The scene is a noisy gym. Dozens of gis in black and white and red, some with elaborate logos on the back. Parents with cameras. Dragon heads waiting to be animated. Tables of merchandise. A food booth set up outside. And martial artists working off the nervous energy in whatever way works best for them.
Some are practicing forms or brandishing their weapons or sitting in a meditation position just breathing. Some wear head phones, while others chat excitedly with teammates. Some are parents themselves, helping their kids with gear, both here to compete together.
This is a martial arts tournament.
The ones who have come to participate can be found in all walks of life during the week. We are nurses, students, moms, dads, construction workers, correctional officers, and school teachers. We are social workers and youth leaders and photographers and code-writers. We are here because we love martial arts. And mostly, we are full of adrenaline and nerves and both excited to compete and ready for it to be over.
This is a martial arts tournament.
Personally, I have both a love affair and a hate relationship with tournaments. I know the weeks leading up to the competition will be filled with extra practice and critique of my form and my fighting skills, and more than usual will be required of me as I prepare. I waffle in indecision over which of my forms I should perform and I wonder what kind of judges I will end up with and who I will go up against in sparring. I dread the noise, the echoing gym, the crowd, and the exhaustion of the long day. I know it will take one of my Saturdays, and we all know they only come in limited quantities each month. There is also the entrance fees to consider, especially if there is more than one competitor in the family. It all adds up and for all these reason, I dread when tournament time comes along.
The love affair side of that event comes into play when I consider what kind of martial artist I want to be. I want to push myself. I want to move outside my comfort zone and do something that intimidates me. I know that in order to be my personal best, I need to go to a tournament and be judged by strangers and fight someone I’ve never met and whose skills I am unfamiliar with. I want to participate in the community of others who also love this sport and this way of life. I want to represent my school with pride and support each one of my training partners that go along. I want to be better than I was last year at this time, and part of that growth includes attending a tournament.
So, nerves and all other reservations aside, I went to a tournament last weekend.
It always takes me a week or so to process afterwards. By the end of the day, I’m exhausted from the nerves and the anticipation and the energy expended in performing my craft to the best of my ability. I’m tired from the brush of people and from encouraging my teammates and from the pictures. No matter how well I do, I need quiet time on the way home and a few days to recover. (Not to mention the usual six months before I’m ready for the next one.)
The most important thing I tell myself about tournaments is that it’s not about the trophy. Every single one of us wants to go and do well. We want the judges to rate us high scores. We want to reflect well on our school. We want to prove — even if just to ourselves — that we have improved. We want to be stronger, faster, more precise than last year when we all came together to compete. And, yes, we want to win that trophy.
There’s not a thing wrong with wanting to earn the trophy, with wanting to be the best in your division. But that is not what it’s truly about.
It is about showing up. Going. Doing something scary. Pushing yourself to leave the familiarity of your own dojo and face off against someone new, someone you’ve never met, someone who may have a wildly different fighting style than the one you know or vastly superior skills. It’s about venturing into the unknown. New judges. New competitors. New location. It’s about calming the nerves and focusing on breathing. It’s about sportsmanship and love of our sport. It’s about respect for the organizers and for each of the other martial artists who showed up. It’s about representing my school in a way that reflects my commitment to character and respect and skill. It’s about doing something hard. It’s about choosing to grow instead of remaining small and safe in the little world I’ve carved out for myself.
To each one of us who have ever gone to a tournament and put ourselves out there and come away disappointed, either in our performance or in the fact that we did not place, I say, “It’s not about the trophy.” To the kid who went and fought hard, but found himself outclassed: “It’s not about the trophy.” To the woman who signed up and showed up, only to find herself in such a small division that she had no competitors at her level (and as a result, either won by default or didn’t place in a competition against a much higher rank), “It’s not about the trophy.” To the teenage boy who finds himself in such a large division that he had a minimal chance of placing, let alone taking first place: “It’s not about the trophy.” And to the one who so far out-classed his competitors and easily won first place: “It’s not about trophy.”
Before you ever enter those tournament doors, give yourself permission to walk out without a trophy. If you are a parent bringing your child to compete, let them know you could never be more proud of them — for the simple fact that they showed up and are putting themselves out there — and no piece of gold or silver in the world can put a price on that courage. Because courage is what it takes.
We do this for ourselves. For the love of the sport. For our senseis. For our teammates. And if we happen to earn a trophy along the way, that’s fine, too. But never cheapen the art to make it about the trophy.
The trophy is nothing more than a cheap piece of plastic that represents your performance in that one event. It can’t tell me how respectful you are or how much of yourself you invested or how encouraging you are to your teammates. It can’t tell me how many times you put someone else first or how much you’ve sacrificed to contribute to the lives of others. It doesn’t tell me how hard you’ve worked or how many hours you have invested or how many times you’ve tried. That trophy can’t tell who you really are and what you’re really worth. It’s merely a cheap representation of the fact that for that one event, you scored the highest. It’s a cheap representation of one minute of your martial arts journey.
So go out and compete. Put yourself out there. Have fun. Challenge yourself to do the best you have in you. Cheer for your training partners. Applaud your competitors for a job well done. Revel in the joy that comes from spending the whole day celebrating a sport, an art, a way of life that we love and are investing years of our lives in. Proudly pose for pictures with the trophies you win.
And never make the mistake of thinking it’s about the trophy.