Boy it sucks to lose in the first round…

Have you ever gone to a tournament, or seen your young students go to a tournament and you’ve lost in the first round? It can be particularly tough when it’s your very first event. Your parents got up early, you’d your bag and lunch packed from the night before, maybe you drove for a few hours to get there. You waited patiently for your event to start, watched the other competitors take the floor and then it’s your turn. Maybe you make a mistake, maybe your opponent was just too good, maybe it was a close run thing and a split decision. Whatever the reason, you’re now a spectator. 

These days can be pretty devastating to all of us but particularly to new or first time competitors. It’s hard to see a reward for all that effort, the commitment of time training and travelling and the money spent on the event itself when you’re not going home with the medal and the smile filled picture. The reality of course is that in every single event, almost everyone loses. 50% in the first round! That’s a tough place to start, and it doesn’t get much better from there if you’re a yellow belt under the age of 10 in a division of 32. Not even if you’re a 17 year old 1st Dan at the world cup in a division of over 100! One other thing to consider is that it often happens that the second or third best in a division meet the very best in an early round. Single elimination events find the best sure enough, but second and third places are often a matter of being in the right place in the drawsheet. 

What if there was another way?

Luckily, a Swiss gentleman by the name of Dr Julius Müller came up with a solution in 1895 and applied it to the game of Chess. He gave us what is now commonly referred to as the Swiss pairing system. So how would that work in ITF Taekwon-Do?

Let’s have a club pattern tournament for yellow and green belts as an example. 32 children, all yellow and green belts, are entered into a club event focusing on patterns. Each is randomly drawn an opponent in the first round, they have a match as normal and their win/loss is recorded as well as the score (5-0 / 3-1-1 etc). After the first round of matches all the winners are pooled, those that drew are pooled and those that lost are pooled. The pools are ranked according to the number of ‘flags’ they received in their first match. So there’s a table or list from 1st to last place based on the win/loss record and the number of flags scored. Number one plays number two, three plays four and so on all the way to 32. After that round there will be at most 8 unbeaten and 8 who have lost twice. The number of flags will have become a better separator and we can go on to round three. Following round three there are at most 4 undefeated competitors and at most 4 competitors who have lost all of their matches. In fact, it’s very likely due to the way the pairings have been done that there will be draws in later rounds. For a group of this size, you should have a well striated field after three rounds as per the example sheet below. 

There are several advantages to running a tournament this way. A very high percentage of entrants get at least 1 win over the duration which can really help to build confidence. Top performers are quickly paired together and removed from the pool of weaker competitors. There is a strong likelihood that the best 3/4 competitors rise to the top. Each participant has the same number of opportunities to perform and so learn and develop as athletes. More of their matches are against opponents with a similar skill level (especially critical in sparring). 

The disadvantage of course is that it will take longer to run. To use our previous example of a pattern division of 32 children, a standard single elimination pyramid would take just over an hour and a quarter to run to completion. 32 matches lasting 75 seconds with 30 seconds for changeover and a little time to assemble the division and award medals. With the same length of round a Swiss pairings system would take 20-25 mins longer. This adds up to a lot of time over the course of the day. 

 What might the reward be for an organisation that chose to run its events this way? 

  • More athletes with more opportunities to play the game
  • Far less athletes go home having lost all their matches
  • Can choose to reward all athletes with a win / unbeaten record / winning record
  • No need to have only one first place
  • Parents go home feeling their child got ‘full value’ for their money
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