The Big Why

Over the weekend Maya competed in her first karate tournament. If you have been reading my blog, you know how I usually feel about competition. (Much like Four Loco or double chocolate mousse cake, it is perfectly fine in very small doses.) This tournament was a fundraiser at our own dojo. We made a point of telling all the kids that it did not matter whether they came in first or last, it was all about being brave enough to get out there in front of everyone and do their best. (There were seven different divisions so I made this speech at least that many times throughout the day.)

This was especially true for Maya. When we first told her we were going to be having a tournament she said that she did not want to participate. Maya says this about everything new and unfamiliar, and I do mean everything. Maya do you want to go to the circus? No thank you mommy. (We went, she LOVED it!) Maya do you want to go to Griffin's birthday party? No thank you mommy. (We went, she LOVED it!) Maya do you want to go to this magical place full of candy and fairies and toys where all your dreams come true? Yeah, me too.

What happens with Maya is we ask her if she wants to try something, she says no, we say ok then wait a few minutes. Inevitably we will soon hear her voice; hesitant but curious. "Mommy?" "Yes Maya." "What is a tournament anyway?"

In the month or so leading up to the event Maya went from disinterest to nervous curiosity to practicing her kata daily. By the time the Saturday came she was rearing to go. She got up there in front of all of the judges (to be fair, one of them was me) and parents and loudly stated her name and the name of the kata she was going to perform. She then proceeded to perform her blue belt kata with no mistakes. This from a girl who used to scream bloody murder whenever a stranger said hello to her on the subway.

Maya was not the only child at our tournament to overcome these kind of obstacles. The boy who won her division (she took second, by only half a point!) used to be the shy, somewhat spacey kid in the back of the room. Another boy in her division used to cry whenever his mother brought him to class. (I had to pry him off of her.) Now he was performing kata in front of a roomful of people.

These are the real reasons to compete. There is nothing like the feeling of accomplishment that comes with overcoming your fears.  But still, when it was all over and Maya had been covered in hugs and kisses, told over and over how proud of her we were (really I must have told her fifty times, at one point I was talking about something and she said "I know mommy, you are so proud of me.") and treated to dinner and any dessert she wanted, she still managed to come up with the question: "Why didn't I win first place?"

She wasn't upset, just curious. In Maya's case the places really could have gone either way. Her kata was just as good as the other boy's. She lost by only half a point, which is one judge, a slightly stronger punch, the look in his eyes, her loudest kiai. I told her the literal truth, that he got first because his score was higher. She didn't ask why.

We got lucky. Out of all of the kids who competed on Saturday only two of them expressed disappointment when they did not win. Most of the kids were just excited to be there, to get a medal (whatever it said) and to not mess up.

Competition is a double edged sword. On the one hand, we want kids to experience the joys of winning and the frustration of losing. In fact, in a lot of ways there is more to be learned from losing. It teaches us how to deal with disappointment, how to fall down and get back up again, how to work harder next time. Jumping rope without a rope is silly. You have to fail at something a few times in order to appreciate the moment when you finally get it.

On the other hand, some kids are going to have a really really hard time winning first place. Case in point, the blue belt boy who used to cry. For what it took to get him up there, the journey from fearful to confident, he deserves to be the ultimate winner. But in a kata competition, effort is only one part of the score. We are also judging technique and skill and power. He has to compete against kids with natural athletic ability, kids who learn faster, kids who focus better. What took one kid a month to learn may have taken him three. The truth is that sometimes other people are just better than you. This is life. But it is a bitter bitter pill to swallow.

Ultimately, the real problem with competition is that the kids who would benefit most from winning, (the shy ones, the clumsy ones, the ones who lack self confidence)  are the ones who have to work  the hardest and sometimes the ones who have almost no chance of getting there.

Thankfully Maya falls somewhere in the middle. She is smart and athletic but she also works hard and takes pride in learning things and doing them right. She is tentative but stubborn so once she is on board she is on until she gets it. If you have met her (or have been reading this blog for the past few months) you know that she is not afraid to assert herself. Those of you who have seen her dance also know she is not afraid to put on a show. (Or seven shows which she makes you watch in complete silence until she is done at which point you are required to clap.) I know all this about Maya, yet I was still unbelievably proud of her on Saturday morning.

So what about the big question? What is the right answer to Mommy, why didn't I win?

You didn't win because the other team played better today. You didn't win because his punch was a little faster today. You didn't win because the judges were not being fair. You didn't win because sometimes it is the other girl's turn. You didn't win because sometimes you just don't.

You won't understand this now because you are a kid and all kids just like shiny things. Today you see what you did not get. You can't yet see what you actually won.

First place, second place, those are just words. It is not what you do during the two minutes you are out there in front of the judges that makes you a winner, but the long, difficult road that brought you there.