When I went to professional school, there was a lot riding on me. I’d left a top Ph.D. program to pursue something completely different. I’d taken out more loans for that first year of professional school than all my undergraduate student loans combined. There were quite a few people who had questioned my decision. Once I finally started the program, the coursework, competition, and stress levels were all significantly more intense than anything I’d experienced. To make matters worse, my entire grade came down to a single examination at the end of the semester, the curve was set precariously close to the ‘unsatisfactory’ cut-off, and if my average fell below the ‘unsatisfactory’ mark, I would be “asked” to leave the program. (As such things are wont to go, I really wouldn’t have a choice in the matter if asked to leave). I had never given myself 100% to anything before that program, but I did then, and I could not escape the incredible amount of pressure to perform. What if I’d taken all these risks – what if I put myself out there 100% – and I failed? The fear finally consumed me and left me literally lying on the floor of the school’s common area in tears. I’d just received feedback on a memo I had written – four pages of nothing but red ink – and was certain it was a harbinger of doom. A professor stumbled upon me, and convinced me to get off the floor and follow him to his office, where he gave me tissues and told me about ‘The Monster At The End Of This Book.’
For those unfamiliar with ‘The Monster At The End Of This Book,’ it’s a book for children (see YouTube here) starring Sesame Street’s Grover. At the beginning of the story, Grover learns there is a monster at the end of the book. He then spends the remainder of the book being terrified of the monster at the end of the book and encouraging the reader not to read to the end because of that monster. With each page, Grover becomes more worried and anxious. At the end – SPOILER ALERT – Grover learns that the monster at the end of the book is just Grover himself, and was nothing to be scared of. He is even embarrassed that he was scared in the first place. Examinations, my professor explained, are just like the monster at the end of the book. Looking back, I don’t know if I’d say those exams were the monster at the end of the book – they were pretty awful and should be viewed with some trepidation – but I passed, so things did not work out quite as awfully as I feared.
You’re probably wondering where this is going.
Yesterday, I competed in a national qualifying tournament for forms. Originally, the plan had been to compete at the grass roots (i.e., “just doing this for experience”) level at the North Carolina tournament that was to be hosted by my doejahng (school). When the North Carolina tournament fell apart, I ended up going with a group of students from my doejahng to compete in Virginia’s qualifying tournament – which had no grass roots division, and was far away from home. Because I wasn’t sure how to handle this, I defaulted to my natural state: I freaked the hell out.
My first foray into competitive forms was a tournament my school held about 8 months ago. It did not go well. By “did not go well,” I mean I stumbled and nearly face planted directly in front of a judge (who, to make matters worse, happened to be my forms instructor whose approval I desperately crave). I finished in last place – which is where one should finish when one nearly face plants in the middle of a form. Last I checked, Face Plant is not a move in any of the approved WTF forms. It was pretty humiliating, especially since I’d been really practicing my forms hard for several months in secret hopes of one day being able to compete in an outside tournament. I had utterly failed in the in house tournament. How would I ever do an outside tournament?
I worked harder, and moved on to my second foray into competitive forms – another in house tournament. I was the last person to go in my group, and I nearly hyperventilated with nerves waiting for my turn. There was a slight improvement – I didn’t nearly fall – but my performance wasn’t anywhere near as well as I could do that form, and I knew it. I tried to dissect the performance with anyone who had seen it and wasn’t sick of hearing me talk about it. One friend finally, very kindly, told me to stop worrying, because it wasn’t an outside tournament. “But that’s just it,” I thought sullenly, “I want to do this at an outside tournament.” I resolved to work even harder.
Working harder typically results in some improvement. For people like me, who are not gifted with natural athletic talents, those results often taken longer, but they happen. And I did improve. My technique got better, my balance improved, and I got more consistent. Which led me to decide to compete in the grass roots division at the tournament my school was supposed to host.
Until that wasn’t happening anymore. And I was competing in the “for reals y’all” division in another state instead of the “just for experience” division in a tournament at my school.
Staring down a tournament that was nowhere near the little tournament of schools from Raleigh I envisioned as my first outside competition, I broke. I broke over and over and over again. What if I nearly face planted? What if – even worse – I completely face planted (a real possibility, as I’ve face planted on side kicks more times than I can count during practices – there are reasons I own a crash pad). What if I started doing the wrong form, or switched forms accidentally in the middle?
What if I’d done all this work to get better, what if I did my very best, and I still couldn’t put together a good performance when it mattered?
It’s this last one that is particularly terrifying. Suddenly, I was back in professional school, where I’d given 100% for the first time in my life and was wondering if my 100% was going to fall short. Once again, I’d given 100% to something, and I wasn’t sure if my 100% was good or if it was laughable. I have lost count of the number of times I cried. I even almost threw up once. By the time I got to the tournament, I was beyond a mess. I’m not exaggerating when I say the 8 year old yellow belts competing had it together far, far better than me.
And then they called my number, and I went into the holding room at the tournament and felt…weirdly nothing. I don’t know if it was because there were no more emotions to spend – because anyone who came into contact with me in the past few weeks can tell you that I’ve expended a LOT of emotions – or if it was because I’d reached some sort of peace, but I wasn’t scared anymore. It was sort of like acceptance. I’d found the monster at the end of the book, and it wasn’t scary after all. Like Grover, I even felt a bit embarrassed for having been scared. And with that, I went out and did my form just like I had done it hundreds of times before in the practice room at my doejahng.
As for the actual performance, it was a strong performance of a form that I’ve always felt a bit wary of. Was it the best I could have done? Yes. I think it was. Were there still mistakes and areas for improvement? Absolutely. There were a few front stances when I came out of kicks where my back knee wasn’t locked the way it should have been. I pointed my toes instead of flexing them on some of the snap kicks. But they’re the issues I know about and am working on to make my technique sharper. These things will come.
For the record, I do not believe I’m going to Nationals this year. I have a work commitment I cannot get out of that coincides with the tournament. Even if I didn’t, my forms instructor politely noted that I’m not ready for Nationals right now, but I could be with more training. He is 100% right. I still have a lot of technical things I need to work on before I can go to Nationals and be a serious contender. And that’s what I want – to be a serious contender. That doesn’t mean I’m going to just chill out for this year. In addition to continuing to work on my forms, I’m going to see if I can do some local competitions, keep getting experience, and keep growing, so that when I DO go to Nationals – maybe even as early as next year – I’ll have strong technique and I won’t be worrying about the monster at the end of the book.