Lessons from Winning

I’ve written plenty of posts about my tournament participation – mostly about losing in tournaments. When I have written about a tournament in which I won a medal, I’ve downplayed it. And… it’s been awhile since the last time I earned a medal. Part of that is due to where I am in my journey relative to the divisions I’ve competed in. It’s fairly easy to earn a medal if you’re almost ready for Intermediate but are still in the Beginner/Novice division. It’s not so easy to earn a medal if you’re new to Intermediate and are in the Intermediate/Advanced division. Advanced includes yudansha (black belts) so… Yeah.

I have plenty of bronze medals. There aren’t many ladies my age who compete. Most tournaments only three or four show up. There are various good reasons for awarding two third place medals, and I have some that I received for just being there. A part of me is uncomfortable with the medals that I got just for showing up. One of my sensei(s) (instructors) disagrees. “If nobody else showed up it’s because they didn’t have the [guts] to show up. You showed up. You earned that bronze medal.” At some level, I have accepted that opinion – the evidence for my acceptance adorns a tucked-away corner of my home.

I have heard that many karateka hide their medals and trophies, or even throw them away. This comes from a desire to stay humble. Some believe (correctly, in my opinion) that a medal or trophy does not indicate that someone is a better karateka than someone else. I understand this better now that I have earned a silver in an advanced division out of a field of eleven competitors (more below). I understand this especially when it comes to those of my bronze medals that feel, to me, like participation medals. But I still choose to keep my medals, to display them on the wall in a mostly empty spare bedroom that I use for practice.

I keep my medals – all of them – to remind myself that I am vibrantly and passionately alive. I’m looking at turning half a century old in twelve and a half months. I’m working against a lot of cultural baggage that still nags at me, probably because of what society told me when I was a child in the 1970s. I’m doing things that, from my late teens to five years ago, I never thought I’d do at nearly fifty years old. I’m more of an athlete now than I was in my twenties. I’ve given my children wings, now I’m finding my own wings. I’m loving almost every minute of training. As for the parts I don’t love, well – I love the results (ex: push ups build strong arms).

So now for the story of my latest medal. St. Patrick’s Day (2019) found me at a tournament our karate organization puts on every year. I spent most of the day in a judge’s chair and was glad to be up and moving after I changed into my gi and warmed up in the staging area. I didn’t pay any attention to who was in my division until we were ringside. I was too busy being silly with my older daughter, who was volunteering in staging. I walked immediately behind my daughter when she led us to the ring. Once my division lined up for competition, I was delighted to see eleven ladies, not the usual three or four. I hadn’t seen that big a field in my division since Nationals in July (read about my experiences here and here)!

I was grateful for the class I’d had before the competition. For the last half of that class, my sensei had us students practice our kata (forms) three times in a row, full speed and power. When we finished we were to move to the back of the room. I was the last to finish and the first to be called up to perform my kata in front of the class three times in a row full speed and power. I’d had maybe thirty seconds or less to take some deep breaths. Six times in a row with a 30 second break halfway through. I was exhausted but elated when I was done. For the tournament, I performed three times with maybe 2 minutes break in between as other ladies performed. Then, after another roughly 2 minute break while the other ladies finished up, I performed a different kata for the medal round (in accordance with USA-NKF rules). Every single time I stepped onto the mats, I thought, “This is easy compared to what I did on Thursday!” But at the same time, I couldn’t get cocky. I knew I was up against some stiff competition.

If the repechage sheet had been drawn up differently, I would not have won a silver medal. So there is an element of luck. Of course I have some skill after nearly five years of study: I won three rounds and I have a nice shiny silver medal. Yes, I earned that medal – I performed one difficult kata well three times and another kata once. But it’s that element of luck that is keeping me humble right now. I darn well know that sometimes, one’s best isn’t good enough.

That’s life.

Oh, and um… I got thoroughly trounced in kumite (sparring). Lost the first round pretty spectacularly. Long time readers of this blog know that I learn from losing. A field of eleven meant no participation medal for me for kumite. Honestly, I couldn’t care less about only having one medal (although I will work hard on my sparring). I’m tickled pink that all those ladies showed up to compete. I hope to see them again and again this season. The more the merrier!

