Worth More than Gold

Last weekend I drove three hours and stayed overnight Saturday (3/18/17) in order to support the yearly tournament our Karate organization hosts.  I’d pulled my left hamstring earlier in the week (don’t ask – I was totally stupid).  I could still limp around and because it was my left leg I could still drive.  Sitting was murder, which left me with lying down, standing, and limping.  Because I made steady progress in healing I’m fairly certain that being mostly on my feet all weekend helped my injury.

Obviously I didn’t compete.  Yes, I felt a little sad about that.  But really, the whole weekend was very rewarding.  I’m not going to sprinkle this post with references, but I will say that many of the lessons contained in Pixar Studio’s first “Cars” movie applied to this tournament experience.

Upon arrival late Saturday morning I immediately found a task to do.  At least a couple hundred medals passed through my hands as they were removed from plastic wrappers and put into bundles of 2 bronze, 1 silver, and 1 gold.  I was able to chat with other karateka as they drifted in and out to help or to admire the medals.  I was also able to catch glimpses of the seminars.

I observed at least two of our Sensei (instructors) enjoying their chance to be students – and they have decades of study under their belts.  It was a good reminder for me to always pay attention to my own development in the art of Karate.  I must always keep a beginner’s mindset – a willingness to try new things and to discover my capabilities. I also noted many karatekas’ joyful demeanor as they went through the drills that were taught.  Many of those obviously happy folks were wearing black belts.

Yes, folks, this Karate stuff is supposed to be fun.  It’s hard work and tournaments commonly make people nervous, but we must not lose sight of that element of fun.  I’m going to have to keep that in mind if I ever get into coaching.  There’s going to be intense pressure inherent in that position but if I keep that spark of fun maybe it’ll keep me from making some mistakes in how I treat people during tournaments.  I’m grateful to have many excellent examples among my Sensei-s as I learn how to build positive behavior in myself and in others.

Mid-afternoon found me attending another referee seminar.  It’s good to hear information from different  instructors, even better when you’ve attended seminars by two top-notch experts.  This time I was better prepared because I’d actually read the rules before the seminar.  I took lots of notes and truly appreciated drilling the calls again.  I have a better understanding of one of the new rules/calls and how the judging team works together.  During the last part of the tournament I watched not only the athletes but also the judging team.  This helped reinforce what I’d learned during the referee seminar the previous day.  I have some good tips on how I can practice before I am eligible for certification.

Certification.  Wait, aren’t I already certifiable?  I began Karate again at age 44.  That’s insane, right?  Nope.  I have a new friend who assures me that there are 70 year old ladies in Japan who compete in sparring.  Yep – not just kata (forms) but sparring as well.  Rock on, Grandmas!

Saturday night I was tired from the long day and from life in general, and my leg ached a bit.  It was time for my sanity break.  OK, yes, I know, my sanity is already broken – the evidence for that is I acquire bruises for funsies, as Jackie Bradbury puts it.  I took a long, hot bath (a rare luxury for me) to ease the pain in my leg.  Then I spent some time with my Grandpa – in a manner of speaking.  My mother recently put together photos, information from books and websites, and transcripts of interviews with my Grandpa into a small book. I finally have his stories from World War II in chronological order and in context.  There’s no doubt in my mind where my tenacity and fighting spirit come from.

Sunday morning I woke up at my usual time (5:30 AM), got my day started and arrived at the venue at 7:00 AM as I’d promised.  I had some tasks to do that I’d promised to do months ago.  I finished with that well before deadline and before I knew it I was helping with staging the athletes.  Much to my surprise I found I wasn’t limping nearly as badly as I had the day before.  I think the mild exercise helped the healing process.  During the course of my work I exchanged pleasantries with karateka whom I hadn’t seen in awhile and chatted a little with my fellow dojo-mates (many of whom both volunteered and competed).  I made some new acquaintances as well.

