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PERSONAL: Grit. Do Our Children Have It?

Failure. It’s an ugly word. No-one wants to fail and no-one enjoys failure. As parents we do not want to see our children fail either. It is not something you would wish on your worst enemy and so parents are tempted to bail their children out before failure occurs or to cushion their landings so that the pain associated with failure is not as excruciating as it could be, or to remove them from situations so that repeat occurrences cannot take place. It is in our nature as parents to want to defend and protect our children – it’s our duty to do so. At what cost though? Are there lessons in failure that we rob our children of when we don’t allow them to experience it and when we don’t teach them to get back up and face their challenges head on so that they develop perseverance skills and determination? Do we allow our children to develop true grit?

At this past weekend’s SA JKA Karate Championships in Johannesburg, it became clear to me that karate builds grit. It’s a tough sport that requires fitness, agility and perseverance. There are many teaching moments. From the time of team selection when the child commits to Saturday SA training sessions, to dealing with tough (but caring) Senseis and Sempais, to the moment that child steps onto the floor in the competition, true grit is being instilled in that child. But it doesn’t end there. The competition itself requires a child to dig deep. It’s a brave step, especially for the very little ones, to leave the safety of mom in the stands, to walk down onto a floor that is far way from mom’s caring arms, to sit there and wait their  turn and then to perform to the best of their ability as they fall back on the teachings of their Senseis and do their intricate katas. That is a skill on its own. And those that lose, that fail in their own eyes, they have to dig deepest of all. They have to accept that they haven’t achieved what they were hoping for, have worked for. They have to dig deep not to lay blame at anyone else’s door – the opponents or the referees. That’s the easy way out. They have to face their own shortcomings and dig deep to stand tall and say to themselves – “I WILL come back next year!” That is true grit.



Then in the kumite, especially for the older students, those who participate in the free fighting, where contact is possible and most likely inevitable, they have to dig deep again when receiving a punch to head or nose. It takes true grit to face the pain and work through it. It takes even more grit to turn and face your opponent again, when all you want to do is run and hide and deal with your pain. It takes true grit to go through round after round, knowing that the chances of another knock are high and it takes even more grit to realise and accept  that you have done your best when you win a Bronze medal, not the Gold one you had been hoping for. It takes grit to to accept that your loss is actually a win, when you have been competing amongst an elite group of youngsters and you have taken your knocks, when you have fallen but risen again. It takes grit to realise that you have achieved what many others haven’t. And that grit means that you WILL be back next year to try again.

So, what can we as parents learn from this? What is grit? The dictionary definition of grit is this: “courage and resolve; strength of character”. By bailing our children out (and believe me, I am just as guilty, I often am tempted to bail my children out) we teach them that it is okay not to see things through to the end, or that if the going is too tough, then it’s okay not to try again. We teach them that failure is bad and we rob them of these teaching moments.

I wonder sometimes whether in today’s social media-connected world a parent’s need to protect their children from failure at all costs isn’t more about what other people will think? As hard as it is for a parent to witness their child experiencing failure, it is one of the best lessons that you can afford your child. By allowing your child to fall and then rise up again you instil true grit, determination and perseverance. You build character. That doesn’t mean that you leave your children to fail, but that you are next to them to help them to deal with failure, to give them coping mechanisms to help them stand tall again, to stand by them through thick and thin as they navigate through childhood, and by giving them opportunities to develop true grit, such as with karate.

This is the best gift you can give your child.


PERSONAL: All about Karate, but Karate was not what it was all about.


This post has got nothing to do with technology, but it has everything to do with the children we work with every day.

This past weekend my son participated in the Japanese Karate Association’s SA Championships in Johannesburg, as a member of the Western Province team. He has a purple belt, and he achieved a bronze medal in his age group for Kata, and a silver medal for his Kumite. He was hoping for a Gold medal (he has already promised his Sensei, Debbie Evans, that he will be back for double Gold next year), but he has learnt that as he gets older and progresses to higher belts, the competition gets tougher and more challenging. As his parents, his Dad and I could not be prouder. It was an intense weekend of karate, with excellent results for the WP team and our dojo, Blaauwberg JKA Karate, in particular.


However, yesterday, at the conclusion of the tournament, it struck me that Karate was certainly not all that this weekend had been about. It was about so much more.

It was about seeing a profoundly disabled wheelchair-bound member of the Western Province team, a member of our dojo, participate and win a Gold medal; experiencing the moment as all our children, young and old stood, and shouted his name and cheered him on; witnessing the incredible love of his brother as he embraced him and kissed him on his forehead, celebrating his medal and so much more – celebrating life! It was the shedding of tears of happiness and the sobering thoughts of how we take life for granted.


Ryan proudly showing off his medal. Photo credit: Shane McConnachie (brother).

It was about the interaction between older, more experienced karateka (teenagers) with the young and inexperienced newbies (some as young as six), holding their hands as they led them down into the stadium for their events. It was about the whispered words of encouragement on the floor and the looks of guidance as the little ones sought reassurance. Their patience seemed infinite. It was about folded hands and prayers said at the beginning of each round, not for the win, but to be the best that they could be. These were poignant moments.

It was about the loud shouts of encouragement from the stands down to the team mates participating below; the loud applause when a team-mate won a round; the ecstatic cheers for a win and rounds of congratulations when a team member returned to the stands with medals; the words of encouragement and sympathy, embraces and hugs when the results weren’t as favourable.

It was about the selfless behaviour of a much-loved and respected team member, himself only sixteen years old, who stood between two floors, toggling between encouraging and coaching a team-mate who was engaged in a particularly difficult kumite final, and participating in his own competition on the adjacent floor.

It was about that same young man being knocked out of his own competition in a somewhat questionable manner, yet rising above it with an amazing attitude to encourage his team mates to persevere and push through as they qualified for the All African Cup in September.

It was about the anguish of a young girl who faced huge disappointment when she did not achieve the Gold medal she was hoping for, and truly deserved; the tears she shed and the strength of character she showed in going back down onto the floor, pulling herself together and showing steely determination as she qualified for the All African Cup. What a comeback!

It was about the patience shown for a keen, (over-) enthusiastic 12-year old who wanted to help, to be involved, to feel important; the tolerance for his exuberant nature and for including him as a member of the support team and for “creating” a job for him which kept him busy throughout the long 12-hour day. That boy was my son, and he almost enjoyed the second day more than his competition day because he felt important, he felt appreciated and he felt that he had made a valuable contribution to the team. This will stay with him for a long time.

So, while it was Karate that brought us all together, it was so much more than Karate that determined the success of the weekend. Life lessons were learnt, life skills were entrenched. These are skills children should be learning, should be exposed to. Sport offers this for our children and is the exact reason why children should participate in sport.

It is not about the medals, it is about life. See the bigger picture.