Judging at Nationals

It’s no secret that I’m the lowest of the low in the world of Karate judging. I got my USA-NKF Judge D license just a few months ago. I would never have dared volunteer to judge at Nationals (2018) if it hadn’t been for one of my sensei(s) who, after coming home from judging the US Open, said, “It was the best judging experience ever!” I figured if I wasn’t wanted or needed at Nationals someone would let me know. I should’ve known I’m not the first rube to volunteer to judge at Nationals.

There was a lot of mentoring going on for anyone who needed it. I was very grateful for that. The more I learn, the better I become. I’ve heard stories about ring controllers who are mean, who chew officials out and deride them. I’m sure someday that will happen to me too, and I hope I’ll have the right attitude about it. I have been told that I can ask to be assigned to a different ring. I hope that will never be necessary. I feel badly enough when I make a mistake, and I feel a lot more confident if someone calmly teaches me how to perform better. If I’m treated with respect I’m a lot more willing to push myself out of my comfort zone.

The first day was incredible – the experience was so valuable that if I’d had to turn around and go home that night – missing out on competing, mind you – I’d have been happy to have had just that one day at Nationals. I was already somewhat familiar with judging kobudo (weapons) thanks to my online acquaintance, “The Stick Chick” Jackie Bradbury and a little prior “sink or swim” experience my first tournament judging. I spent most of the morning judging weapons and received a lot of valuable tips on what to look for. I must confess, though, that I abandoned ship rather than judge iado (sword).

I changed rings with someone who was familiar with iado, and lo and behold, I got to judge the very division I’d been hoping to judge: mentally disabled 18-34 year olds. My daughter’s division,  if she ever wants to compete at Nationals. I had to hold back tears as I watched these incredible people who have come so far and overcome so much. After judging them and the visually impaired adults, I was back in my “home” ring again. I was delighted to judge team kata, and found that came just as naturally to me as judging individual kata. With the exception of a little kobudo, I’ve never had the experience of judging these specialized divisions back home!

I skipped two days of judging because I knew I’d make a lousy judge on my competition days.  I didn’t judge for the Oregon state qualifier because I needed that competition in order to go to Nationals, and I was nervous. I can get away with both judging and competing in the fun tournaments. But facing a high-pressure competition later in the day is another thing altogether. While waiting for my division to be called to staging, I still worked on my judging skills by watching the elite divisions. I remembered how I’d prepared to earn my judging license by watching the judges and referees work together. This is still a valuable thing for me to do when I get the luxury. There’s still plenty more for me to learn!

Judging kumite (sparring) doesn’t come naturally for me. I approached the final day of Nationals with some trepidation. It took me awhile and some respectful feedback before I hit my stride. I also got a bit of a morale boost.

Officials are forbidden to work in the ring when there is a competitor from their home state. For one match I was swapped out with someone who had such a conflict of interest. The score ended up tied and the first-point advantage had been taken away due to a minor foul, so the referee signaled for us judges to vote on who should win. I threw the only flag for Red (competitors wear red or blue belts and judges have red and blue flags). I admit I had a little black storm cloud hovering over my head as I went back to my “home” ring, but I heard someone from my own organization call out a commendation for my call. The little black storm cloud evaporated and the sun came out.

I felt more confident. Good thing, too because next thing I knew, I was judging Advanced teenagers. GULP! The cream of that crop will be 2019’s elites. 2019’s elites will be representing the United States in 2020, when Karate will make its Olympic debut. I had to shove that pressure aside in order to focus on the other officials and the athletes. I was grateful that most communication among the officials is nonverbal because it was LOUD in that convention center. I was relieved whenever I got to sit in Judge 1 and Judge 4 positions because, while most coaches were wonderful, there were some who, uh, got a little excited. I don’t blame them, though – we all were well aware of what was at stake for these athletes.