One of the highlights for me was having rows of little kids following me from staging to their ring – it was so cute to see them walking along behind me like ducklings.  I’d have loved to have picked up the tiniest among them for a hug, but I think they would have kicked my butt if I’d tried.  Still, they were absolutely precious.

During a time when the rings were backed up and no divisions were being called to staging I started practicing kata without doing the stances.  I heard whispers.  One person identified the kata I was practicing, another wondered why my stances were beyond atrocious (my words, not his).  At one point I forgot what to do next.  Because the lower half of my body was hardly engaged it was difficult for me to remember what to do with my arms.  A Sensei of my acquaintance happened to walk by so I asked for help.  He’d seen me limping around so he simply reminded me of the next couple of movements.  I finished up.  I think I have a better appreciation for how the whole body is involved in even the most basic movements.

I was a bit sad as I led the last division to their ring.  This was my division.  We all know each other, and if we see someone new we immediately make her feel welcome.  I handed over the repechage sheets to the table crew, returned the clipboard to staging, and went back ringside to watch and cheer them on.  There was another division finishing up so “my” division didn’t start right away.  While waiting, I watched everything I could see.

I saw beginner, intermediate, and world-class athletes sparring and I realized something.  There are people who enjoy working on cars so much that they will take a car’s engine out, take it apart, clean it, replace everything that’s worn out, and put it back together again.  That’s what I want to do with my sparring.  I want to adopt a couple of things I saw and I want to break bad habits.  I want to re-build.  I’m glad I can count on having good instructors and fellow students to help me along.

My division started and I cheered for everyone.  Observing my fellow ladies and the judging team helped me stave off the frustration of being injured and unable to compete.  While I was watching something happened and my attention was drawn elsewhere for a few minutes.  If I hadn’t been injured I wouldn’t have been in the right place at the right time to help for as long as it took until someone more equipped took over.  I was then able to rejoin my comrades and cheer for them until after their medals were awarded.  All too soon it was time for me to make the rounds and say goodbye before my long drive home.

I have my rewards.  I learned some things and I have some things to work on.  I made connections with people and reinforced existing friendships.  I had the satisfaction of helping others have some fun.  The next day I received a bit of recognition which more than made up for the sadness of not being able to compete.  Be that as it may, I still want to compete and I admit a medal or two would be nice.  But medals aren’t everything.  Some things are worth more than gold.


“Ladies, you need to perform a second kata this round,” announced the head judge of the tournament ring.

My eyes bugged out and I gulped.  I had not prepared a second kata (form) for this competition.  I had spent most of my kata practice time prior to the tournament polishing my best kata and working a little on the vexing new kata that I need to perform for my next belt test.  I squashed a panic attack.  I realized I had a choice and I made it in an instant.  I decided not to contest the judge’s announcement even though I had every right to raise my hand to signal I wanted to confer with the judge.

There aren’t many ladies my age who compete in Karate, so tournament officials combine the intermediate ladies with the advanced ladies.  There were four of us competing in kata last Sunday (2/12/17).  Two of us ladies were advanced, and another lady and I were intermediate.  I won against the other intermediate lady and went on to the next round to compete against the advanced lady who had won her first round.

When an intermediate karateka (one who studies Karate) is competing in a mixed division against an advanced karateka, the rules for intermediate competition apply.  I was not required to present a second kata.  I could repeat the kata I’d performed in the first round.  I had won my first round with a kata that I’ve been working on for well over a year (its name is Bassai Dai).  I know my performance of that kata just keeps getting better as I refine it and discover more about it.  Obviously the judges thought I performed that kata well.  I might have won the gold medal performing that kata again for the second round.

But in the instant that I had to make the decision something stopped me from raising my hand to confer with the judge.  I realized I was going to earn at least a silver medal even if I tripped over my feet and splatted myself on the mats.  I began to feel almost mischievous.  I decided to throw all caution to the wind and perform a kata that requires one to balance on one leg not once but three times (the kata’s name is Rohai Shodan).  Even a little wobble would count against my technical performance score.  It’s pretty daring for someone my rank to attempt to perform it in tournament.  I was challenging myself.

