Tuesday 16 November 2010

The World Guide to Passing Your Black Belt Test

I have been overwhelmed by the response to my last post calling for advice and tips on how to prepare for a black belt grading. I received over 20 responses from a range of experienced martial artists from around the globe. I have used all your comments and advice to put together, ‘The World guide to passing your black belt test’. I hope I have done justice to all the contributors’ guidance.

“Dan grading should be a natural progression and part of the journey not the end destination. Shodan is the just the beginning .” (Steve Nelson).

Physical /technical preparation:

• TRAIN HARD! “In all of my black belt tests I have noticed one thing that helps more than anything in almost every style – cardio.” (Nicholas Guinn)
• The trick to black belt belt cardio is that you need to train three different metabolic processes:
1. Aerobic (long term) – walk, jog or run. Aim to get up 3-5 miles. Vary speed but don’t stop.
2. Anaerobic (short term) - e.g. sprints or shuttle runs
3. Explosive/instant - e.g., get a stable box around 24ins high. Jump on/off several times or step up/down with alternate legs. Pick up intensity. (Nicholas Guinn)
• Mix basic training with pushups, squats and ab exercises. Train at least 5-6 days/week (including 2 classes). (Mathieu)
• Work hard on the basics of your art….”but don’t forget to work hard on your stamina, my black belt grading was long and gruelling, if you cannot maintain your form because you are totally exhausted, it really spells against you.” (James)
• Practice the basics in front of the mirror when you are brushing your teeth, use visualisation whilst waiting at the bus stop or in line at the post office – doing them over and over is the key. (Felicia)
• Practice all of your testing material regularly, but allocate more practice time to the stuff that needs the most work. (Sandman)
• Video tape your performances of basics, self defense, kata etc. (John Vesia)
• Videoing yourself is painful but informative…you’ll be able to see a lot of your problem areas from the tape. (Bob Patterson)
• Stay away from things like caffeine and alcohol a month or so before the test. (John Vesia)
• Make sure you can demonstrate proficiency in all your techniques (punches, kicks, stances, blocks, katas). Show correct positioning, alignment and hip rotation. (Denman)
• Polish your weak points – this is critical, it is the poor techniques that will sell you short. (James)
• If you do board breaking: Get good board holders. Having experienced students will help a lot. If they move, it will be very hard to break. (Bob Blackburn)
• Practice kata facing in all directions and then do them with your eyes closed. Pay particular attention to the stances as that is what the sensei will look for. Do each form with intensity, even when practicing. (Matt Klein)
• Go to class early (or stay late) and ask a black belt to take you through a practice grading. Sensei will notice the initiative. (Matt Klein)
• Don’t test injured! It will severely impact on your performance. Better to wait. (Bob Patterson)

Mental/Spiritual preparation:

“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.” Vince Lombardi.

• Believe that you test every day – always perform your techniques as best as you’re able, each and every time. (Joseph Ansah)
• Martial arts are not just something you do for a few hours at a time, but something you are/become. Believe that you can and will make it through. Enjoy the journey, not just the end result. (Felicia)
• Believe in yourself as the test approaches. Visualize yourself performing flawlessly - see yourself moving and succeeding. (Journeyman)
• Spirit is really important. Yell your kiai each time you do a technique. (Matt Klein)
• Talk to yourself; tell yourself you are good enough. Try placing affirmations like ‘I am a black belt’ around the house and read them. Visualise yourself being handed your 1st dan by your sensei and everybody clapping and cheering. (Steve Hegarty)
• Tell yourself that you are there because your sensei has already tested you in the dojo. You would not be there except for that and the “FACT” that you have achieved black belt in your heart. The mental is the only obstacle, not theirs, not the participants, not family or friends but YOURS. Start with the type of self talk that is success. (Charles James)
• Try the Buddhist approach which is reflected in some of the combat teachings: No expectations. Also, remember Rudyard Kipling quote (also a Buddhist approach): “If you can treat success and failure as the same imposters, then you a man my son”. (John Coles)

Knowledge and Understanding:

• Make sure you know clearly what you are expected to do. Try to get feedback on your weaknesses (relative to the test). (Sandman)
• Find out what the order of events will be in the grading itself. Know your body and its limits and expect to be pushed past them. (Felicia)
• Know what standard is expected. Will the fighting be to see control and skill, or marathon style to test one’s mettle and endurance? (John Vesia)
• Ask questions! Things can vary from school to school, even in the same organisation. Find out what’s required – you don’t want surprises on the day! (John Vesia)
• Ask for a handout of the syllabus with all the techniques needed for grading. (Matt Klein)
• Once you know all the techniques have someone call them out one after the other. Now try to do it faster. Then do it in a random order. This helps prepare you for the stress of the test. (Matt Klein)
• Make sure your partner is happy with all the elements of the test.(Sarah Nelson)
• Try to practice with a partner outside of class. If not treat each technique as a mini kata and go through the steps until you are sick of them. (Bob Patterson)

The grading day:

• Get there early to warm up and stretch. This will help you get those kicks up and prevent injury. You do not want to pull a muscle on grading day. (Matt Klein)
• Perform your techniques with full power (Matt Klein)
• As it’s an assessment, on that particular day all sorts of things can happen, so concentration is a must. It’s a long day with many sections; however, you can only perform one section at a time so the best way to think about the task ahead is to take each section one at a time and then move on, putting that section behind you. This way you only have to concentrate on a smaller section of the grading and put everything into it. (Steve Nelson)
• You will make mistakes, it is human nature and no one is perfect. Do not let it get you down. Improve on the remainder of the test and you will still have a good shot. (Matt Klein)
• Don’t let other student’s throw you off with their mistakes. Keep a razor-sharp focus on you imaginary opponent, right in front of you. (Matt Klein)
• It is important for the testing candidate to know that they will make mistakes. The test is how the person deals with the mistake. (Michele)
• The material needs to be second nature to you before the test. Be confident in your knowledge of the technique, your ability to execute it on command and approach your test without anxiety. (Joseph Ansah)
• Keep your muscles warm and stretched throughout the test. If it’s not your turn focus your mind on the next task in hand. (Chris Robinson)
• Remember to take everything with you: yourself, your partner, gi and belt, sparring mitts, gum shield (and any other protective gear), slip on shoes, over gi top, drinks, food, confidence! (Sarah Nelson)