Because there is so much at stake for the athletes, there are strict rules of etiquette that must be followed. I’ve already mentioned that one must not officiate when a competitor in your ring is from your own organization, state, or country. There’s more, and sometimes it’s hard. Many athletes and I are used to the nice little tradition of shaking hands after the division is finished. We had to stop that tradition in the name of objectivity. I recognize this helps prevent accusations of favoritism, but it made me a little sad to turn those kids away. When I was in a gi (karate uniform) for my competition, I couldn’t fraternize with the officials I’d worked with the day before (ironically, my kumite division ended up in the same ring I’d worked). When I was in an official’s uniform, I couldn’t chat with friends who were wearing gi(s) or track suits (which is what coaches wear). Even when I was just in shorts and T-shirt practicing kata in the areas set aside for that purpose, I had to be careful not to spend too much time chatting. It’s hard, because I truly do love networking, but I understand the need for judges to be beyond reproach in their objectivity.

During the gold/silver rounds for the elite groups on the last night, my fellow officials and I were rewarded for our hard work. The highest among us got to referee and judge these amazing athletes, and the rest of us officials got the best seats in the house to watch the action. I had a blast watching some excellent karate, and I was sad when it was all over. I said goodbye to old friends and new, and left knowing that I was a better judge than I was when I turned in my passbook at the pre-tournament officials’ meeting.

P. S. Most people ask me if I get paid for judging, so I’ll go ahead and address that. The answer is officials get free lunch and, usually, a small stipend. Since earning my credentials I’ve made back my license fee and what I paid for my uniform (mostly assembled from thrift stores and Black Friday sales). Local non-profit booster clubs often help officials with the costs of food and lodging for national and international events.  But we pay the vast majority of our expenses ourselves.  We’re not exactly the National Football League!

The Right Time

Three years ago I was invited to train with those who were going to compete at the USA Karate Nationals. “Come find out what you’re made of,” the yudansha (black belt) challenged me. I did indeed find out what I was made of, but I didn’t make it to Nationals until this year (2018). I had fun training during two summers (2015 and 2016).  During those summers I was one of a few karateka who couldn’t go or didn’t want to go to Nationals but who enjoyed training hard and supporting those who were competing. Last year and this year it was not possible for our group to have that specific training.

In an ideal world, all four summers I would have had both the financial resources to travel and a good bit of tough training outside of normal class time with a close-knit group of mentors and comrades. I really don’t want to go into why these things never happened in combination for me. I have moved on from the angst I felt about that. This year I decided to heck with it, I would go to Nationals anyway.

Whenever I caught myself moping about “the good old days,” I reminded myself that I spent two summers learning how to train for a big competition. The advantage to being mostly alone this summer was that I could customize my workout. I used a spreadsheet to create a circuit workout – arms, legs, abs, kata, and drills. Three times I did have help with sparring outside of class, but for the most part I had to rely on regular class. For kata I simply worked on things that my sensei(s) pointed out during regular class. I buckled down and got ‘er done. I also sought help with my angst and was encouraged to simply have fun and to learn from the experiences of preparing and competing.

I did learn and I did have fun.

At this point in my story, it would be grand if I could say I won medals at Nationals. Oh what a great thing it is to be the underdog who triumphs! Well, that might have happened if I had registered as Intermediate. Karateka who have trained for four years can register either as Intermediate or Advanced. I didn’t feel right about the prospect of creaming someone who has only been training for two years, so I registered as Advanced. Besides, I’m used to testing myself against those who are better than I am (that’s a polite way of saying I’m used to getting my butt kicked in competition). Intermediate and Advanced for my gender and age have always been combined in all the local tournaments I’ve competed in, so that’s three seasons I’ve been competing with ladies who have trained longer than I have. I’m on the low end of Advanced, so – yeah, no medals for me at Nationals.

It’s not about the medals. I’ve blogged about that over and over again.  I got what I came for. I was there for the experience. I was there to pressure-test myself. My performance of Bassai Dai kata (form) was my personal best performance ever. I need to raise the bar for myself now when it comes to kata – and not just Bassai Dai, but all the kata I’ve memorized. My kumite isn’t as bad as I thought, and when I watch the video I do see improvement. I acquitted myself well and, for once, didn’t get any warnings. A national competition held in a big, noisy convention center was a very high-pressure setting but I dealt with it calmly. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, and anytime that happens there is growth.