In a heartbeat the moment of decision was gone.  I was committed to my choice.  I made the formal entrance into the ring, bowed one last time, announced the name of my kata, and began my performance.  To my left, my fellow competitor began her kata.  The judges were watching, the spectators were watching, and the big glassy eye of a camera’s telephoto lens was pointed my way.  All that faded away – it was just me and my imaginary opponents who I was systematically destroying one by one.

Kata is a lot of things.  It’s part moving meditation.  It can be a textbook on how to fight.  Kata contains all sorts of lessons as one puzzles out applications for the movements.  One’s body gets used to moving in new and different ways.  Weather permitting, I like exploring how terrain affects the movements.  And let’s face it, kata is part war dance.  I have a tiny smattering of instruction and experience in the art of acting.  When I am in a tournament or belt test I draw on my acting abilities and capitalize on the war dance aspect of kata.  “And now I shatter your elbow,” I silently snarl to my imaginary opponent, and my face reflects that sentiment.  I was totally in that zone for Bassai Dai and even more so for Rohai Shodan.

For me the hardest part of kata is standing at attention at the end.  I have to control my breathing after a rather vigorous athletic activity.  Sometimes my opponent is performing a longer kata.  I can’t watch – I must remain at attention while she finishes.  It usually takes only a few seconds for the judges to show their votes for who won and for the winner to be announced, but sometimes it feels like an eternity.  I can’t see the judges behind me nor may I turn to look, so I must wait for the head judge’s announcement.  I knew I’d done a good job technically, and I knew I had injected some panache into my performance.  I felt fantastic while I was pretending to block punches and shatter joints.  But my heart raced while I stood at attention.  Which medal would I be taking home?

When the head judge announced I was the winner, I was stunned.  I couldn’t believe I had really pulled it off.  I knew I had been gambling.  Taking the risk had paid off.

The universe has a way of keeping one humble.  After the victory in kata, I got a silver in kumite (sparring).  Um… There were only two of us for kumite, so…  Yeah.  Sheepish grin here.  I think I have a lot of work to do.

In the Shadow of the Spruce Goose

SprGThe first time I saw the Spruce Goose, the largest airplane ever constructed, was in Long Beach, California.  I think it might have been 1987 and a couple of months prior to that family vacation, I’d made the decision to quit Karate.  If someone had told me then that at age 46 I’d be one belt rank higher and competing against people who significantly outrank me in a tournament held under the tail of the Spruce Goose, I’d have told that person, “You’re crazy.”

Question6_CrazyLife is crazy.

In 1992 the Evergreen Air and Space Museum acquired the Spruce Goose and built a new home for it in Oregon.  Someone got the idea to rent part of the building for a Karate tournament.  As someone I spoke with put it, “I’m spoiled now.  Smelly old college gyms are never going to be the same for me again.”  I agree.  For one thing, there was plenty of daylight – I hate not being able to have at least some natural light.  Best of all, we were surrounded by really awesome airplanes and jets.

Ceinture_De_Karate_Ou_Judo_clip_art_greenI almost cried when I first saw the good ol’ Spruce Goose again after so many years.  I’ve come so far in the last two years.  Even though I’m only one belt rank higher, I’ve done far more than when I was a teenager.  I am more than I ever was.  I understand more but at the same time I’m dimly aware that there is so much that I need to learn.  Yeah, I should not have quit then.  But on the other hand, I would not be having the same adventures I’m having now.

My first lesson from the tournament was during the opening ceremony.  Someone was complimenting the head of the organization that was running the tournament, or maybe it was the head of the entire style that organization studies – I don’t remember.  But what I do remember is the gentleman saying this:  If you say, “I can’t,” a Sensei says, “You can’t?  Oh good!  Let’s get to work!”  Words to live by for sure.

