Monday, November 23, 2009

Tournament Time - Take Two...

Off to another tourney this past weekend. This time it was downstate in NYC - Queens to be exact. Unlike a few weeks ago upstate, I did not compete and only judged kata, self-defense, weapons and kumite competition. But just like a few weeks ago, I learned a ton, met lots of incredible people and had a blast.

Judging an open tournament can be interesting. Because judges might not be familiar with the style or form presented, each competitor's attitude, focus, intent and body position all become uber important. So, no, Virginia, it's not the flashy splits, high kicks or glitter weapons that will make you champion, but do all that with rock-solid technique and it just might.

One of the first groups I graded was 6-9-year-old intermediate kata. There was one little lady who had amazing kicks and really knew how to move across the ring. But everything her kicks were, her punches were not. Each hand technique revealed bent wrists and sloppy form - almost like she was just putting her hands out there to get onto the next kick already. Apparently use to winning, she literally teared up when she finished third. The sifu sitting next to me spoke with her after she competed to suggest working on her hand techniques to improve her kata. She was polite and listened, but I'm not sure she heard him at all.

Next up was the 6-9 year old beginner boys weapon forms division. The only competitors were two brothers who each did a basic bo kata. The second brother was doing well until he dropped his bo about half-way through his form. He looked devastated, but he picked up his weapon and continued. When his brother was awarded the mondo winner's trophy (no joke, it was six feet tall) brother number two could only watch as his brother hoisted it up as best he could, threw and arm in the air and cheered.

Later in the day, my ring hosted the 18-34-year-old men's intermediate sparring division. Green and green-belt equivalents all, one competitor felt it necessary to speak to the center judge after his match. He said that, because he was hit in the head twice (competition rules allowed for absolutely no head or face contact in the underbelt divisions - but the contact had to be witnessed by two of the three ring judges), he should have been awarded the win over his opponent.

Although all of the competitors above were relatively new to martial arts, humility is a huge chunk of what being a martial artist is about. Budo dictates modesty and temperate attitudes at all times - even in sport karate. But perhaps, like everything else we do on the mat and in the dojo, humility, modesty and temperance all take work and time to develop. How to compete, win and lose with grace must be learned, just like an effective round-house kick or a reverse punch. They also have to be honed. Perhaps they should all be taught right along with those roundhouses and reverse punches.

But I also saw some stellar examples of temperance in action - like the 9-year-old whose glasses flew off in the middle of his form but who continued without missing a step. Or the 5-year-old who got kicked hard in the gut during a sparring match but got up, wiped his tears and finished fighting. Or the blind green belt in the intermediate women's 35+ division who had to be escorted into and out of the ring before and after she presented Empi Ha kata - a USA Goju brown belt form. Or the only two 35+ female black belt competitors who each gave lessons on presenting kata with Super Empi and Seiuchin. Or the many masters there with 20-30+ years of martial arts training under their belts who spent 10-12 hours judging forms and sparring yesterday, sharing their knowledge and taking a relatively new shodan like me under their wings.

Yep. I had a blast...

Monday, November 9, 2009

Six Months and Counting...

Saturday marked six months since my shodan test. I made it memorable it by traveling to a karate tournament upstate with Sensei S. and some of my training partners.

The good thing about the tourney was that all black belt competitors were asked to judge the underbelt kata and sparring competitions, which concluded before the black belt competition began. I'd been a corner judge for point sparring matches before, but never for kata. With Sensei S. guiding me (he stepped out of a ring so I could jump in and get my feet wet) and some great experienced judges setting the tone, it went well - and I learned a great deal.

Karate competitions are one of the few places where people over 35 are considered "seniors." As any female senior who competes can tell you, there often are not loads of people to compete against. But, thanks to a tournament record turnout of black belts Saturday, there were seven female seniors presenting kata. One of only two non-Tae Kwon Do practitioners on the mat, I ended up finishing second to the woman who went on to win grand kata champion. My knees were literally shaking as I walked into the ring and my legs felt like they would just give out, I was so nervous! But I got through it - my first competition as a yudansha or dan (as opposed to a mudansha or kyu) - without any major flubs or rushing it, as I tend to do when I'm nervous.

Sparring went well, too. As is also usually the case, there weren't as many senior women who wanted to spar (only four), but, because competition kumite is really just a game of tag, my plan to be aggressive and "tag" first worked pretty well. I also got to work on my blitzing and moving off my adversary's center line.

I don't compete a lot - usually three times a year, tops - but each time I do, I enjoy it. I know it isn't really what karate is all about, but for me, the idea of going toe to toe with someone of unknown ability in a controlled environment forces me to think and strategize in a way that no other training does. With five judges watching every corner of the ring, I know there is only so much pain that can possibly be inflicted. Competing is about as close to a real life "dukes up" situation as I've ever experienced. I'm hopeful that through it, the idea of having to put my dukes up in a real situation won't be so totally foreign. I've only had one other fight in my life (in second grade with a girl named Terry Daniels; she pulled my hair, I pulled hers and it was over), so the only experience I'm getting at making this a little more innate is on the mat. In short, competition sparring makes me face my fear, which is anything but comfortable for certain.

And it's truly a blast, too! Never in a million years did I ever think I'd enjoy fighting, but I do. How strange is that?