So was 2018 really the worst year for me to go to Nationals? No. It was the worst year for me to stay home. I darn well knew how to prepare for the competition. I don’t think I could have looked at myself in the mirror if I’d stayed home moping about the circumstances not being perfect. I honestly don’t know if all the stars will ever line up exactly right. I hope they will someday. But let’s say that my financial situation had allowed me to go to Nationals in 2016. There’s one thing I have now that I didn’t have then, and that’s a USA-NKF Judge D license. In my opinion competing in Nationals was simply icing on the cake. I’ll write about my judging experiences in my next blog post!

Beyond the Comfort Zone

About a month ago I was invited to help with a small tournament about half an hour’s drive from my house. Another karate organization was hosting this tournament in the gym of a private school. The little tournament, held this past weekend (5/19/18) was for children to learn about what a tournament is like in hopes of generating more interest in competing in regional, maybe even National, tournaments. I thought it was a great opportunity to get more experience with judging, especially because I didn’t judge for the Oregon State Qualifier in favor of focusing on competing.  Yes, I got the judging time that I was after, but it turned out I got so much more. It was a much-needed kick out of my comfort zone.

I earned my USA-NKF Judge D license in February  and so far I’ve been declining opportunities to do more than what I’m actually licensed to do. At local tournaments it’s OK for a Judge D to do more than just throw flags. I have to confess I didn’t study all the things a referee needs to know. I had not practiced the hand signals and calls that a referee uses. Up until this little tournament I was coasting along, worrying more about developing an eye for good points than anything else.

I arrived early and helped out with a few last minute chores. During a break I was informed of my duties. I was to referee as much as possible. My dismay at the prospect of refereeing was quite obvious.

“I haven’t studied how to be a referee!” I whined at the tournament organizer.

“I read your blog. I know how much you value learning. This is a time for you and others to learn. You will make mistakes. We all will make mistakes. That’s OK. This is not a high-stakes tournament. I wanted this to not only be a learning experience for our children, but also for you and the others who will help out today. Now, do you know how to start a match?”


“Do you know how to stop a match?”


“Do you know how to call points?”


“Do you know how to resume a match?”


“Do you know how to close a match?”


The tournament director assured me those calls and signals were enough to start with. I was assured that the kansa (who oversees the judges and referee) would prompt me when needed. Most of all, I was told that nobody was expecting me to be perfect – in fact, it was a given that I would make mistakes. This was a time and a place for me to do exactly that, and to learn and grow in my skills. Both gentlemen who were serving as kansa(s) for the two rings were kind enough to walk through a match between imaginary contestants with me for a few minutes. They gave me some much-needed feedback and then went back to overseeing the final preparations for the day. I spent time rehearsing some things on my own until the start of the tournament.

I was surprised when I learned that one of my fellow students from my own dojo would be refereeing for the first time that day too. She has worn a judge/referee uniform more often than I have, so I had always assumed that she had refereed at least a few times at local tournaments. Nope – like me she had only ever thrown flags and had declined opportunities to referee.  I was glad someone else was in the same boat I was. We reassured one other and cracked jokes. I felt much better.

Competitors were divided into age groups. Kata (forms) are performed first. Judging kata is coming much more naturally to me than judging kumite (sparring). For kata competitions there are five judges. One sits front and center, the other four sit at the corners of the mats. After two competitors complete their kata(s) the front and center judge calls for a decision, gives two blasts of the whistle, and all five judges lift either a red or blue flag to indicate which competitor they are voting for. This sounds simple, but… The front and center judge has to be aware of when the four judges have taken their flags off their laps and are ready to signal their votes. The front and center judge has to lift his or her flag at the same time as the other judges – which means delaying a little after blowing the whistle. I’d had a little practice with this at a tournament last month and got more this time around.

Refereeing sparring matches is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. The section for kumite rules in the WKF rulebook  is a heck of a lot longer than for kata. There are quite a few calls and hand signals that a referee needs to know, most of these are for calling warnings and penalties However, we were using modified rules – we simply gave a verbal warning on the first offense. I personally didn’t need to use signals for warnings because none of the competitors I refereed repeated their fouls. Overall, the number of actual warnings were rare owing to the good sportsmanship exhibited by the children.

