. And a place for your child to sit while you get up and take care of yourself.

Won’t my child (I) get hurt in Kumite (sparring)?
Kumite is not about the fight. It is really about the chase and catch. It is possibly the biggest imaginary monster in the Karate Tournament box. The sooner you get to see it yourself, the sooner it takes on its true, and surprisingly manageable size.
With all those officials watching, you are much more likely to hurt yourself stretching or changing than you are sparring. Yes there are some bloody noses, but those are in the Black Belt matches. For goodness sake, don’t wait until you are a Black Belt to start Kumite. That would really be a rude awakening. Oh, yeah, and keep your hands up.

Oh, and the reason I mentioned Brown Belt? There was a woman in my division who was at her first tournament, and she was a Brown Belt. And she was just as nervous and easily flustered as all the other first time competitors.

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