I remember the first trophy I ever won at a karate tournament - I couldn't wait to show my Dad and Mom. I was 38 years old - seriously. It doesn't matter if you win in fighting, or forms (Kata / hyung / patters) or breaking. That first trophy changes you - and that can be both good and not-so-swell.
Tournament trophies are as synonymous with karate as colored belts. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a do jang (training hall) that was not adorned with trophies, presumably won by the school's students and displayed so that others could see their accomplishments.
So what should you do when you receive a trophy? Should you display it at your school? Should you display it at home, take it to work, give it back, throw it away? What is the value of the trophy and how should you handle it?
As I said, the first time you win a tournament event and receive a trophy or medal is special. To be honest though, I’ve always thought that preparing for, and participating in - a tournament is what drives improvement - and any time and every time you do it, you should feel a sense of accomplishment.
But that first trophy is something you’ll want to celebrate, a kind of “I did it!” moment that your friends and family and instructors will want to share with you. Congratulations. The second trophy is less noteworthy for the same reason that God Father II was never going to be as good as The God Father. Sequels never live up to the original
My instructor once won 17 first place trophies in a row. I guarantee that number 11 didn’t carry the same thrill as number 3.
So what should you do with your trophies? Some schools have policies that the trophies must stay in the schools because they are the result of the environment under which the student excelled. I can’t say that policy scales well after a school has been around for ten years and had 1,000 students.
Furthermore, a school that has a plethora of trophies on display can send the unintended message that martial arts is about competition and winning. Bad idea.
For me and my students I suggest the following. First, it is reasonable to display some trophies in your school, as no student accomplishes a winning form, fight, or break alone. I always tell my students that trophy #2 belongs in the school, keep #1 at home. Beyond that, don’t get caught up in the shiny bobbles, gold fake lamay high kicks, and winged horsies.
I have a place at home for a dozen of mine that hold personal meaning. Maybe the tournament was special, or the competition was tough, or the combination of wins in both forms and sparring was noteworthy. I kept one because of who I beat (that is probably a little vain on my part, but in context it seems right to hang on to it).
My “special place” is in the basement right next to the exercise equipment where they serve as a reminder that hard work and dedication will help you achieve. I have one in my office along with a picture of my kids just after we received our black belts.
I’ve disposed of others because the real value of tournament competition comes from preparing and participating - growing as a practitioner and a person. The trophies will eventually fall apart, but the lessons you learn will linger forever. Keep some, let the others go - it’ll help put things in perspective.