“Every kid is a winner!” No, not really.

Today, my daughter took my nunchuck class. Now, because her instructor is Mr. Sipe (she trains at West Salem, so that Daddy is not her instructor. Trust me, it’s better this way), she often will do “Sipe-ism’s” when she takes martial arts class, or pretends to teach class.

However, today, I heard her do a “Clews-ism”…something that I do in my ATA Tiger classes that no one else does.

“Hey, Daddy, you lose! You didn’t go fast enough!”

Yes, I am the instructor that, in my attempt to build kids’ confidence with martial arts, looks straight at them and says “You lose. You failed.”

But don’t get mad at me yet…let me explain why.

When I was first starting ATA Taekwondo as a white belt, our school had a logo on the wall, up front and to the left. It was the same logo that you’ll find on the “old school” V-patch for the Karate for Kids program.

Above it were these words:
“Every kid is a winner!” and “Every kid is special!”
Now, I definitely believe that every kid is special. And I believe that every kid should be taught that message, as long as “special” does not mean “better”. Special means unique. Gifted. Different from the next kid, and you know what? Kid, you do not need to be like this next kid to be okay. Strive to become the best version of yourself.

However, I do NOT believe that every kid is a winner. I believe that teaching this message does the exact opposite of the desired result. If every kid is a winner, then winning is automatic. Not an accomplishment, but rather, an assumption, something that you take for granted.


Now, the good reason that this saying was on the wall was because many parents bring their kids to martial arts hoping that it will be a different sport than the others, and it is! For me, I was horrible at basketball (I did get the “Most improved award”, but I think I know why), baseball, and soccer. Pretty much EVERY other kid was stronger, faster, more coordinated, etc. So this saying was on the wall for kids like me to know this: “You don’t have to be the strongest or the fastest in order to win here.” And I definitely agree with that statement. This is not a place where only the elite win. Traditional martial arts is about you vs. you, or as I like to put it, you vs. yesterday.

(By the way, the “you vs. you” thing is not meant to diminish quality. Rather, it means that a 60 year old doesn’t have to be better than the 20 year old in order to move up in belt rank. Each should gain all the benefits they can from martial arts without comparison to others.)


So, if I don’t believe that every kid is a winner, then what do I believe? Do I believe that only the elite are winners, because I want to teach the kids the life lesson of “It’s a tough world, so buck up, buttercup”?

No, that’s not it.


Rather, I would love to change “Every kid is a winner” to: “Every kid, here, in our school, CAN be a winner.”

If you followed our “Parenting Hacks From Martial Arts” videos, then you might remember this one: “Choice vs. Ability.”


White through Purple: Victory by CHOICE, not by ability

For the first six colored belt ranks in our school (up to purple), it is our job to make sure that success is a matter of CHOICE, not ability. Choosing to focus. Choosing to follow directions. Choosing to copy the instructor. Not how high, how natural, or even how strong the kick is. What we’re going for is the CHOICE to follow the role model, the instructor’s example.

What that means is that if a student is not following the directions, we will bluntly tell them these three things. The first two are bad. But the third is meant to be empowering.

  1. You lost. You failed.
  2. It’s because of the choice you made, the bad action you took, or the good action you didn’t take.
  3. We believe that you are able. That you are capable of more. And that when you do make the right choice, you’re awesome.
    1. So…kid…do YOU believe that?

We believe that kids need to grapple with the feeling of failure, while being guided by caring adults. But we also believe that they need to know that they are believed in, supported, and liked.

So no, kids, you do not automatically become a winner. But, if we do our job right, “winning” is never out of your reach. It is always right there, waiting for you. All you have to do is CHOOSE it.


Blue and above: Victory by ABILITY (personal victory, but not just handed to them)

Once the student hits that seventh belt color (Blue), it is at that point that success is now a matter of ABILITY, and that ability is the result of previous choices.

White belt is not the time to prepare the kid for the harsh realities of the competitive world. But we can’t let the student get to Black Belt ever thinking that victory is automatic. In fact, saying that “victory is earned” is not even right. Victory is not a merit badge that you get by making good decisions anymore.
Nope. Now, Victory is fought for.

Sometimes, in an attempt to teach kids to always do their best, we end up accidentally teaching them this lie: If you do your best, if you put forth the effort, the universe OWES you what you want. Because if you work your hardest, then you deserve it. And deserving it is how you get it.

Nope. If a bad person attacks you, then you, as a hopefully good person, deserve to win. But “who deserves it” has NOTHING to do with the fight.

For the most part, if you apply for a job or to work for a company, the leader of that company is not thinking “who deserves this the most?” Rather, they are thinking “who will bring the most results to our company?”

So at the high belt ranks, “choosing the right action” is not enough. Oh, and “working as hard as you possibly can” doesn’t guarantee it, either. Sometimes, you have to work as hard as you possibly can for a long period of time. Victory will not come when you “earn” it. Victory will come when you TAKE it. That is, if you have the ability to take it. So I hope you’ve built up your abilities.

Choices lead to abilities and opportunities. If you slack off for 12 years of school, “doing your very very best” on your SAT’S won’t cut it.

And we have to teach children this at a young age, so how exactly do we do that without making them less? Without sending their self-esteem backwards?
(And no, I am not abrasively thinking “get over your self-esteem, snowflake.” Taking careful, considerate steps to keep self-esteem high is really important, if the child is going to be empowered to hit their goals.)


So how do I help kids with their self-esteem? Discipline? Confidence? Pride?

  1. By telling them, straight forward, about their victory or their failure, and then…
  2. Setting the goal of victory tomorrow, and showing them how it is within their reach.
    1. If they failed, the goal is victory tomorrow.
    2. If they succeeded, the goal is THE NEXT LEVEL tomorrow.

When our kids are empowered, when our kids are thinking more about what they will do to the world around them rather than what the world around them is going to do to them, THAT is when we’re going to see their confidence skyrocket.


No, every kid is not a winner.

Only the kids that choose to focus, follow directions quickly, and follow the leader.

Only the kids who prepare for the future by the decisions they make today.

So, here’s the question, kid. Are you going to win or not?


And high ranks…

……….are you willing to fight for it?


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