It’s early, and I’m feeling so tired. I’m having trouble sleeping.

Why does that sound like the entry lines for a song?

Oh, well.

I’m guessing I still have a lot on my mind from the events of the day before. Yesterday was my Taekwondo school’s international tournament, a full-day event of delicate forms, impressive board breaking, and lightning-quick sparring. Hundreds of students came out to display their skills with the pretense of good, clean, exciting fun. Participants went in healthy and happy, and parents and coaches stood by to offer love and unbiased opinions.

After watching a lot of them yesterday, I just don’t know anymore.

(Dun dun dun! Melodramatic pose.)

Competition is a wonderful thing. It can bring out the fun and excitement in the registrants and allows opponents to learn from each other’s styles. It allows new acquaintances to gather round and old friends to resume companionships. When it’s all done right, it’s happy and free, and there are no hard feelings whatsoever.

I watched a mother nearly foam at the mouth when a judge didn’t count her six-year-old boy’s three-point headshot. I listened as a grown man yelled the correct spelling of his boy’s name at me on the scoreboard before and after the match. I observed as individuals who knew nothing about the sport scream obscenities at the opposing team and pick fights with the judges.

When has it become a life or death struggle for a six-year-old child to win an award? This wasn’t the Olympics, and even if it were, it still shouldn’t be that important. What made it so devastating was how quickly the change could come over anyone.

There was a young mother who engaged me in conversation while I attended to scoring the sparring matches, and we held friendly chitchat for a few minutes before her four-year-old was set up to fight. She was kind and articulate and excited for her daughter’s first match, and I assured her that everything would be fine. The match came and went; unfortunately, her daughter didn’t understand the rules of the match and lost. She was sad, and her mother tended to her tears.

Once the girls’ division was complete, all of the females were called back to be given their placements. The daughter was set in second place, while the girls who had fought previously were set into the first-place position.

The next thing I knew, I felt a tap on the shoulder, and the mother was staring at me. “Why do both those girls get first place, when that one lost to the other girl?”

I explained to her that they had held an exhibition, since the second girl was a difference age and technically in her own division.

“Oh.” She paused. “How old is she?”


Suddenly, I saw her face morph into confusion, then indignation. “But, my baby is four. I don’t understand.”

It was three-thirty in the afternoon, and I was starting to feel the strain of the day—for the eighth or twelfth time. I had been handed the bracket with the names already written and wasn’t sure where the girls’ nametags were, so I froze short of telling the woman to please discuss the decision with the referee. She did more than that: she called over the referee and one of the three judges, who thankfully found the cards and showed that I had spoken wrong about the ages: The girl who was in her own division was five, and the two girls who had fought earlier (one being the woman’s daughter, who hadn’t known how to kick above the height of her own foot length) were four. They explained this to the mother, who relaxed and took down her stand, allowing the girls’ placements to be announced so they could get their trophies.

Five seconds later, the young woman returned. “So, why do both those girls get gold, and my baby doesn’t?”

Déjà vu. And I have no idea why.

Later, one of our students burst into tears after getting defeated in her match. She was a yellow belt and did not expect the match to be as harsh as it was. She sobbed hard, mouth open and head tilted back, even as she shook the opposing coach’s hand. Her opponent’s girlfriends stood on the sidelines, and as soon as our student turned her back, they looked at each other and burst into loud, disbelieving cackling. It took all my strength not to race over and just…be really violent in a way that I’m not allowed to be violent with adolescents.

I know that was difficult to read.

I know I had my moments of cruelty, too—snapping at everyone who didn’t understand my words the first time; passing harsh looks at everyone I felt cheered too viciously for the victors; ignoring parents who asked too many questions while I was trying to perform other tasks. I’d like to blame the stress of the day on my behavior, but I don’t like to lose control of myself in any situation. I’m hoping they can forgive me, whether they know I’m sorry or not.

Nevertheless, I have to wonder about some people. The young mother I mentioned earlier had an older daughter as well, perhaps ten or eleven, who was also competing. She appeared to be a blue belt, and I watched from the sidelines as she too was unable to kick properly and was ultimately defeated by her opponent.   Her children weren’t the best fighters, so it must have been in the woman’s motherly nature to fight for them when they were falling. I find that commendable—sweet, really—but I honestly think that most of those kids couldn’t have given a hoot about whether they won. Most of them didn’t react about their placements until they saw their parents’ joy or fury. Children who snapped back at the judges did so because their parental figures were doing so first.

And that scared me. I could literally see the cycle repeating itself when these children were grown with kids of their own.

Were these parents paying for their children to become mentally disciplined, spiritually sound martial artists…or power-hungry trained killers?

If I had a choice, I’d lock all the spectators onto the stands so that only the competitors and one coach were left on the floor. There would also be a soundproof glass wall between the stands and the main floor. And there would be a whole lot more security. At the first sign of dissention, the entire violating party would be ejected from the building. No warning. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

Cruel? I’m sure it is.

But it sure would be a pretty wall.

I will end on a pleasant note. During one of the sparring matches, a young boy from our school (with a side kick that points to the freakin’ ceiling) fought a skilled opponent from another highly respected school. It was a close match, but a clean one, with our student coming out as the victor. His opponent’s coach, a Korean gentleman, was calm and understanding throughout the bout. Even if he claimed to see a point that the referee didn’t count, he acquiesced when the judges agreed that they unanimously didn’t catch it. He did not throw a fit or scream, “This is so ridiculous!” to whomever would listen.

When the match was over, and our student (hardly eight or nine years of age) walked over to shake the coach’s hand, the coach grasped the boy in his arms and swung him around in a hug, laughing. He then had his student throw a mock punch to our boy (gear still on), while everyone around grinned like silly fools.

I’m sure the coach was disappointed in the loss, but he didn’t show it. His student (and our student) have the chance to understand that winning is nice, but enjoying the fun of competition in its pure form is even better.