Training is More Important Than Testing

by David Gomez
Written the Summer of 1998, revised March 2006.

As of late, many students have shown a great interest in regard to testing for their next level. As an instructor, I have no greater joy than to see students advance. However, I want to take this opportunity to explain what I believe testing is, and is not.

What Testing Is
• an opportunity to demonstrate improvement in form
• an opportunity to evaluate where you stand among your peers, and most importantly
• an opportunity to challenge yourself against yourself

Many practitioner's of various martial arts believe using the colored belt system as a form of rank designation or reward is not a good thing. I must confess, to some degree, I agree. We live in an age where we are taught to perform for rewards and public recognition as a means to advancement and monetary gain. Whereas there is a measure of truth to all this, and as human beings there is an inherent need to be praised and encouraged, it has been my experience, as a martial artist and formally as a full time pastoral assistant in bereavement ministry, that rewards and public recognition are only part of the needs we have as we strive to have fulfilling lifes.

I've heard many seasoned instructors in our organization say that it is not unusual for many naturally gifted students to drop out long before reaching the peak of their ability. It seems that those that are training solely for the momentary reward, such as promotion to the next belt level, a 1st place trophy, or even perhaps the ever-coveted black belt, never receive the real reward of all their sweat and labor. This reward, an enrichment of character molded by the pursuit of excellence, is truly the reward that will serve you all your life.

Testing yourself against yourself will always have the greater value in the overall picture. What does it matter that your as good as the next guy if your not in pursuit of being as good as you can be. Ultimately, you must be true to yourself. Standards imposed by an instructor, organization, or even peers, should be viewed as markers for recognition within their constraints, not as the sole markers in the pursuit of personal excellence.

At last years summer camp (1998), I was present when Sensei Les Safar, 7th Dan - American JKA Karate Association, gave the results of several students who tested earlier that week. He made several comments in reference to the actual exam and several comments to those who desired to test in the future. His main point was just this; in your heart pursue excellence. He wrapped up his short discourse with a brief true story about himself that I would like to recant.

In the early 1970's, Sensei Les Safar was a student of Sensei T. Okazaki. He was also on the team that represented Okazaki's dojo in various competitions for a number of years. This team was coached by none other than Sensei Okazaki himself.

During his time as a team member, Les Safar, a 1st kyu brown belt at the time, had much success. He won individual sparring at many events and was part of many winning sparring teams. Whenever the matches pitted him against his own dojo mates in the final eliminations, inevitably, he'd always win (or at the very least place in the top three).

As the time approached for him to test for his black belt, he found himself testing along side of the same individuals he would fight and defeat whenever in competition. As he had always faired well against this particular group, he tested with confidence and vigor. He was, as always, highly spirited, faster, sharper, and technically proficient, especially when compared to many testing at his level. As test go, it was a good showing.

Some time the following week; Sensei Okazaki presented the results of the exam. He began with the lower grades and presented the higher ranks, the brown and black belt results, at the end. The results were revealed in alphabetical order. He knew that having a name like Safar would place him somewhere near the middle, or closer to the end, of the presentation.

As the names of individuals that were promoted were announced, many that graded for shodan were congratulated and were highly praised. With this, Les Safar was sure he too had passed. There was no reason to think otherwise. The same individuals he competed against, which he had defeated on numerous occasions, were promoted to black belt. It only stood to reason he too had been promoted.

As you probably have already deduced, his name was never called. The presentation of results continued the alphabetical progression right past the S's onto the Z's. Mr. Safar was sure it must have been an oversight in the paperwork at headquarters. He decided to keep his cool and talk to Sensei Okazaki just as soon as he could get him alone.

Well, Les Safar's discussion with Sensei Okazaki about the grading results did not last very long. No mistake had been made in the paperwork. Les Safar had not been recommended for promotion to black belt. The question now was, why?

Mr. Safar posed the question to Sensei Okazaki like this, "How is it that I can always defeat these guy's in competition, always get higher scores in kata (floor exercises) and yet they get promoted to black belt but I don't?" His answer, "Les, why do you want only to be as good as those you can defeat?" With that said, Sensei Okazaki walked away from him and the subject was never brought up again.