03_Image2As I started practicing my kata on the mats before the tournament began, I noticed a gentleman practicing Rohai Shodan.  I enjoyed watching this gentleman practice because not only am I learning Rohai Shodan for my next belt test, but the gentleman practicing was from a different style and I loved comparing what he was doing to what I was taught.  After the tournament began, we had the same idea – the staging area was not very busy, had plenty of space, and overlooked the main floor, so he and I headed up there to practice while we waited.  The gentleman inspired me with his patient practice, so rather than loaf around, I followed suit.  Both of us settled into our own rhythms of practice, watching the tournament, and walking.  In addition to my kata, I occasionally threw head-level roundhouse kicks at a concrete pillar in order to practice hitting without harming an opponent.

Soon after my division was called to staging, the usual ladies from Oregon trooped in.  Three times now they’ve driven four or more hours to beat me up, so this time I thought I’d make the drive myself so they could beat me up more conveniently.  I have no idea why they weren’t at the last tournament I was in.  That’s the only tournament this season in which I’ve won a medal.  That said, they’re a neat bunch of gals, and it’s a pity we live so far apart.

Photo courtesy of Sami
Photo courtesy of Sami

While we were waiting for the competitors in our assigned ring to finish, I felt an irrational desire to run away.  I breathed deeply and looked up at the tail of the Spruce Goose.  I couldn’t quit, not with that huge tangible reminder of all the could-have-beens and all the regrets.  I thought to myself, “I’ve come way too far to back out now.  I’ve got to trust my training.”  I looked around.  The competitors in the ring next door caught my eye – they were in the division I was in last season.  Yeah, the season when I won all those shiny medals.  I watched them while they practiced and I concluded that I was exactly where I needed to be even if it meant not placing.

Four of us competed in kata, I tied for third place.  I know I did wonderfully on my kata until I got off balance during one of the final movements.  Of course I lost.  After I exited the ring I had to remind myself to see the big picture.  I first started memorizing Bassai Dai kata last winter and I’ve worked hard on it since.  This is a kata most styles wait until black belt to teach – my organization requires it for the 5th kyu test.   I have only begun to scratch the surface of it, and I’m improving and learning more.  Yes, it was disappointing to wobble but I recovered and finished the kata with the proper demeanor – and that alone is something I can be proud of.  I looked again at the huge airplane tail looming above the venue and knew that the loss was nothing compared to what I’ve gained in the 29 years since I last saw the Spruce Goose.

One of my fellow competitors bowed out of sparring, leaving only three of us.  I didn’t get the bye – it was just as well because I get nervous watching other fighters before I’ve had some time in the ring myself.  Once I’ve had a fight, I’m OK with watching.  As we entered the ring, I looked at my opponent and knew I was in for a heck of a fight.  I’ve seen her fight before and I’m fairly certain she significantly outranks me (competitors wear only red or blue belts for tournaments).  I reminded myself I have more tools to use than I did at the last tournament.  I happened to be facing the Spruce Goose as I entered the ring and took up my starting position.

SpruceGoose2The huge aircraft dominated the scene behind my opponent.  I reminded myself again of how far I’ve come.  I knew that in the face of almost certain defeat, I had a choice.  Knuckle under and hope it was over quickly, or stay calm, do my best, play the game, and learn.  I chose the latter.

I was right, it was a heck of a fight.  I slipped and fell once and went to the mats again later because my opponent dumped me on my can for kicking too slowly.  The first time I went to the ground, I rolled out of the way before my opponent could score three points.  The second time I went to the ground, I saw an opening and side-kicked while I was still on the ground.  Unfortunately the shushin had already called a halt the instant before my foot connected with my opponent’s abdomen, so I didn’t score.  But at least I’d prevented my opponent from getting three points.  I’ve never tried that before.  All in all, I didn’t do too badly.  She won with eight points, mostly punches.  I scored five points – two with punches, three with my signature move (roundhouse kick to the head).  Not bad.  But I missed my coach, who is a Sensei at a sister dojo.

