Most civilized humans will never step into a ring and enter a face-kicking contest with a complete stranger. In taekwon-do, we do it for fun.
I don’t know if that makes us brave or stupid. Probably a little of both.
Regardless, I recommend that every taekwon-do student try a tournament at least once—although I understand that not everyone is interested in competing. But whether you’re getting a tournament under your belt to be able to say you did it or you want to become a seasoned competitor, everyone has to start at the beginning. So what should you expect at your first taekwon-do tournament? What will it feel like?
As you might have imagined, you’ll probably be nervous. You might have sparred or performed your patterns hundreds of times in class, but that can’t fully prepare you for the feeling of stepping into a ring at your first taekwon-do tournament. You know that feeling you get when you have to test for a new belt? It might feel similar to that.
The nerves show up at different times for different people. For some, it starts the night before; they can’t sleep. For others, it happens when they walk into the venue. And then for some, it doesn’t hit until they step into the ring.
Don’t be surprised if your nerves affect your performance the first time around. You’ll be fired up on adrenaline. You’ll probably be tense. And there’s a good chance you’ll put more energy into every technique than you ever have before. All of that means you’ll get tired, and fast.
You might also perform like crap. You might be so focused on simply performing that all sense of finesse goes right out the window. You might even forget what you need to do. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it happens.
If you’re one of the few people who doesn’t get nervous, good for you. But for the rest of us, it’s just part of the game. Luckily, it gets a little better every time you compete. It will likely never go away entirely, but you’ll learn to get used to it, and maybe even to use your nervousness to your advantage.
For some people, competition brings on more than just nerves; it brings a pressure to win. That pressure could be from a coach or someone close to you, or it could be from within yourself.
For the best competitors, that pressure to win creates a drive that helps them perform at their peak. For others, it causes them to collapse. I know of a guy who was among the best fighters I’ve ever seen for his weight class—as long as he was in the dojang. He would usually do OK in tournaments, but he would rarely win gold. It wasn’t that his opponents were so much better than him, but that he would defeat himself in his own head before the first match even started. He had the skills, but not the winning mentality.
For your first taekwon-do tournament, you likely won’t feel a lot of external pressure. But if you’re the type of person who pushes yourself to win at all costs—or who is afraid of losing—a good dose of internal pressure could be there.
If you’ve competed in other sports in the past (especially one-on-one sports), you may know what to expect. Otherwise, it may take you a few tournaments to realize whether pressure is affecting you and how. If it helps you perform better, great! But if it hinders you, it might be a good idea to find some way to deal with it.
When you walk into the venue for your first taekwon-do tournament, you may not even know what’s happening. When do you compete? Which ring do you go to? How will you know?
There will be a throng of people milling about and you’ll rely on your instructor and fellow students to offer some guidance.
Everyone in the gym is listening for their division to be called, so you’re all in the same boat. Just remember your division name and pay attention to the P.A. or screen—or whatever they’re using to call competitors to the rings—and you’ll be fine. It also helps to track down other people from your division so you can all use each other as a resource to know when to report to your ring. And if you’re still feeling unsure, people from your club with more tournament experience can be a calming influence.
Despite that rather scary-sounding list, your first taekwon-do tournament will be a ton of fun—win or lose. Stepping into the ring to spar, or even to perform your pattern, is a rush. It all comes down to trying to be better than the other person standing right in front of you. There’s no team to rely on if you make a mistake. It’s all up to you.
That sounds like a tall order, but it creates an amazing feeling. And, hopefully, you’ll keep getting better and keep that feeling going. Because while your first tournament may be a nerve-wracking, confusing mess, it will all be worth it. And it will be an experience you’ll never forget.