Before you begin, this one is going to be a longer one, but stick around until the end for my exciting and expertly written top five lists. Why top five? Because I’m only half as good as Letterman, and I’ve just vomited in my mouth for the “exciting and expertly written” thing. Anyway, here you go.

As long as I can remember I have been competitive. When you are one of four children growing up in a one-bathroom house with a really small water heater you naturally will become so. Then you must remember that we didn’t have internet or streaming services, or our own television set in our room. We had one tv in the family room that we had to gain control of by waking earlier than the rest of the family, negotiating an elaborate deal involving chores and/or leftover Halloween candy, or the most aggressive move, waiting for someone to go to the restroom and grabbing the remote. We did have video games which were almost all multiplayer and also got pretty heated, but they weren’t a go to. They were a last resort generally reserved for rainy days or the days when all of our friends happened to be unavailable.

Typically, we just played outside with all of the kids in the neighborhood, even the ones we disliked. We would go through month-long cycles of baseball, football, and basketball with a week or two of a game we called Army mixed in every so often. Every game we played had a clear winner and a clear loser, and there were always consequences to losing which were incredibly harsh and included but were not limited to verbal harassment (We learned to cuss early and practiced daily.), physical punishment (punching, kicking, stabbing with sticks, and shooting with bb guns were the norm), performing the gross chores (cleaning out the animal pens/cages, etc), and being hazed by whatever other means that could be thought of at the time. We didn’t get our feelings hurt, we didn’t cry, and we most definitely did not go home to our parents. We got mad, we got determined, and we tried our best to win the next time so that we could revel in the glory of throwing rocks at and cursing our best friends while watching them pick up wet piles of dog crap.  We were admittedly terrible winners and terrible losers, but we learned how to accept both, and all of us competed daily through gameplay.

Now let’s fast-forward a bit. I was a skinny, long-haired 15 year-old kid standing in a sharply pressed lightweight uniform in a very large arena in Chattanooga, TN. About a month earlier I had followed in my younger siblings footsteps and started doing taekwondo. I had so far trained in 6 classes and determined that I was going to attend the regional tournament. My parents had initially said no, but after I practiced night and day and offered to pay for the competition myself using quarter rolls I had saved up they agreed to drive us to the event. So here I was ready to compete in my first ever tournament, and I placed 1st in forms and 3rd in sparring. That particular placement (1st in forms, 3rd in sparring) eventually became known in my house as “the Church” due to the uncanny number of times I finished a competition with that exact same outcome. My second competition did not go as well, but that is a story for another blog 😉 However, I knew that day in Chattanooga that whenever there was a tournament I would be a part of it.

So going to a taekwondo tournament is very natural to me. I go simply because it is an opportunity to compete that my nature will not allow me to miss. However, now that I’ve competed in and attended literally hundreds of tournaments and trained tens of thousands of students for over two decades to do the same I realize that our tournaments greatly benefit all students. Here are my five favorite benefits of participating in a tournament:

  1. Tournament competitors push themselves in class to prepare which always pays huge dividends at belt testings. They will be better at the next test than a student who does not compete. Why? Because they’ve worked harder in preparation, sometimes without even realizing it.
  • Competitors also get an opportunity to compare themselves to other students of the same rank. Sometimes in class we feel like we’re struggling when in reality we’re just naturally comparing ourselves to the best and most experienced. A competition gives the competitor an apples-to-apples comparison so that you can accurately gauge your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Unlike us growing up in the 80’s and early 90’s our tournament competitors learn how win and lose with grace and dignity. I tell all of our students that they MUST win graciously without bragging or rubbing it in. I also tell them that they MUST lose gracefully without crying, pouting, getting angry, throwing a fit, or blaming someone or something else.
  • Students competing in the tournament also learn to be competitive and driven. These are both very important skills in the workplace and adulthood that seem to have gotten a bad rap recently. We all need these skills.
  • I saved the best for last. You are going to have a blast making life-long friends. Tournaments are so very fun to compete in, but it is what happens before and after an event that makes it so amazing. The drive there, the hotel pool parties, and the late nights in the hotel lobby are all part of the experience. When I am in desperate straights and need a friend to talk to I get on the phone and call a number of people who all live more than 3 hours away from me. People that I’ve met and grown close to over decades of kicking and punching each other. I never would have met them had it not been for tournaments.