Clearly, when it comes to testing, there is a need to make a distinction between physical performance–form, peer comparison and competition, and self-evaluation–the personal pursuit of excellence.

What Testing Is Not
• an opportunity to show off or feel superior to your peers
• an opportunity to "get what you paid for",
• an opportunity, just because of organizational standards, to test just because you've logged the hours required to make you eligible

If your looking for the thrill of putting on the next belt, or lining up closer to the end of the right side of the line (higher ranked individuals line up to the right of lower ranks), your setting yourself up for defeat. As mentioned above of persons who drop out long before reaching the peak of their ability, you too will ultimately find yourself dropping out long before attaining any true measure of excellence. To feel superior or show off, in any endeavor, has no place in the character development of an individual, especially a karate student!

After all is said and done, even if you've made it to the head of the line, the top of the class, you will no longer have anything to reach for. Your self-imposed highest goal will have been attained. You will have worked yourself right up the line and out of the class. After just a handful of years of training, you will be at the end though you may think you made it to the top.

For those of you who want what you "paid for", believing that your paying for a three year program and, boom, your a black belt, I've got some bad news and I've got some good news. First the bad news . . . you "pay for" instruction, not a guaranteed black belt. A real black belt is much more than someone who has paid his monthly tuition for a few years.

I'm not one to take much stock in what Hollywood classifies as a black belt, but I'll never forget what Miagi told Daniel in the movie, The Karate Kid. When Miagi was asked, "What belt do you wear?” he answer (and I am paraphrasing just to save space), "K-mart special, $9.95." Personally I don't think the quality of karate technique in this movie was very good, but that's a different topic. But I do believe the role of Mr. Miagi as Sensei clearly understood what it really means to be a black belt. I fear many karate students today have the same misunderstanding Daniel had concerning the color of belts or karate ranking. Ultimately, the color of your belt doesn't really "validate" you; it's the individual that gives the belt validity.

Now the good news. You can be an accomplished martial artist, a "black belt." The way is simple. Train, train, and train some more. When you're done training today, do it again tomorrow.

Many eager students call or huddle around the sign-in clipboard (it's usually in my hands when this happens) and ask, "How many classes do I need before I can test?" In all honesty, there are times that I think to myself, "Just because you've logged the hours required to be eligible to test, doesn't mean you're ready to test."

Once a karate student gets past the beginning white belt stage (roughly 3 months for most people), there is a point where he can look back and see how much he's actually progressed. He went from knowing nothing to knowing something, but yet at the same time if he's honest with himself, the reality is that he really doesn't know much at all! From level to level if more of this type of honest hindsight self-evaluation occured on a regular basis, the concern with grading, competition, and minimum class hour requirements, would take a back seat to training solely for the sake of striving toward personal excellence, not only in karate training, but in everything they do, everyday.

Personal excellence in karate training is more than mastering technique. Dealing with pressure calmly, not allowing fear or anger to paralize you, is all a part of the process also. Doing the numerous repetitions in class, when you don't have an ounce of strength left, facing off boldly with a partner that has the look of death in his eyes, attending training sessions even when you're tired after a hard days work (or school), all this trains the will and spirit of an individual. Karate training for personal excellence strives towards rising above these all too human frailties, molding the very fabric of your character.

In reality, the ultimate test is the one I pray you never have to take – the dark parking lot test, on a cold winter night, when a predator attempts to mug and possibly abduct you. In an encounter such as this, kyu and dan ranking will mean very little when compared to your will and spirit to survive. Only the tenacity necessary to do whatever it takes to survive will have any value. Surely your karate training will come into play, as it should. But ultimately, getting past the encounter is going to tax you, or dare I say, test you, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Isn't it interesting that it's been said that karate developes body, mind, and spirit? And not spirit in a religious way, but in a way that the very fabric of who you are is characteristicly pressed into service to survive!

Striving for personal excellence should "test" you every day. However, the karate ranking or grading process should verify what is obvious because you've been training, no more, no less. Ultimately, training for personal excellence is more important than grading solely for the sake of ranking. In the end, you know what you know, regardless of what color belt you wear.


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