Happy to be kicked in the head

The weekend before last, Sarah and I went up to Glasgow with our taekwondo club to participate in a taekwondo tournament. It was amazing and a serious personal challenge.

The lead up to the tournament all started a few months ago when a couple of people in our club suggested we could compete in the sparring competition and said that they were keen. With the dutch courage of a pint inside me after a good training session it seemed like a great idea and we all started to talk seriously about who would go and what it might be like. The timing of the tournament meant that Sarah wouldn’t be able to train properly for the sparring and would be going straight into a heavy couple of weeks at work immediately after, so she opted out of the sparring, but decided to enter the patterns competition. (Sparring is like fighting, and patterns are set combinations of moves that help you train and demonstrate your technique.) Of the rest of the club, one of the blue belt men decided to spar, and another yellow belt woman decided to spar.

In the weeks leading up to the competition we started to train for it, doing things we’ve never done before. I had never really worn body armour before, and certainly never tried to spar. Most of the work we had done that was similar was very controlled with pads – for example working in lines while one person holds a pad and the other person kicks the pad. The first time we put on body armour and actually started kicking each other I was shocked. I was suddenly completely out of my depth and I hated it. It’s not normal to have someone kick you, and it’s not normal to kick someone else, and the whole thing made me feel inept, unfit, physically shocked, and like I wanted to run away from the whole thing. After that first hard session I gave it some serious thought. Was this what I really wanted to be doing? I decided, though, to give it a few weeks. I’d had over a year of taekwondo training, and enjoyed nearly every moment of it. A couple of weeks of hating it (if I continued to hate it) would be fine, and I needed to give myself a chance to see if I could do it. To me, this decision was crucial. On some level I was already committing to the tournament, even though I had still not said I would go.

The following week was hard as well, but easier than my first shock. I don’t know if my partners were gentler with me or if I was already getting used to the experience (I suspect a bit of both), but after that lesson I mentioned my reticence to my instructor. He pointed out to me that it’s sometimes good to go outside your comfort zone, and I found that really useful. It reinforced the idea of the challenge, but I was still scared that this was maybe a move too far.

As the next three or four weeks went on in the lead up to the tournament I realised that the challenge, for me at least, was twofold. On the one hand, this was a simple physical challenge about technique, speed, fitness and awareness. On the other hand, it was very much a mental challenge of overcoming fear, embracing the experience, and committing to trying my best. I signed up for the tournament and tried to succeed in both areas, training harder and concentrating on thinking positively and without fear about the experience that was to come. Lessons were tough, with some good sessions and some sessions where I felt I would never be ready, but as we all trained together I felt more and more supported by the club as a whole and my instructor. It felt to me as if I was being given a platform from which I could do my best, and it was my choice about how to perform and how hard to push myself. As we trained I also began to really see the sparring as a demonstration of all we learn in class – a coming together of the kicks, the fitness and speed that we train for, and in a sense a really great test and application of that training. I was surprised to begin to enjoy the sparring in its own right for those reasons.

When the weekend of the tournament came, we all travelled to Glasgow on Saturday and spent the night in a hostel ready for an early start on the Sunday. The day was structured with the pattern competition first in the morning, followed by the preliminary rounds of sparring, with the finals after lunch. We weighed in and milled about until we were let into the hall, which was laid out with three sparring rings along the length of the hall, and benches all the way along and up the wall where we could sit and watch. Sarah was up first from the group of us. She was confident and ready for it, having had some last minute practice with our instructor. She was called up and did her pattern with three of the other eight people competing at that level. She did really well and got a bronze medal!

I was next up out of the group, having been drawn before the other two for the sparring. One of the drawbacks of being a woman is that the categories for sparring are decided by weight only, rather than belt colour and weight as it is with the men. This is because not enough women compete, I think, but it results in the circular effect of not many women competing at lower grades because the chances of being paired with a black belt are quite high. And, indeed, that’s what happened to me and to the other yellow belt woman from our club who competed. The sparring works in three rounds of two minutes each, and the first person to reach 12 points, or 7 ahead, is the winner. One point is allocated for each significant kick to the body, and two for a kick to the head. (We wear lots of padding – head protector, gum shield, body padding, arm guards, gloves, groin guard, shin guards and feet protectors!)

As my turn came around I warmed up and got some last minute advice from my instructor. In the event, that advice flew from my head as the adrenaline kicked in. We both entered the ring and bowed, then prepared to spar. The referee told us to start, and we went for it. My memory of it is incredibly vague. I remember making contact with her, but my first clear memory is of her kicking me on the left side of my head. It knocked my head sideways but didn’t knock me down, and I remember thinking I was ok and I would not show any fear or reluctance to carry on. And, in fact, I didn’t feel any fear or reluctance. The referee counted to eight as they always do when someone has been kicked in the head, and I glanced at my instructor who signalled to keep my guard up, which helped me refocus, and we carried on. I think I restarted fairly aggressively, but didn’t manage to make much of an impression, and the next thing I remember was another kick to the head, this time to my face against my mouth. Again, I was shocked, but again I was ready to come back, but at this point the fight was stopped because my opponent had reached seven points and I had failed to score at all! We bowed, shook hands, and I shook hands with her coach, who said something encouraging, and that was it. All over in about 90 seconds.

As I walked away from the ring I found it difficult to talk and a few moments later found myself with tears streaming down my face – not from pain, but from the combination of the adrenaline and the shock of having someone kick me in the head for the first time ever. It was really pretty embarrassing! And that was it for me. A month or so of training and it was all over in 90 seconds. But the others were still to come – we could only watch and cheer them on. They both did really well, but didn’t get through to the next round, which was disappointing.

For the rest of the day we watched the sparring and saw some amazing skill, especially in the finals. The day was rounded off with the medal ceremony. Sarah got her bronze medal, and the other two who sparred also got bronze medals because of the way the numbers worked out. I didn’t mind not getting one because I was so pleased with what I felt I’d achieved.

It might sound weird, but even though I failed to get through even one round, I felt incredibly proud of myself. I had been terrified of sparring, and hated being kicked, but trained and faced that fear so that when a large black belt woman kicked me the head I was ready to come back for more, and not back down. I may have lost on the day, but, with the support of my instructor and the people in my club, I certainly won a big fight with myself over that month or so.

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