I feel that the benefits of competition are so HUGE that it is absolutely essential for students to participate. I don’t think you can be a great black belt or an effective instructor if you are only training in your school and not exposing yourself to these events. However, I know that there are many of you who still have not made the leap and registered to compete. I hear a ton of reasons why you’re not going, but I don’t agree with any of them. So here are my top five frequent excuses and fears:

  1. “We’re busy/out of town/on vacation/etc.” – Our tournament schedule is finished and posted a year in advance, sometimes two years. It is really easy to plan around these events. Yes, they sometimes fall on spring break or fall break. We kind of do that on purpose so that missing school is not a problem for you. I would suggest making the competition an amazing start to your vacation or an amazing end. Just leave a day later or come back a day sooner.
  • “He just isn’t a competitive person.” – Um…I’m calling b.s. on this one. We’re all competitive at some level. When you see someone kicking higher than you do you try to kick higher? You’re competitive. When someone else gets praised in class does your child work harder or get upset? She’s competitive. Do you work your rear end off to get a promotion at work? You’re competitive. Does your child throw temper tantrums when he loses at Fortnite or Smash Brothers? He’s competitive. Did you cut someone off so that you didn’t get stuck behind the slow semi-truck? Also competitive. I’ll move on.
  • “I’m afraid I don’t/won’t know my form.” – LEARN YOUR DARN FORM!!! We work on it EVERY day in class. We have videos online and in our app. We have private lessons available, and our instructors are always available after classes. Practice at home. Mentally practice at school and at work. Write it down. Visualize it. LEARN IT! And IF all of that fails then compete at the tournament with your previous form. And IF that fails then go to the tournament suck it up through the forms competition and spar like a champion. Can you tell this is my least favorite of the excuses?
  • “I want to go watch one before I compete.” – DO NOT do this. One, you will just be sitting in the stands watching and beating yourself up because you didn’t do it. I’ve seen it a hundred times. Two, part of the fun and experience is stepping out of your comfort zone and performing. Ask your instructor what to expect. They’ll prepare you.
  • “I just don’t have the money.” – I understand this one and am sympathetic to your situation. Planning ahead is the key, especially for the national competitions. Plus, most schools have a scholarship program in place to help with the cost of tournaments. Be open and honest with your school owners, and there may be a way to cover part of the cost.

So now you know the benefits, and hopefully I’ve addressed most of your concerns. So let’s talk preparation. Once you’ve determined to compete most students then want to know any and all tips for getting ready or for game day itself. So finally I give you my top five tips to be your best and get the most out of the competition:

  1. Register early. Until you have signed that form and committed your brain does not take it seriously. There is still an option to not attend. But, something happens when you sign that registration form. It becomes real. You begin to train and prepare differently. Now there are no excuses just training. Students in this mindset benefit more by training at a higher level than those who have yet to register. Put simply, the early you register the more skill you will develop.
  • Learn your form early. Students who know their form shortly after belt testing have an advantage over those who just finished learning it the week before the competition. Performing a pattern at a high level of skill takes a lot of practice, and you can’t practice it if you don’t know it.
  • Strategize. Spend some time mentally preparing. Know the rules. Talk to your instructors about their past experiences and get their advice. If you are going to win you need a plan.
  • Get there early and stay late. Remember that the complete tournament experience begins the day before and doesn’t end until the day after. Show up early and meet the instructors and school owners. Find a job that needs completed and volunteer to help. Hang out with your new friends and fellow competitors after. Go to dinner with other students and families from your school or another school. Get to know your classmates better. This is where the joy of taekwondo is born.
  • Don’t worry about the medals. Make no mistake we all want to win. I’ve never met a student who had dreams and aspirations of finishing 4th. However, if that medal is the only reason you are attending I think I speak for all of us when I say please stay home. You will notice that no part of my previous top five lists mentioned what place you finish. Remember that you will experience the real benefits of competing no matter what the result of the actual competition is. The medals are the cherry on top of a tremendous experience, not the experience itself.

Now that I’m no longer competing myself I am no less competitive. I look forward to watching my instructors and competitors compete against all of you wearing a different patch. I hope they win. Sorry. But, please come find me. I’ll help you any way that I can to become a better student, instructor, school owner, parent, or whatever. Why? Because I love martial arts, and making you better will make all of us better. I hope this blog helps. I can’t wait to see you at the tournament.