I had a taekwondo tournament today, my third. We are expected to go to four tournaments before we reach black belt, so right away I decided to get them behind me early. I first went as a white belt, mostly because I felt the expectations would be so low that I would have fun and surely win something. And I did, I won a second place and a third place trophy.
Now, it’s not like the Olympics here, at these tournaments. Trophies are given out pretty much like candy at a trade show. There’s also no great rhyme or reason involved in who you compete against. Sure, you will probably compete against others of your same belt level, but if not enough of them show up to that particular tournament, sometimes you’ll be mixed in with higher or lower belts. But overall, I think they try to keep the competing groups small so that more people can win trophies. This isn’t the Olympics, after all, unless perhaps it’s the Olympics of Self-Esteem Building.
For instance, today I was placed in a line of women “45 and older.” Well there were only about four of us, so then someone else told us all to get into a line of “35 and older.” The four of us suddenly became about 25 people, so to break us down to smaller groups again we were again separated out by belt color, but it seems there were perhaps 10-12 of my belt color, so then we were separated by “who has had their belt longest and who has just earned their belt recently.” Two of my classmates went off into another group, leaving me in a group with five other women, all high-purple belts. And once we got onto the mat, we were split into even smaller groups: for forms I was in a group of four, and for breaking I was one of three.
So I guess what I’m saying is, while the trophies are nice, they kinda don’t mean as much as they might seem. Today I won two third-place trophies. In breaking I didn’t even break my second board, so third place actually meant “last.” Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not disparaging the trophies. As adults we have very few opportunities to win trophies of any kind, and they certainly stand for hard work and showing up to an event that for many seems foreign and difficult. And they’re very pretty and I love having a trophy shelf filled with symbols of my effort and commitment.
As I already said, when I was a white belt I had low expectations for my personal performance and high expectations that I might win a trophy by “default,” simply because there may be no other white belts to compete against. I knew, though, that as I advanced in rank, the competition would get tougher and my chances for a trophy would decrease. When I went to my second tournament as a gold belt, I sort of “gave up” in advance. I basically just showed up rather unprepared, happy to just be getting the tournament behind me, and feeling lucky if I won anything at all.
But today’s tournament was different. I’m advancing in rank but so is everybody else, so I knew that I had to put in some extra effort in order to win anything today. I had to ensure that my forms were crisp and pretty and my kicks were sufficiently advanced. Since first place trophies are actually hard to win, at least for me, my goal this time was to push myself to the limits of my capabilities in whatever way I could, with that elusive tallest trophy in my sights. Showing up and winning third place was no longer good enough for me, not because I needed to be “better” than anybody else, but because I needed to set a higher goal for myself and work very hard to reach it.
When I talk to people about my disappointment in not winning a first place trophy in the one event I really thought I might actually do it this time — board breaking, with two advanced kicks — I feel a bit misunderstood. I wasn’t whining because I’m not “the best.” I was simply disappointed in myself for working so hard and then letting myself down, for not keeping my head about me but allowing some of the stress of the moment to override my better judgement. This isn’t about anybody else. This is about competing against myself. And I know what I should have done differently. I should have placed that second board where I felt more comfortable with it, rather than letting someone else dictate where it was placed. I should have made sure I spotted it as I spun, advice I gave to my classmate but failed to follow myself. I should have made sure I built a ki-hop into the kick and put it into muscle memory. I really should have practiced that second kick more. I thought it was my easier kick. I slacked off on it a bit too much.
But even though I did not win the trophy I’d hoped to today, I actually gained something much more valuable. Because I’d set my sights on that first place trophy, I spent weeks learning kicks above my belt level, kicks I had previously been afraid of because of their spins and jumps, and I learned that I Can Do It with enough effort and practice. I landed that first break, the scariest kick with the 360° turn and jump. I landed it because I broke it down and practiced it until I could do it in my sleep. I’ve learned that my body can and will do what I ask of it. I’m not so afraid to advance into the higher levels, now.
I’ve learned that I may actually reach black belt after all.