Saturday, November 27, 2010

Kids and Competition

"Character is what you have left when you've lost everything you can lose." Evan Esar

That is a great quote. Karate teachers are in the business (art form) of creating character. Most of us have had days when we questioned whether to stay in training, when we had to pull ourselves up by our boot straps and try again. If we stayed in training, that thing that didn’t kill us DID make us stronger….lesson learned.

Competition is one of the experiences that builds character. We’ve all been there and we all know the strength of character that can emerge from the experience. Competition makes the students practice, causes them to deal with nervousness, and allows them to see their peer group in action. Having said that, here are 3 bullets that I would like to challenge you to think about:

How young is too young?
Are there certain types of children where competition might be harmful?
What is the responsibility of the center judge to be clear, non-biased, and welcoming in the ring? How does the conversation to and about the competitors from the judges affect the competitors self- view?

Let’s Talk About Age
In my opinion children younger than 6 are too young to compare themselves to other children. (There is an exception here and there in life. I know that.) For the most part, since really young children are just realizing that they are not the center of the universe, and that other children might be faster, funnier, smarter….it might set a downward spiral to exaggerate the width of that gap by having them constantly go to competitions and lose. For my very young students I create a demonstration situation and give everyone the same prize. If they stay long enough in karate, they will have plenty of time to experience competition. Talk to your little ones and more importantly HEAR that they don’t really realize that they are going to be compared. Before you test their mettle, give your very young students a chance to create a strong self image through encouragement and humor.

Exceptional Students
“Karate is for everyone, but everyone is not for karate.” Do you remember that old saying? Here is another one: “Who is the one person that you cannot teach? The student who doesn’t want it.”

The point of those two sayings is that we get all kinds of kids. We get children with obvious learning challenges. When sending our special needs children, we know to talk to the people running the event, so they can be sure to create a positive experience. However, we also get children with less obvious learning challenges like ADHD (saying they can’t sit still is an understatement), and Asperger’s (exaggerated attention disorder, with compulsive tendencies).My rule of thumb, when centering a ring, is to assume that a child is not being intentionally disrespectful and not bark my commands. That way, if the children have special circumstances, no one will be hurt.
There is another situation that is less visible. What about a child who doesn’t have a label, loves the training, loves to fight, but doesn’t have a great confidence line in life or in showmanship? I know that we all realize how much this child needs the dojo and how much he shouldn’t be pressured into competition. To make matters more complicated, this child is usually quiet, and does what he is told….so his discomfort will go unnoticed until he quits showing up for training. The best case scenario is that the teacher works directly with the parents and everyone watches the growth and development with ease and comfort. If this child ends up in your ring, be gentle in their lack of fighting spirit, or their lack of natural physical talent. They are gaining so much more from their training, don’t you think?

The Role of the Center Judge
All of us have stories of judges who made us feel like they knew us, even though they didn’t. All of us have had the opposite experience. If there was one piece of advice that I would like all of you to keep with you in class and in competitions it is to actually be aware of the fact that everything you say, every nuance, is noticed by the students /competitors. The center might be having a conversation with another judge about something unrelated to the competition and utter the phrase “That sucks.” The child, hearing just that part of the conversation……you see where this ends.
A miscommunication can occur when the competitor is presenting himself. The center judge, being funny (?) says things like “Didn’t your Sensei tell you to wear your WHOLE gi?” “Get some patches on that gi before you come back.” This nonchalant speaking style doesn’t take into account that, for the most part, the center judge doesn’t really know this student. There are many different types of students going to a competition. All of them have stories of parents with too much money, no money, parents who feed them and dress them before bringing them and parents who drop them at grandma’s to handle it…..we don’t know each competitor’s back story. Realizing that karate should be character BUILDING, we should not use sarcasm as a means to be funny at the expense of competitors we don’t really know. The center judge should keep an eye on the eyes of the competitor and use their own experience and insight to make everyone as comfortable as possible.

Another job of the center is making sure the other judges are quiet, paying attention, and informed of the judging criteria. When the ring ends, and the judges walk over to talk to the competitors, it wouldn’t hurt to use the old rule of compliment, critique, compliment instead of running a litany of why the child didn’t win. These simple tricks will make it a great experience for the competitors whether they win or lose.

A Few More Thoughts
Although I love the look on the faces of my kids when they win, I don’t stress winning in competition. The main thing that I want children to get out of competition is the ability to take a risk without letting the fear of failure stop them before they have begun. That is a skill that is important in life and lacking in many modern people (in my opinion).

This is what I say to the children before we go to competition:
Have fun.
Be a good sport. Learn to win and lose gracefully.
Meet new people.
Do your best.

We practice sportsmanship in both winning and losing. Although it is MUCH harder to do in real life, it is a fun class and we always exaggerate the bad sportsmanship role – both the winning gloat and the losing pout – for fun and laughter in the dojo. It is an easy and fun way to discuss karate courtesy.

When we return from competition, I don’t ask the children what place they took. Whatever they do I am proud of them. What I do ask is: “What do you want to tell me about the competition?” The children all have different takes on the day. Some tell me how they placed. Some tell me who they met. Some talk about the fun, or excitement, or fear. Whatever they say, I accept it, tell them how proud of them I am, and we move on.

My goal with my students is that they look at risk taking as an ordinary part of life. Since the majority of students who enter the dojo are not going to continue to train for many, many years, I use the karate competition to try to create a person who will continue that risk taking ability into the next life experience they attempt.

Thank you for reading this, for loving karate, and bringing karate to future generations.