Competition in the Martial Arts
Competition in the Martial Arts is good for kids. As we so often hear in the martial arts, the journey matters far more than the destination. Life includes winning and losing. It is unavoidable. Sometimes the loss is devastating. Sometimes the win is meaningless. When children learn to prepare themselves for winning, they learn things like excellence and hard work and self-discipline and reflection. Those are life skills that can mean the difference between success and failure in life. When we do it right, the experience of competition can be a great gift we give to our kids.
Competition, handled appropriately, is good for kids.
Positive Martial Arts competition experiences are enormously valuable for children. It helps them train for excellence, learn to manage risk, cope with losing, develop graciousness and class, and develop the resilience they will need in life. The idea of having kids compete has been a hot topic in child development for decades, and no one solution works for every child. But overall, the benefits to kids who compete in active, balanced, child-friendly environments are enormous.
Before we go any further, is important to emphasize one central fact. Competitions handled appropriately, are usually good for kids. The key term is, “handled appropriately." When sports experiences become only about winning big, trash talking, or parents living vicariously through their children, the effects can be devastating. Moments that should be replete with mutual support become confusing or even humiliating experiences, leaving kids with a bad memory, or emotional scars. Competitions that emphasize effort, sportsmanship, learning and reflection, with lots of positive parental support, can be positive character-building experiences in the life of a child.
Preparing for Competition is Preparing for Excellence
The first and best reason to compete is that students prepare for uncompromising excellence. It is an individual journey because students have to reflect on their preparation. Through practice and guidance in class, they focus on what they can make better. That is a work ethic with huge payoffs in life. Experienced martial arts instructors will tell you that the children who enjoyed long-term success in competition, as well as in life, did so despite many early losses. The students who learned to see disappointment as a chance to learn later showed remarkable improvement.
Children sometimes catch themselves in the trap of believing that "done is good," Once they memorize a form or technique, they believe that the journey is over. Through competition, children find out that winners do more than just "good enough." They sweat the details, go the extra mile, listen to feedback, and most importantly, apply what they learn. That work ethic, over the course of many such experiences, carries into college and career. It is always the individuals who understand the idea of excellence who then achieve big things in life.
Competition helps us handle our fears
Competition is scary for a child. Frankly, it's scary for adults too. You're putting yourself out there, and whether you win or you lose you're going to do it in front of many other people. Every child is different, but each participant experiences fear to some degree. That is entirely reasonable.
Competition puts the student in a place where he or she has to face those fears. It is a healthy risk and pressure that results in personal growth. He or she asks herself, "Can I focus? Can I do everything I learned? Will I find my ‘zone'?" If your child is on the shy side, or stretching beyond their comfort zone, this may be the most valuable part of the experience. Our ability to step out and take a risk, and then do it again and again, is often the difference between failure and success.
True competition isn’t against the other students. It is against ourselves.
The Martial Arts experience is an individual one. Today’s students follow the model laid out by the Shaolin Monks 1600 years ago, when Martial Arts began. We may use much more contemporary techniques, and engage children in a different way, but the central idea is the same. Grandmaster DeMasco explains it this way:
Whether it’s even possible to get up the hill without spilling any water becomes insignificant; what’s significant is how strong your mind becomes during the task."
Competition, to the Shaolin Martial Artist, is simply an external measure of what is happening inside. That's sometimes difficult to remember in a sparring match when another student is throwing kicks at your head. But that is exactly when it becomes necessary. Contests are simply yardsticks. Your opponent will find out how good his kick is, and you'll see just how high your block is or just how fast you can duck. Once a student realizes that, then the competition itself becomes a valuable growth experience.
The argument against competition
Some have written over the years railing against the adverse effects of competition. Authors like Alfie Cohn promote the idea that only cooperative and individual learning experiences are suitable for children. He argues that in competition, most participants ‘lose’ and only one ‘wins,’ so therefore most children walk away scarred from the experience, having lost self-esteem.
That is simply not consistent with the world for which we are preparing our children. There are actual winners and losers, and in life, you are likely to lose more often than you win. Life will knock you down sometimes, and that's inevitable. What matters is what you do when life knocks you down. We have an opportunity to teach our children resilience and a positive attitude, and this will carry them very far in life.