Here are three testimonials from shodan students:

Alicia: “I had a very hard test for my probationary black belt. I had to retake parts of it because I did not pass. Before that test, I spent a lot of sleepless nights thinking about what I was going to do and trying to imagine being successful. When the test day came and things didn't go the way I had imagined them, I started to do worse and worse. I think I psyched myself out. So, for my black belt test I tried a different approach:

“Denial. I practiced every day, but (especially that last week leading up to test day) once I was out of the gym, I did not think about the test anymore. It did not overtake all my waking thoughts. I trusted that if I practiced every day then I would be prepared, but really I tried not to think about the particulars very much at all. Since I got my black belt, I've noticed that when you come to class regularly and show your instructors your enthusiasm for the material, you are really passing your next test every day.”

Tayla: “I just received my black belt before I left for the army back in June. I have a black belt in Shotokan, which is traditional. It took me about six months to get ready for my test, and it was  harder than all of basic training, not to mention I was the only female who tested. However, my test was eight hours long and it was worth all the time and effort I put in. For anyone getting ready to get their black belt, prepare youself. As long as you give it your all, know your material which is required for the test and you give 110% the whole time, there is a slim chance you will fail. Believe and Succeed and anything is possible."

Katrin: “When I first started karate five years ago, I never thought that I would still be pursuing this sport now, never mind be calling myself a first dan. The main idea was to accompany my little boy and to get fit myself, but it became strangely addictive and I found myself becoming more competitive as I progressed through the gradings. However, I still did not feel confident that I would ever manage to fulfil the requirements of a black belt grading, so as the day approached, I regularly asked myself whether I was actually fit enough, whether I would remember the 15 sections, whether I would be good enough… What helped me enormously was attending sessions at least twice a week, turning up for every extra session, practising at home and with my grading partner regularly, making notes during lessons, watching kata videos and going through the grading in my mind every night just before going to sleep. So, when the day was finally there, yes I was nervous, but I felt that I had done my best to prepare.

“The grading itself was the most nerve racking and physically demanding test I have ever had to take. With the day starting at 10am and finishing at 5pm I not only had to keep my concentration going and but also ensure that my body was not giving up on me. My notes came in very handy to remind myself in the short breaks between sections and my husband Paul was a great help as a partner especially because he had been through the grading himself. Last but not least, having enough water and energy drinks as well as little snacks was an absolute necessity during the day.

"So, how does it feel to finally be able to wear this black belt? Well, I am certainly proud of myself! All my hard work and practice have paid off. But also I can now fully appreciate what it means to reach this level and how you can achieve a lot if you just believe in yourself. Well, of course, practice makes perfect!!!”

A big thank you to all the contributors to this article. Each name links back to their own blog/website (if they have one). Please visit their blogs - they have decades of martial arts experience between them and all write excellent posts about their martial arts experiences.

Good luck to anyone who is grading for a black belt in the near future!
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. said...

A great post Sue and wonderful that so many people were eager to share their experience. It's a long time off for me but I'm sure I'll be re-reading this when (when, not if!) I get to the point where I'm ready to test.


John Vesia said...

Very good Sue. Like I said, this was a great idea. I like how you broke things down categorically.

I put a link to this post in my sidebar under 'Black Belt Testing Tips.'

Victor Augusteo said...

This is an amazing post. I too planned to grade to black belt next week, even though that will have to be postponed.

Thank you for a very informative read.

Felicia said...

I'll be putting a permanent link to it on my site as well. Nicely done, Sue! Hats off to you :-)

Sue C said...

Marie, thank you. I can't really take the credit though - the credit belongs to the people who took the trouble to send me the advice - I'm merely the messenger!

John and Felicia, thanks for the link.

Victor, good luck with your black belt test (whenever it gets rescheduled).

Ninjutsu Techniques said...

Absolutely and totally agree with rule #1 being "train hard." This is actually true for most endeavors, not just martial arts. What's that quote, "genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." Or maybe that was an ad on TV. Still true though.

Sue C said...

N.T. That's definitely a quote, not a TV ad! It's a good quote too, though I can't remember who said it.

Benn said...

Wonderful share Sue! This would be helpful in students in taking their belt exams.

Benn said...

Wonderful share Sue! This would be helpful in students in taking their belt exams.

Sue C said...

Thanks Benn - I will put a permanent link to it in my side bar.

SenseiMattKlein said...

This turned out to be quite a list Sue. Great advice that I will add to my pool of knowledge. Glad to be able to contribute, and thanks for the links to my site.

Sue C said...

You're welcome Matt, thanks for contributing

Mathieu said...

Train hard!

Unknown said...

I have my Black Belt test today and it's 20 hours long! wish me luck!

Sue C said...

Hope it went well and you passed.

Unknown said...

I have a black belt grading at Christmas and I'm terrified I'm also training with the world championship tommorow with the world championship (Steve Powell) for 4 hours which Is 2 less than what my gradin is going to be. I'm only youn and Steve Powell is also picking out the England team from my class. How do I get myself to get into the mood of training when I can't even get into the mood of getting oh of bed?

Unknown said...

20 HOURS?! Hope you passed


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