This last weekend we had a black belt test, and as a new Sensei I was on the panel judging the candidates. They did great. The test got me thinking about how we prepare for a test.
Test preparation begins with the first day of class as a white belt. Day one in class—making the decision to show up is probably the hardest day of class. We all have so many unknowns and you may not know how to fit in. Day 2—coming back to class is an equally hard day as you need to decide if you have enough determination to see the process through. Will you finish what you began? That is the question you begin to answer showing up for the second time.
In school, every class that you attend, assignment you complete, and contribution that you make helps prepare you for any questions that may appear on a test. At the dojo, each class is adding to your base of knowledge in a variety of subjects (kicking, punching…) and you are able to measure yourself against a standard that is set up at the dojo. Attending class regularly helps build up the muscles, stamina, quickness and speed necessary to make it from white to black belt.
Each belt level leading to black belt has a series of kicks, strikes, katas, weapons or other techniques that the student is required to demonstrate. There were times that we were and other times that we were not ready for our next belt test. Sometimes we did not put in the practice or the hard work required for the next level. Vince Lombardi said the “Dictionary is the only place that success comes before work. Hard work is the price we must pay for success. I think you can accomplish anything if you’re willing to pay the price.” So, whether in karate or on the gridiron it appears that you need to work hard (practice) and then you can accomplish your goals.
I was always thinking about if I was or was not ready for the next belt test. What skills did I need to learn and were they being taught in the class I was in or could I ask a fellow student after class to show me a move or a technique or sometimes even a whole kata. Belt progressions and getting ready for belt tests rely on our own personal motivations and goals. Will we put in the work it takes to reach that next level? It would be great to condense all required knowledge down to a simple formula or practice one day out of seven and have all the skills and stamina needed. Each person is different and we are all ready at different times.
Here is my simple diagram on determining if I am ready for the next test.
If my answer was I was not yet ready for the test, I went to as many classes as I could and asked others for assistance, especially the Senseis. It was sometimes easy and at other times hard to identify what areas of assistance I was looking to develop or improve. Sometimes my class work or a private lesson pointed out areas that I needed to practice. When I practiced, received coaching and had the skills, I would pass the test. In business we talk about performing at the next level and then moving to that next level. It is often the same in karate.
When preparing for our black belt test, we thought we were ready because we had come to class and worked some of the time outside of class. We asked our Sensei to let us come to the black belt pre-test. We quickly discovered we were not ready.
The pre-test is a great option at our dojo, and our black belt pre-test was a humbling experience for us. It was there we recognized how much work (practice) and coaching we needed prior to the actual black belt test. About six months later we were asked to take the test as we had put in the hard work and developed our skills. An interesting change occurred in that six month time period. We did spend significantly more time training than we had prior to the pre-test failure. We applied the failure of the pre-test to get help in areas where we were weak. This training in class, private lessons and practice sharpened what we thought were good skills into black belt skills. Even after we passed we realized we were not as good as we could be and continue to work on improving our skills.
It is easy to know that you are ready for a test when Sensei says “hey, you are ready and should take the test.”
Of course, we had already learned beginning with the white belt test that you are ready for the test when you keep practicing correctly that new skill.
A popular myth is that 10,000 hours of practice will make anyone an expert. We first need to think about the kind of practice. If you practice self-defense move #1 for 10,000 hours, you might not be any better at it if you practice it imperfectly. If you are at the dojo or have a private lesson and receive feedback on self-defense move #1 you will, over time, become an expert. This is when you begin to know that you are ready for the test. You have received feedback that you can demonstrate the skill or technique successfully more than once from an acknowledged expert.
The reason Sensei will say you are ready for the test is that your Sensei sees the results of the hard work and determination you put into practicing skills both in the dojo and at home. When your kata looks good and you know your self-defense it is easy for you and your Sensei to know that it is time to take the test.
I will leave you with one final quote from Vince Lombardi: “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.” These words can be applied to belt tests and all others in life. Gathering the will to practice properly and obtain feedback on your skills will make it obvious to you and your Sensei that you are ready for the next test.
See you in class soon. Please ask me or any of the other Senseis your questions to help you prepare for that next test!