Training is More Important Than Testing

By David Gomez

As of late, many students have shown a great concern 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 the depth of what 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.

There are many practitioners of various martial arts who believe that testing, using the colored belt system as a form of rank designation or reward, is not a good thing. I must confess that, 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, 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 for enduring life long fulfillment.

I have heard many seasoned instructors in our organization say that it is not unusual for many naturally skilled 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 your 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 peer competition, not as markers in the pursuit of excellence.

At last years summer camp, I was present when Sensei Les Safar, 7th Dan and former Technical Director for the 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 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 70’s, Sensei Les Safar was a student of one of the most famous ISKF/JKA instructors in the United States, 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 degree brown belt at the time, had much success. He won individual sparring and was part of winning sparring teams on many occasions. Whenever the matches pitted him against his own dojo mates in the final eliminations, inevitable, 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 fared well against this particular group, he tested with confidence and vigor. He was, as always, highly spirited, faster, sharper, and more technically proficient than anyone 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/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.

Everyone that had tested with him for black belt was called first. They all passed 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 wasn’t long into a discussion with Sensei Okazaki before he realized that no mistake had been made in the paperwork. He 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 guys 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 (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 payed 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 lesser 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 athletic endeavor, has no place in the character development of an athlete/karate student.

Once 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 “payed 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 payed 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 he was asked, “What belt do you wear?”, he answer (paraphrased), “K-mart special, $9.95.” Mr. Miagi understood what it really means to be a black belt. I fear many students have the same misunderstanding Daniel had. Ultimately, the color of your belt doesn’t really “validate” you, it’s the individual that gives the belt validity.

Now the good new. You can be an accomplished martial artist...a “black belt.” The way is simple. Train, train, and train some more. When your done, do it again.

Many eager students call or huddle around the sign-in clipboard (it’s usually in my hand 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 your ready to test.”

Beyond the beginning white belt stage (roughly 3 months for most people), there is a point which every student can look back and see how much they have actually progressed. From level to level, if more of this type of hindsight self-evaluation happened on a regular basis, the need to concern yourself with minimum class hour requirements would take a back seat to improving today.

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