The Fundamentals of Failing

kumite2Edward backhanded me in the face, making me step back. I was stunned but not because of the blow; rather it was because it was illegal. Hitting in the face during sparring was not allowed because the school was afraid of parents suing them (which didn’t make sense since tournaments allowed a good bashing in the face).

I looked at the coach but he didn’t see. He was too busy looking at the other fighters who were also sparring.

“You sonofabitch!” I said, smiling in surprise and anger. I felt a twinge of self-hate for looking to the coach as though I needed help, as though I was a rat.

See, Edward had a reputation. He was a brown belt. He could have been a black belt a long time ago but he didn’t want to take the tests and pay the fees. He was a notorious junkie, and often missed practice unless it was tournament season. But this quarter was tournament season, and Edward was there only so he wouldn’t get kicked out. Granted, the varsity team also tolerated this because of his talents. Edward was one of those kids with the lazy smirk and the sleepy-killer eyes. They said he was skilled and gifted. They said his dad used to beat him growing up and he was used to violence. They said he was unpredictable, vicious and no one wanted to fight him. But to me—crawling out from the sewers of the public school system in Manila to an all-boys Catholic school in a richy-rich suburbia—he was just another rich kid.

Edward smiled with a shrug, sinking back to his battle stance. Words were unnecessary. The rules had changed. It was clear that he planned on doing it again, and it was obvious that I wanted payback.

We both waited for the clap, standing online (within each other’s reach). From the looks in our faces, we both could tell neither one would be circling around or stepping back. No one was going to play defensive. Right now it was a game of quick draw—a high-speed, full-contact, rock-paper-scissors where one move will cancel the other.

Will he throw from above or below? Keep your hands up. Should I go for a straight right to the face or the sternum? No, he would expect that. Should I throw a roundhouse to the neck or the temple? No, that would be too slow and too dangerous. 


We hurled at each other—Edward going for a front kick and so was I. His heel buried in my left hip; mine buried in his crotch.

Fuck you!


Edward fell back, squinting and grabbing his balls.

“You alright?” The coach took notice and came over.

Edward smiled with one eye, still bent over and looking as though he was suffering from food poisoning. He nodded and waved the coach away. The coach told me to be careful and walked off. Edward gave me the thumbs up and we instantly became friends.

After sparring, we sat around in a circle for a little empowerment speech. It was the last week of hard practice and in two weeks it was the tournament. The coach went around, person to person, describing each competitor’s strengths.

“So and so is really fast.” AMEN! “So and so is really strong.” AMEN! “So and so is really skilled.” AMEN! However when it came to me there was a pause. “Oh, uh, Roun,” the coach scratched his head. “What can I say about you?”

Everybody, including myself, laughed. We had been training together for months now and everyone knew my situation. I was “the new guy” and the only white belt competing. I wasn’t even supposed to be there since white belts weren’t allowed to (legally) compete. In reality, I was being disguised as an orange belt, the lowest level required to enter a competition. I was there simply because they needed an extra body, and because I was stupid enough to beg my coach to let me compete.

A few months back, I walked the earth as a fat bastard. I joined the karate team because I didn’t want to participate in CAT (Cadet Army Training, which was ROTC for high school kids). Also I wasn’t good at any other type of sports—I suck at team sports, I swim like I was drowning, and I hated balls (except my own of course). Little did I know, however, that joining the karate team was like signing up for a trip into a meat grinder. On my first day of training, I spent two hours running laps on the oval like it was a biblical phenomenon. Running with my eyes scrunched up at the sun, it was as though God was plucking a rib from my sides. There was no pretty girl waiting to be my girlfriend at the end however. Just my coach, yelling: “This is just warm up, you fuckers!”

For weeks I floundered, heaved, stumbled, slipped and failed. And everybody in the team knew the score: I was neither strong, fast, nor skilled.

“So what can we say about Roun?” the coach asked the team for help.

“Well,” someone said, raising his hand. “He’s got guts.” And when I turned to look, everybody was nodding their heads in unison.

He’s got guts.

Even if it was a consolation prize, that made my day. The good thing about combat sports (and athletics in general) is that it is one of life’s most honest accountant. One can only bullshit their way for so long, but eventually any hidden flaws or fraud will be audited publicly.

People sometimes say that they wish they didn’t have to go through the tough times, not realizing the fact that their failures are what made them capable of achieving things they didn’t know they could achieve. Without the experience of lies, let downs, disappointments and criticism, people are nothing more than empty shells of themselves.

Today’s uproar society negates the experience of failing. And without the experience of failing, one is deprived of the all important I-ain’t-gonna-take-this-shit-no-more moment. Too much protection and intervention teaches the next generation to be what? Well we don’t know yet. But it certainly won’t be like the greats of the past. Like the pioneers. Like the ones who inspire us today because amidst adversity, amidst seemingly insurmountable odds and oppression, they got to where they are by not being handed anything they did not earn victoriously. Just like Michael Jordan. Just like Steve Jobs. Just like Francis Ford Coppola. And shit, even Oprah. So the question then should be: If their failures got them success, what would happen if they didn’t fail enough?

Life experiences are life lessons—good or bad. And that’s why we ponder and debate the best approach. But sometimes we forget that failing is an essential part of learning and achieving. And just like it’s silly to prepare for sunshine when you should be preparing for the storm; or it’s futile to train in comfort when you should be training for hardship; it’s useless to learn to avoid failure when you should be learning from failure instead.

As the old saying goes: If you never failed then you never tried. 

So keep trying and keep failing. Get as many I-ain’t-gonna-take-this-shit-no-more moments as much as you can and learn from them.

Trust me, it’s important. And if nothing else, stories about bombing is always good for writing.

JK Rowling



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