I’m not going into all the details about why my coach wasn’t there and all the assumptions that went down on both sides.  I let Affiliate YMCA Sensei bring up the subject, and he did.  “You need to learn to text me when you’re in staging,” he told me.  What could I say but, “Ossu!”  I suddenly understood the beauty and efficiency of that word.  Frankly, if I’d made excuses, thrown blame, etc. I’d have still eventually ended up saying, “Ossu!” at the end (maybe after a bazillion push-ups).  And really, I do need to move into the 21st century.  My cell phone was in my car because I couldn’t imagine needing to make a phone call, I didn’t want to receive phone calls, and I didn’t want the phone stolen out of my gear bag.  I totally forgot that a thief recently stole my credit and debit cards but left my “Dumbphone!”  Anyhow, I still think push-button phones (as opposed to rotary dial) are pretty groovy, so it never occurred to me to call or text someone who is in the same building as I am.  Go ahead and laugh.

So I came home with two bronze medals for losing the first rounds of both kata and kumite.  Funny how that works, but hey, they’re nice souvenirs.  The host organization had nice goodies for every participant, including Kung Fu Panda stuffed toys (I gave mine to my younger daughter*).  But the best takeaways from this tournament were not the material things.  The best takeaways were the lessons I learned in the shadow of the Spruce Goose.

Photo courtesy of Sami
Photo courtesy of Sami

* My younger daughter is autistic and has had a hard time controlling herself this school year.  She has lashed out physically at people in her frustration.  I gave her my Tigress doll from the tournament and talked with her about how Tigress never hits people for things like being told she can’t use a calculator to do math.  I hope my daughter will remember that and think about it this summer.  I might have to bring the stuffed toy out again before the first day of school.  Time will tell, but my daughter really appreciated the gift.

Tournament Funny

I have various tidbits of takeaways and lessons learned from a very busy three days, and I’ll be sharing in between and around my posts about February.

150430_MedalMy first story is from the Yoshida Cup tournament just yesterday.

So I was hanging around near the staging area waiting for my division to be called and doing some light warmups, when I noticed Sensei Cheryl Murphy (yes, HER) doing the same. I started wondering, “Just how old is she anyway?” I was in the 35-49 year old Ladies’ Intermediate and Advanced division. I’m on the low end of Intermediate, Sensei Cheryl is very much on the high end of Advanced. I started sweating and it wasn’t because of the Hindu Squats I was doing. “She’s not 35, naaaaw, can’t be. Wait – what if she’s one of those people like me about whom people always say, ‘You look a decade younger’? Ohhh my God, what if she is 35?!?  She can’t be that old. No way. But… I could be wrong. What if I have to fight her?!? OMG!!! I am so going to die…”

I had to get a grip.  I started trying for more positive self-talk, “At least it’ll be over quickly.”

[Loud obnoxious buzzer sound here]

“OK, well, if I have to fight her, then it’ll be an honor and I’ll probably learn something.  That and I’ll have the bragging rights that I sparred with Sensei Cheryl.  More so if I can score even one point against her.”


So when my division was finally called, I breathed a sigh of relief.  Sensei Cheryl was not on the roster.  I knew a couple of the gals from previous tournaments.  And of course by then we were wearing either red or blue tournament belts, so I didn’t allow myself to speculate on the ranks of those ladies who were strangers to me.

My first round I was soundly thrashed by a fantastically skilled lady from Japan.  Later, I saw her wearing her black belt.  OK, no surprises there.  I had scored a point or two on her, so I felt all right about that.

It wasn’t until Monday morning that I had this thought…  I was peeing my pants about potentially sparring a big name I knew only because she was one of the instructors at camp last summer.  But for all I know, maybe that lady black belt from Japan who thrashed me was someone famous too.  I don’t really keep up with who’s who in Karate.  I didn’t get a chance to ask her name, so maybe I’ll have to wait until next year.