The ideal situation for sparring competitions is to have four judges sitting at the corners of the mats and the referee moves freely around the mat – and, of course, there will be a kansa to oversee the officials. At one point we had only a kansa and three judges/referees. I’ve seen this situation in every tournament. Some officials get sick. Some leave to coach their students. Some officials go on break (especially lunch break). Some have other places to be in the afternoon. Crazy people like me both work in the ring and compete. When there are four corner judges, the referee does not get to vote on which competitor has scored a point. I was thrown for a loop when, later in the tournament, we were down to two judges and me. Suddenly, I, as referee, had a vote.  There’s a hand signal to go with it that I most definitely hadn’t practiced. I still need more practice with this situation. I was grateful for the feedback and tips I received.

The growing and stretching and moving beyond my comfort zone didn’t stop at refereeing. No indeed. The dojo(s) (karate schools) these kids are from also teach a form of Sumo wrestling. I backed out of judging Sumo at first, but after watching a division, I understood what merited a score and how to signal it. So – yeah, suddenly I was judging a form of fighting that I’d never even watched before. I have to say that watching those nimble young kids grapple was fun. No, they didn’t wear, um, whatever that’s called around their loins – they simply wore their gi(s) (uniforms) and head protection. It looked like fun and a lot of hard work. I never in a million years would’ve guessed that someday I’d judge Sumo bouts!

I also learned about giving the athletes their medals. I hadn’t thought about it or noticed it before, but there are little things that make this ceremony go smoothly. After one division had done their kata, kumite, and sumo, I had the honor of actually hanging medals around the athletes’ necks as their parents looked on proudly. I hope we succeeded in getting these children and their parents more interested in tournaments.

Sure I was a little nervous, but I grew more confident as the day went on. I knew my kansa had my back. And yes, I messed up. But so did everyone who stepped into the role of referee that day. No harm was done, and we all learned and grew in skill. That was the whole point. I was very impressed that most of the judges were children. They were good judges and they were every bit as mature as us adults when it came to gracefully accepting feedback and learning from mistakes.  My friend from my own dojo did very well too.  She was working in the other ring, but from what I saw she refereed most of the matches – even the Sumo matches.  I think all of us were more confident at the end of the day than we were at the beginning.

Because this was a tiny tournament, we were done in the early afternoon. The two karateka from my own dojo had places to be and so took their leave. After cleanup I was the only representative of my organization to go out to lunch. Having fun trying new types of food, discussing the competitions, and talking shop was a good way for us to strengthen ties with one another. We have been and will be working together for a lot of tournaments to come.

This time that I invested went way beyond just myself. Of course there were personal takeaways. Yes, there was growth in my skill. I experienced far more growth than I originally anticipated. But so much more was accomplished that day by everyone, not just myself.  The children were happy, their parents were proud. Those of us who were officials invested in one another and reinforced the ties between our organizations. We’ll see the effects of that day for years to come. Who knows? Maybe this was the first tournament for a future Olympic athlete.  It was an honor to be a part of this event.

Tournament Weekend 3/18/18

I’ve written about my tournament experiences ten times already on this site. If you look to the right sidebar on your PC and scroll down a bit, look for “CATEGORIES” and click “Tournaments” you can read all of them. The themes vary: narratives that barely touch on anything deeper, funny anecdotes, and even an account of what I did and learned when I was limited to volunteering due to prior injury. Likewise, the last time I went to a tournament I also did not compete but I was in my new role as kata and kumite judge (USA-NKF Judge D). In every single post I’ve written about significant lessons learned. Most of the lessons are about what needs improving in my karate. One was a lesson in life’s little quirks  and another was about a lesson that I learned when I was a teenager that was reinforced at one of my first tournaments as an adult. So there are a good many similarities among the posts. This post will be a bit different – very little narrative, mostly analysis.

