The recent black belt testing at our “sister school,” Rohai Dojo, led to a conversation a few days later with an older black belt about two prevailing approaches to giving a test.

One kind of test — the kind we like to tell about from “the old days” 😉 — is the grueling ordeal that goes on and on, maybe even for days.
My test was one of these. There were three of us testing. We spent almost four non-stop hours on Friday evening doing board-breaking, basics, self-defense demonstrations, and sparring. It was exhausting. Then all day Saturday, more testing was interspersed with a seminar for all dojo members. That’s when we performed empty-hand kata and applications, got detailed critique on these, and worked on them further during the seminar. This extended to Sunday morning, with weapons kata and applications, followed by one more two-hour seminar after lunch. Grandmaster Ngo Dong saw us do pretty much everything we had ever practiced, and a few things we hadn’t (that, at least, is how it felt), before awarding two out of three of us the rank.

At the end of it, we were spent, sore, and injured (jammed fingers, broken toe, various bruises and contusions). In other words, we felt great! We’d survived an ordeal, we had shown what we could do, and in some cases shown we could adapt. We felt we’d earned that belt.

By contrast with the “grueling ordeal,” the other kind of test is…no, not “short and easy,” but intense, focused and efficient. It might take place in three to four hours of non-stop action. Candidates won’t show everything they ever prepared, but they will be asked to show enough so that an expert eye can evaluate the level of their training and preparation. If selected empty hand katas look strong, they won’t have to do every kata they know. If the self-defense demonstration shows a good variety of strong techniques, it might not be necessary to have separate examinations of throwing, knife defense and stick work. If weapons basics are strong, they need not go on and on with repetitions. On the other hand, if an area is weak and doesn’t show immediate potential for improvement, the expert eyes know they are looking at probation for that candidate, and it might not be necessary to drill home the point, or try to teach new material (or for that matter, material the candidate should already know). At the end of a 3-4 hour test, a well-prepared candidate might not have shown everything they know, but they will have demonstrated stamina, skill, and qualification for the rank. A poorly-prepared candidate will have shown what they need to improve before moving up.

I personally am ambivalent on the question of which approach is best. I enjoy looking back on my ordeal, but I also see the value of a precise, efficient procedure. And a 3-4 hour workout under the spotlight is no piece of cake. If my test had been completed on Friday night, with the pressure off for the 2-day seminar, I still would have felt I earned it.

The shorter test is in keeping with what I often tell the students at Redwood Dojo: The real test is every day in class. It’s your attendance, your hard work, the totality of your preparation. That should be your self-imposed ordeal, where fingers get jammed and limits pushed. Then the test day is your opportunity to shine. But when I say that, I’m usually speaking to the kyu ranks. Perhaps black belt is different.

What do you think? Which kind of test would you rather take, or give?
Take the poll!

And please give two answers: Say which kind of test you prefer, then tell your rank level.


One thought on “Poll: What kind of black belt test is best?

  1. Now that a few people have responded to the poll, I’ll say more about what I think it’s about. The conversation I had with that other black belt started out as a matter of wondering whether test candidates might feel “cheated” if they didn’t have to (get to) perform all or most of their prepared material, or if the test didn’t feel “hard enough” in some sense. Hypothetically, maybe they worked hard on some really great weapons applications, then had the let-down of not being asked to perform them. Or maybe they witnessed a grueling test, prepared for the same, then felt they got off easy. –This is not to say a candidate has a right to dictate the sort of test they get; not at all. They must be ready for whatever comes (or doesn’t come). But they will surely have feelings about it afterward.

    From the test-giver’s point of view, the question is partly about the best use of time. Is it necessary to see everything, in order to evaluate a candidate? Surely not. Is it worthwhile to drill away at someone if they aren’t doing well? Perhaps only if there’s reason to think they’ll improve on the spot; otherwise it’s punishment or humiliation (and some instructors might still go in for that). Should there be instruction during a test, or efforts to get candidates to learn new material (or material they failed to prepare)? I’ve seen it both ways. How important is it to push the candidates’ mental and physical stamina on the test itself? A black belt surely should be able to deal with stress, so it’s a legitimate part of testing. Opinions vary as to how far it should go. Should testers try to trip people up with complicated drills? It’s legitimate to want to know how a person will cope with new situations, but I’ve also seen tests where the tester devoted so much energy to creating clever tricks that it became less about the candidates than about the tester himself.
    So these are some of the questions behind the poll. Feel free to add your thoughts.

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