According to Wikipedia, I have three years to prepare for a potential sparring match with Sensei Cheryl Murphy.  Meanwhile, she can have fun with my younger buddies.

So after I cleaned up the mess I’d made of my gear (switching from aka to au and back again) I headed off to the locker room to lick the wounds of my defeat.  On my way there, I noticed two of my buddies in the younger division were about to start kumite.  I took my place in the stands to cheer them on, especially as they were in the same division as You Know Who.  Unfortunately, the way things worked out, my buddies didn’t have the honor of fighting Sensei Cheryl Murphy.  But I did get to watch her in action, and it was wonderful.

Beyond the Medals

01_Graphic1When I was a kid I pursued winning for the sake of getting tangible proof that I’m good at something.  I was too immature to see beyond the big, shiny loving cup.  Not that there’s anything wrong with a nice prize or wanting one.  But I’ve since learned that there’s loads of other reasons to enter any sort of competition.

Whether or not I win anything, preparation for a competition teaches me a lot about motivating and pushing myself.  Sometimes there are setbacks along the way and I fret.   The day before the tournament on Saturday I was a bit sick and had to tell myself it was OK to withdraw – I’d have that much more time to prepare for the next tournament.   I reminded myself that between illness and extra hours at work, I hadn’t practiced much.  I ended up feeling better (little did I know it was a 24 hour window peculiar to this particular bug).  I won both kata and kumite in my division but I’m not at all satisfied with my performance.  More practice would’ve helped, and it’s a lesson I won’t forget.

black eye 2015 Joelle White
Bruises are fun!!!

So is competition all about performance?  If it was, I would have simply stayed home.   The primary reason I went to this particular tournament was to have fun.  Yes, bashing total strangers around a ring is fun.  Yes, playing a game of make believe trying to convince people that I’m “ringing” some big biker dude’s “bells,” breaking his grip on my wrist, then finishing him off as he’s doubled over in pain is fun.  Seeing black belts and tiny little kids do their stuff is fun.  Cheering for people I know and even for people I don’t know is fun.  Hanging out with my daughter, watching her, and hearing her cheer me on is fun.  When I get frustrated in practice I have to remind myself that tournaments are fun.

karate ladiesCompetition is not just a test of how well you do compared to others.  It is a challenge for yourself, a test of your own abilities.  This can lead to growth.  This time around I deliberately chose the kata I’ve most recently learned, not the kata I performed the last two tournaments.  I wanted to see where my kata breaks down when I’m under the pressure of expert eyeballs staring at me.  The tournament was as close to promotion conditions as I could come.  I now know what I need to watch out for and fix before my next promotion, whenever that may be.  I received feedback on my fighting, so now I know what to work on next.  So you see, tournaments can lead to improvement and growth.

150215_SproutsTournaments are a place to test personal growth as well.  We should encourage and express appreciation and respect for one another no matter who wins.  I love it when I can hug someone after we’ve bashed each other around a ring.  Good manners are imperative – we are, after all, fully capable of hurting each other, so it’s wise to behave like ladies and gentlemen.  If we can do this under the pressure of tournament conditions, we are doing well indeed!  Tournaments are a chance to be a good example, especially to any children who are watching.

Other organizations’ students come to our tournaments, so it behooves me to join the effort in supporting their tournaments in turn when I can.  Volunteers are usually welcome no matter where they come from.   Of course the extra entry fees are very welcome – I strongly suspect all the money goes towards renting the venues.  It’s good for everyone to see and fight against different styles.  So really, tournaments are about more than just each individual competitor.

150430_MedalAll that said, I admit I do love winning and I do love the sound of medals clanking on my chest.  Who doesn’t love that sound?  The particular medals I won this past weekend are beautifully designed – hats off to the unnamed artist!  There is room for appreciating the tokens of success.  But I think I’m gaining far more than pretty chunks of metal that I’ll never wear again.