I spent this past Sunday afternoon watching 11-year-old boys punch, kick, and yell at one another. No, it wasn’t a play date gone bad, or a hockey brawl. With clenched fists, my heart in my stomach, and held breath I watched my son spar in a karate tournament.
My son is one of the gentlest, most mild mannered kids around. He recently attended a high school orientation session, and the woman who supervised his visit described him as “incredibly sweet and polite.” Please note, I don’t say this to brag about my child or my parenting, since much of his character is probably due to random genetic assortment. I merely want to note the contrast between his normal character and the aggression he has to turn on in a karate tournament. It does not come naturally.
Since he was five, my son has attended karate twice a week, year round, except for a few weeks off in the summers and at Christmas. He’s never shown a natural aptitude for karate, but he’s worked hard under the direction of a wonderful sensei, who continues to encourage him and build his confidence. Because my son is a cautious child by nature, we’ve encouraged his interest in karate because it provides him the opportunity to assert himself while building strength and confidence. And he enjoys sparring, even though he has to work hard to channel his inner attack dog.
The tournament this past Sunday was one of the first opportunities he’s had to compete in a few years, and the boys are now that much bigger and stronger. He was very nervous leading up to the tournament and wanted to withdraw. For one thing he was concerned about getting hurt. (Although there are no-contact rules and judges penalize fighters who fail to pull their punches or control their kicks, there’s still quite a bit of contact from misjudged moves). But mainly he worried that he would perform badly relative to the other boys.
I did my best to keep a smile on my face and look encouraging. But it was painful to watch. And I know it was very difficult for my son. He did his best, and I was impressed by his loud kiai, the yell that accompanies a move. I was also relieved to see that he wasn’t paired against some of the most aggressive boys who’d come from another dojo. Although he managed to score some great points with high kicks toward his opponents’ heads, my son’s strategy was to step back, defend, and wait for good opportunities where he could go in with good form. The winning boys went in swinging and kicking, regardless of form.
Although some of the bouts were close, he did not win any. My heart ached for him, and I could see him struggling to stay composed as he knelt at the edge of the ring. No one teased him or criticized him or made fun of him for losing all his matches. But I could tell that inside he was very hard on himself. No matter how many times my husband and I told him we were very proud of him for competing and for the hard work he did in the ring, there was no way to ease his sense of pain at having failed in his own expectations.
I have a recurring nightmare that I am in my son’s karate class, wearing a baggy, white gi and feeling very self-conscious. I’m asked to do dozens of push-ups and to go through a series of moves that I can’t do physically. The sensei yells at me to try harder, but I can’t. I’m scared because I’m the center of attention and no matter how hard I try, I can’t do what’s required of me or remember the sequence of moves. In my dream I live out my own impression of what I think my son feels at times.
I’m in awe of what he’s accomplished in “real” life. In my mind he’s overcome things that seem insurmountable, and he’s persisted, even though his best efforts don’t match the athletic abilities of his peers. I want to spare him the pain of losing and of being hard on himself. But I know that by going through losses and challenges he grows and becomes stronger. As hard as it is to watch, I’ll continue to encourage him to take a stab at experiences outside his comfort zone, even though the outcomes are potentially painful. And watching him take on challenges, reminds me of the importance of venturing out of my own sphere of safety. I don’t know about karate, though.