My role in tournaments is changing. I’ve been competing and volunteering for quite awhile but now I am also judging. This past tournament was my second time judging but I didn’t spend the whole time doing so. I was surprised by an assignment to volunteer for the first two or three hours. I was needed to help with staging the athletes – a very pleasant task, actually. The powers that be really wanted me there because I’d done well in that capacity in the past. When things slowed down I was released to judge. Then, when it came close to time for my division to be called to staging, I changed clothes for the second time that day and warmed up in staging. I wore three hats that day.

My responsibilities within those three roles (volunteer, judge, competitor) are considerable. During the seminars the day before the tournament I had another role to play – student. No matter which role I play I am representing my Karate organization and Karate in general. People are watching. Cameras are everywhere and videos go on social media. Mistakes are public. This point has been made over and over again in judging/refereeing seminars and pre-tournament officials’ meetings. But of course even as a volunteer working behind the scenes if I mess up the effects ripple outward. It’s a lot of pressure and I’ve been trusted with a lot of responsibility. I take comfort in the fact that I have many mentors – and even some who don’t really know me all that well have come alongside me to guide me when I needed feedback. I really appreciate their investment into my success, and as a bonus my “karate network” grows.

I’ve been networking for awhile but this tournament I connected with a set that I have been a little timid about – those who are among the highest ranked in their organizations. After I audited a judge/referee seminar I got to chat a little bit with someone who is highly placed in the USA-NKF. I raised my hand during a kata seminar and served as a demonstration student so that the instructor could teach us about spotting the kihon (basics) within a kata (form). This meant I got feedback from a seven-time world champion. At lunch I sat down with a very highly ranked Okinawan karate practitioner. I learned a lot about the characteristics and history of Okinawan karate and what to look for when judging Okinawan kata. I competed against a Japan National Team Member and Asian Karate Federation medalist (yes, she made mincemeat of me, I lost 8 to 1). She and I found out we have daughters the same age and promised to see each other next year. I suspect my karate network will continue to grow as I rub shoulders with more and more karateka of all ranks during tournaments and seminars.

I’m getting more out of seminars. I’m spending less time trying to figure out how to make my body move the way I want it to. I have more techniques hammered into my muscle memory thanks to kata (forms). If I’m learning a new way of moving I can compare and contrast to what I already know. A first for me was at one point a seminar leader walked up to me and my partner to suggest that we add something to the sparring drill because we had quickly grasped what had been taught. He was pushing us to the next level and we gleefully plunged right in. When I attend seminars I am now starting to look for teaching ideas and warm-up exercises that I could use in the future. This tournament I gained some insight into how to be even more discerning when judging kata (forms).

I’ve only judged for two tournaments but I’m finding I’m more comfortable judging kata than kumite (sparring). I’m building familiarity with kata that I don’t personally know – and yes as a matter of fact I can judge them and am licensed to do so.  I follow the WKF guidelines (page 31). I’m becoming more aware of details that I need to teach students. I’m building a rudimentary knowledge of the characteristics of different styles other than the one I study. Judging kumite (sparring) is a different story – I’m not as comfortable with that. The section of the rules dedicated to kumite is a lot bigger. It’s fast-paced and I have to make split-second decisions. Of course I accumulated more tips and feedback this past tournament. I do think I have improved a little since the my first tournament. As long as I keep making progress I’ll be satisfied. I’ve been told over and over that every single judge and referee had to stumble a bit until they hit their stride. The rules are still being tweaked, so even the highest World Karte Federation members are still learning!

All this might seem very “advanced” to those who are new to karate, and yes I have made progress since I first stepped into a dojo. I’ve learned a few things but I still have a lot to learn. I know I’ve touched on this before in previous posts, but I’ll write it again: I still am a beginner and always will be. A friend of mine, Clifton Bullard, once heard his sensei say to a newly-promoted Shodan (first degree black belt), “Congratulations – you are now officially an interested beginner.” To expand further on this, Clifton writes:

What he said (as nearly as I can remember it after 30+ years lol) was that it meant that you know how to be a student, so now you must BE that student, and learn how to become something more. At a different point, he said that shodan was not the end of the journey. It meant that now your bags were packed and you were ready to start YOUR journey.

In spite of the fact that I’m moving into more advanced roles and material, I am still packing my bags. Stay tuned to this blog for more!