Winners and Losers


The eight-year-old had successfully, albeit very tentatively, walked his way through the basics of his first kata. That was all that had separated him from his yellow belt. The master smiled broadly at him and high-fived the youngster, then pointed him over to a small line of eager, bubbly kids awaiting their promotions. Around some he tied yellow belts, while around others he tied orange belts.

After the class bowed out, the eight-year-old bounded joyously over to his parent who sat along the wall with body language and facial expression radiating disappointment. "Why didn't you do those other katas like the kids who got orange belts?" that parent snapped at the boy. "I don't understand. What went wrong?" he continued. "This yellow belt doesn't mean much as long as others got better belts!" The boy stood, stunned and dejected, staring glassily at the floor in front of him where his parent had dropped his coveted, new yellow belt.

That child worked for eleven weeks - willingly, cooperatively, consistently and successfully - to learn enough to qualify for his yellow belt. And in an instant, his own parent taught him what it was to feel like a loser.

The kid is a winner in my book because he realized, at only eight years of age, that he could learn - and master - important things by himself if he tried, and that he liked that. It made him feel better, more in control, more positive about his prospects in an often-unnurturing world. Winning is the discovery and realization of the power we have as individuals to grow in the abilities to achieve, mature, actualize and contribute in a positive way. It's not the belt or its color. It's what the kid did to get that belt. And he knew that.

The parent, on the other hand, is a loser because, in a single moment, he damaged his own son's sense of self-achievement earned over the last eleven weeks. To that unenlightened parent, the belt was everything. The Holy Grail. The Golden Fleece. The sword Excalibur. And by investing so much importance in the color of a belt, he had made that belt as unreal as those legendary trophies. Losing is the replacement of the joys of learning and achievement (of an intangible - but invaluable - ethic, integrity or milestone) with the lust for a cold, tangible thing. the trophy itself rather than what the trophy suggests.

In the martial arts, the winner is that person who learns, and glories in that learning. When a white belt enters a karate tournament, he'd love to win a medal or trophy. When an advanced belt enters a tournament, he or she ideally seeks to achieve certain numerical scores from the judges, scores that indicate how well the art has been learned in the eyes of masters. The transition from desire for things to a desire for learning is the essence of the "doh" or way of the martial artist.

Isn't it fantastic and exciting that a single eight-year-old, even laboring as he is under the burden of a clearly unenlightened parent, can clearly see the real value in the martial arts? It makes one renew one's faith in humankind.

And isn't it sad that a single parent can make one question one's faith in humankind?

But here's where the "cup-half-full" folks come out on top of the "cup-half-empty" crowd: that same eight-year-old came back the next week wearing his yellow belt. "Here I am, sensei," he claimed, "ready to learn."

Now there is a winner!

Respectfully submitted,

Ronald F. Balas, Soke/Judan