Saturday, April 5, 2014

The wisdom of age-group competition

I don't believe I'm smarter than I was as a young man, but I'm definitely a lot less dumb.  You grow less dumb, of course, by making mistakes . . . then trying not to make the same ones over and over again.  As kids we learn not to touch hot stove tops, often by touching hot stove tops.  And when it comes to athletic competition, we learn -- sometimes the hard way -- that younger and stronger generally trumps older and wiser. 
   First let me say that one of the wisest moves you can make as a martial artist is to enter a tournament now and then, because the competition allows you to assess your level of progress alongside the progress of other serious students.  This is not about medals or trophies.  It's about having a panel of judges rate your mastery of key techniques: stances, blocks, strikes, and such.  For all of us who continue to train after age 50, 60, or 70, the mission is showing respect for the knowledge that has been preserved over hundreds of years by the masters and grandmasters who came before us.  Our goal should be to master all techniques to the best of our ability, so that we become part of the process of passing along our various martial arts to future generations of students.
   But when you decide to compete as a senior, I believe the wisest move is to search for tournaments that offer sensible age groups.  As I said at the top, younger and stronger usually works better than older and wiser, and this is certainly true in Taekwondo tournaments.  I might flatter myself and think that at age 68 I can spar with guys in their twenties, but all I would be doing is increasing the likelihood that I'll have to take several months off while my broken jaw and cracked ribs heal.  Yes, you can suffer an injury even in age-group competition.  But when you decide to compete with athletes half your age, you're trolling for trouble.
   The very good news is that I find an increasing number of Taekwondo tournaments offering age divisions for athletes who are 50 or 60.  In fact, beginning this year the World Taekwondo Federation and its U.S. affiliate USA Taekwondo have begun offering a "4th Master" division for poomsae [or forms] competitors 66 and older.  This means that guys my age can compete on a level playing field in state, national, and even international tournaments. 
   Why, you might ask, do we need age-group competition for poomsae?  After all, we're not talking about sparring, right?  True. But we're still talking about significant differences between athletes who are, let's say, 28 and those who are 68.  Flexibility comes to mind.  If you're still as flexible as you were 40 years ago, God has been awfully kind to you.  The rest of us simply keep changing our definition of "high kick."  This is something that the WTF and USAT have recognized, and it's something that certified judges understand as well.  When you compete in a WTF or USAT tournament, you're judged alongside athletes who are close to you in age, and that means you can assess your level of mastery against a reasonable benchmark. 
   Note, however, that not every tournament offers age-group competition that accommodates seniors.  I can think of lots of reasons for that, none of them good.  So I believe that seniors should vote with their feet and walk away from tournaments that seem not to accept the fact that many of us still want to compete in our 60s, 70s, or beyond.  Another option, and one that sometimes works out well, is to call the tournament director and ask about adding older age groups.  The more of us who ask, the more likely it is that tournament directors will help encourage us to continue competing for as long as we can.
   Taekwondo and other martial arts are not just for kids, and they're not just sports.  They represent a way of living . . . a way of maintaining the discipline to keep our minds and bodies in the best condition possible.
   If you know of senior-friendly schools and tournaments in your area, please let me know.  I'll gladly mention them in this blog.  In the meantime, stay the course.  We need more seniors in the martial arts.