Monday, March 30, 2009

Tournaments: Should My Child Compete?

Yes, have a nice day.

In a previous post I discussed the value of practitioners and students competing in martial arts tournaments. This time around, I'll focus more on why you should encourage your child to compete. But first, how about a reality check.

Most tournaments are designed such that only a small number of participants can win. In fact, most participants don't win. There are some tournaments that arrange the size of the divisions or distribute (what amounts to) participation metals so that each child can walk away with a trophy to show. I'm not opposed to participation awards, but my experience with hundreds of kids, two of which were my own, is that they are not fooled in the least. They get it. They lost.

Before you click away assuming I'm some kind of hard-nosed martial arts bully with hard crusty exterior and an equally hard crusty interior, you have to read my earlier post about the real value of a tournament. Not now of course, later, after you've completed this one. This post is about children and the value of competition, especially the value of a competition that mathematically, they will likely lose.

First and foremost, you, the adult, the grown up, the one who is supposed to be providing guidance and wisdom; don't set them up for disillusionment, nor set them up for hopelessness. A child will naturally want to win - it's what we ask of them - do well, get good grades, achieve, succeed. They will enter any competition with the expectation that you have an expectation that they will... well... will do well, get good grades, achieve, succeed.

But in the context of a tournament, doing well, achieving, and succeeding should not be attached to trophies. Oh, make no mistake - there will be trophies, and the majority of kids won't get one. It's a numbers games, and the numbers, the odds, are against them. But the numbers are against you every time you apply for a job. The numbers are against you every time you play the lottery, they are against you every time you ask that pretty-but-for-some-reason-unattached-girl out. But just because the numbers are against you is no reason not to do your best.

In the context of a tournament, doing well, achieving, and succeeding should not be attached to trophies. It is a mistake of the highest offense to teach young minds that hard work always has an immediate payoff. Hard work usually pays off, eventually. It is a mistake to allow the manifestation of a false correlation between hard work, preparation, and shiny bobbles.

Children should be prepared for tournaments by reinforcing the quality and quantity of their improvement. Not improvement over some other kid, but their improvement over themselves. You have a hidden accomplice in this task, as kids just naturally get better as they age and grow. The value of the competition (beyond what I've written before) is in their ability to present themselves to the judges and their fellow competitors. Imagine two children of the same age and gender. One takes martial arts and competes, the other does not. Let's say that the one who competes, participates in a dozen tournaments over the course of their training; generally doesn't win trophies, occasionally does, but always prepares well, and conducts themselves in a respectful manner.

Fast forward to college interviews. Need I really say more? Here again, the odds may be stacked against them and yet they'll still need to prepare to perform well and handle the pressure of personal, judgmental contact with confidence and grace.

Do not ever discuss how cool the trophies are with your child, even if they win. The trophies are not the cool part; what's cool is getting better, growing, improving; and having the confidence to stand and be counted. (BTW, lest you think I've a grudge, my kids and I have both won and lost at tournament competition and had to figure all of this out the hard way - over time).

Yes, your child should compete, but they should be prepared correctly. Focus on the improvement in their skill, attitude, endurance, strength, agility, balance, and knowledge. If they win a trophy, hug them and celebrate. If they don't, hug them and celebrate.

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