In the summer of 1990 perfecting spinning kicks and foot sweeps seemed like the very best way a person could spend their time. My brother and I practically wore out the tape on the ‘Karate Kid’ and I was quite sure that Chuck Norris was the greatest hero of our time.
So you can imagine my excitement when the local dojo I attended entered into the provincial karate tournament in the nearby city of Durban.
This was the big stage, a chance to show my wears and begin life as a ninja prodigy. In the weeks that followed “the tournament” was really all I cared about.
When the big day finally arrived I was beside myself with anticipation. Step aside Bruce Lee and make way Jean-Claude Van Damme, ten-year-old, freckle-faced Clyde Rathbone was the new star in town, and he was ready to usher in an unprecedented era of martial arts mastery.
Unfortunately for ten-year-old me things didn’t go to plan. You see I loved the actual fighting part of fighting. My favourite bit of Karate class was when all the students formed a circle and our sensei brought two of us together to hash it out.
All the other elements of the hallowed marital art completely bored me. Kata’s, the traditional demonstration of various moves and detailed patters wasn’t my cup of tea. It all seemed so pointless and frankly, lame.
All of which set the scene for an exceptional failure at the state tournament. As we gathered in front of the judges and began to perform our class Kata it soon dawned on me that my fellow students had put in the work I had failed to do. Where they moved in unison, flowing from one move to the next, I hesitated, turned the wrong way, even bumped into some of them.
At one point while I was flailing about in a disorientated mess I caught a glimpse of my sensei - he literally had his head in his hands, no doubt in complete embarrassment at his student and the disgrace I was subjecting the entire dojo to.
The Kata seemed to go on for an excruciating eternally until I one of the judges announced that he had seen enough. I scurried back to a far corner of the performance hall pretending not to care that my life was essentially over. I was distraught.
My humiliation was made complete when the new belts were handed out. My classmates beamed as they wrapped their bright yellow belts around their waists. There was an applause of high-fives and back-pats between them just at the moment I was presented with my new belt. To my dismay it was the same old white belt with the exception of a single yellow stripe. It looked as pathetic as I felt.
In hindsight it’s easy to see the funny side of that first crushing defeat. Painful as it may have been the experience taught me the importance of complete preparation and discipline. In later years I would learn that there are two kinds of defeats. The kind that truly sting are always related to effort rather than outcome. Which is to say that as difficult as it is to lose it’s far more difficult when the loss is driven by a lack of effort and character. There really is no shame in defeat, which is why I’m always pleased to see a balance in the way that sporting awards are conveyed.
While there are certainly exceptions I’ve noticed that participation awards make me uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s because these kinds of awards rarely distinguish between the participants giving their all and the those simply coasting along.
There’s something truly noble about the ability to produce great effort, and we all know it when we see it. Struggle has a certain truth to it, a kind of integrity that can’t be faked - at least not to oneself and not for very long. It is inside struggle that character is built because the ability to struggle without giving in is the quality upon which all success in life is built.
Nobody, regardless of talent, privilege or sheer luck can pass through life without significant hardship. How we deal with setbacks, failure and loss really does define the quality of our lives.
For these reasons alone sport must always recognise those who find a way to strive in the face of adversity. Because while winning in sport is certainly satisfying the ultimate victory is the one we can learn to have over ourselves. Determination and grit are qualities that can be acquired but they are most certainly perishable skills - ones that sport can help us hone whenever we so choose.