A child’s age matters when it comes to competition. Young children are simply not ready for seriously competitive experiences. The North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, an agency supporting teachers throughout the state, puts it this way,
All of these characteristics tell us that we have to construct competition for young people carefully. They don't understand winning and losing the way that older children might, but they experience exclusion negatively. While the "trophies for all" approach has earned some scorn in some corners, there is research to support the idea that younger children still need acknowledgment for being a part of a competitive event, regardless of who wins or loses. By giving a young child a tangible acknowledgment such as a participation ribbon, we're letting them know we're proud that they "did it by themselves." The research tells us that this is what matters most to a child this age.
Older children, on the other hand, generally enjoy competition a bit more, and are capable of experiencing it more healthfully. 9-12-year-olds enjoy competitive experiences, and they can be great motivators for a disengaged child. They understand winning and losing, and the experience helps them to handle both more successfully. They still need lots of support from their parents and teachers, however. Sometimes, "Well, it was a good effort" will sweeten the bitter pill of loss, but at other times adults will need to help the child reflect on what happened and learn from the experience. More importantly, the poor sportsmanship often modeled by today's professional athletes will require some adult guidance, so a well-earned victory doesn't become a soul-stealing ego trip. “In your face” is never a part of the Martial Arts ethic. Ever.
Make it about the kids.
Martial Arts competitions are a celebration of learning. Each student, win or lose, experiences personal growth from the time the event begins until the last trophy is awarded. The ‘winners’ walk away with lots of shiny hardware, and they grow a little. The students who didn’t win learn to handle loss well through reflection and resilience, and they grow a lot. Parents and Teachers have to frame the experience in those terms.
Sometimes parents will disagree with an official's call. What that parent does next will determine whether the experience is about winning and losing or about a child learning a valuable life lesson. When parents complain about a judge’s call or an outcome they didn’t like, they send one or more of the following messages to a child:
- Temper tantrums are acceptable behavior. If an adult loses his or her cool, you can bet that the child will do so at some point in the future. The inappropriate behavior becomes cyclic, as your child acts out the same behaviors in school or with other adults.
- Adults in charge don’t deserve respect (unless they’re doing what I want). No matter how bad the call may have been, the parent who disrespects an official shows that it's OK to "go off" on an adult when they "get it wrong." This will translate to negative behaviors in the classroom, and probably with caregivers or even law enforcement.
- Winning is more important than learning. The child may get the message that winning is the only thing that matters, and if you weren’t good enough during the competition, it is better to argue than it is to learn from the outcome.
- The child is a failure, and the only way to earn a parent’s love is to win. When parents scream at or argue with officials, it embarrasses their children and sends a very strong failure message. Whether it is logical or not, children tend to blame themselves for everything that goes wrong in their parent's lives. When they see a parent disputing an official (loudly or quietly), they will often blame themselves and feel they let the parent down in some way.
Winning and Losing
If your child loses:
- Praise them for their effort nevertheless.
- Acknowledge their disappointment, but don't dismiss it. "I know you're disappointed right now," is much more helpful than "don't be disappointed."
- Give them a hug. (Yes, even your sons.)
- Then, let them talk about what happened. If they go "off" on the official, redirect them with, "and what could YOU do differently."
- If they start berating themselves, remind them that they worked hard and that they're smart enough to figure out what to do to improve.
- Prepare them to ask their instructor, “What can I do to prepare for the next time? I want to get better.” Then help them set goals.
- Praise them for their effort just the same as if they lost. Believe it or not, making it all about the winning puts enormous pressure on your child to deliver the win for you, not for themselves.
- Celebrate with a high five and a hug, but be sure to encourage him or her to high-five the other kids as well.
- Encourage them to say something concrete and positive to their competitors like, "Great job – that technique was powerful," or "You really got me with that block." Then move on.
- A day or two later, have the same conversation in which they prepare to ask their instructor, "what can I do to prepare for the next competition? I want to get better."
Competition helps us grow
Each child is different, and competition will mean something different for each child. For some, it will be the "coming out of the shell" experience that helps him or her be more successful in school or their social circle. For others, it will be a grounding experience that helps them develop a strong work ethic. Some will learn to handle their fears and eventually overcome them. Some will learn leadership and maturity. Regardless of what this might mean for your child, it is easy to see how beneficial a competitive experience is for a Martial Arts student.