I was 14 years old, fidgeting nervously in seiza. Sitting at the edges of the mat were maybe forty people, all staring at me. Directly in front of me were not only my instructor, but his instructor, the head of our organization, as well. My parents and brother sat in chairs off the mat. Having trained all day at the seminar before my first belt test, I was already exhausted. I stood up at the direction of the testing board. My new gi was too big: especially after a day of sweating in it, the pants covered not just my legs but my feet entirely. I was supremely uncomfortable, then suddenly I was hit by a wave of overwhelming calm: Okay, I thought. I can do this.
What followed was a forty minute test that started with a demonstration of basic aikido techniques and ended with eight minutes of randori in which my training partners were instructed simply to push on my chest: I would turn, put hands on them, and throw them. It was not a demonstration of martial skill. It was a demonstration of mental grit. The only way to fail at the end is to quit. I’m told that my mother took it worse than I did: the sight of a group of grown men trying to push her exhausted son down meant she had to be held in place by my dad and brother. At last, at the direction of the testing board, my original uke tackled me. It was over. Just by weathering the storm, I had passed.
So let’s talk about testing, and what they mean both to competitive arts and noncompetitive arts. By extension we’ll have to touch some on the concept of rank within martial arts, though I have more thoughts about that planned for a future article.
When we talk about ranks in martial arts, mostly we’re talking about either the kyu/dan system or some variation therein, in which a practitioner starts with “beginner” ranks and, after reaching some level of proficiency, begins to climb through “advanced” ranks (typically denoted these days by a black belt). This system (like so many things that survive in modern martial arts) was adopted by Jigoro Kano from the game of Go, and was intended as a handicap system of sorts:
At this point it’s important to break up martial arts into competitive and noncompetitive arts because what rank means, and therefore what rank testing means, will change.
For competitive martial arts (Judo, BJJ, etc) rank is a means of handicapping one practitioner’s skill against another. If I’m a white belt and you’re a blue belt, there is a reasonable expectation that there is an average standard of proficiency. If you are unable to reach that expectation of proficiency, then you don’t deserve the rank, and “social promotions” do little but drag the average curve of what rank means in that gym down.
For noncompetitive martial arts, or for arts whose curriculum is much wider than what is seen in their competitions, tests should be used to put some physical and psychological pressure on the person testing. As an outlier example: Katori Shinto Ryu has no tests at all, and only two ranks. However, my instructor likes for us to do public demonstrations primarily so he can see how we react under pressure: how people’s movements and muscle memory changes when they’re under the stress of a public performance.
What testing should not be, however, is a cudgel by which the instructor (or the organization) can inhibit growth or play politics. This is primarily seen at higher ranks, and with good reason: at a certain point, physical skill plateaus. Although someone training for twenty years may have a better understanding of the techniques, how to teach them, and their nuances, from a purely technical standpoint they may not be better (and, in fact, may possibly be worse) than someone who has trained for ten. I have no issues with giving feedback based on tests: indeed, that feedback from “expert witnesses” is one of the best parts of a belt examination. However, failing someone arbitrarily, without specific reasons why they failed to meet standards, generally has less to do with the person testing and more with the testing board exercising some kind of control over that person. It becomes part of the weaponization of rank that destroys so many martial arts organizations. Like with competitive arts, “social promotions” do nothing but create a false sense of entitlement and drag the expectations of proficiency further down. In a noncompetitive art, this can be devastating as there are fewer quality control metrics by which they can be raised or exceeded.
The way testing was explained to me by my Aikido instructor was that when you were called up, what you were doing wasn’t a test: you tested by going to class and showing your improvement. When you were ready, you were recommended to test. At that point, you were demonstrating what you had learned under increasing amounts of pressure. The only way you could fail at that point was by quitting (lack of heart) or injuring an uke (lack of control). The real pass/fail portion was a month before when it was decided by the yudansha who would be up that time (we tested twice a year, max). In over a decade of Aikido training, I tested five times to get to nidan. Every time was an asskicker, and every time I knew that so long as I finished, I would be successful.
We train martial arts to test ourselves, and the real tests happen every day at the gym: the individual victories and defeats, and the successes and setbacks are what, on a long enough timeline, allow us to advance. Testing, if it’s really necessary at all, should be a snapshot of that long-term advancement. It should show that the student can perform the movements he or she has been taught and do so under duress. It should give the student a chance to slay proverbial dragons. I walked out of each of my Aikido tests physically exhausted, mental beaten down, and spiritually exhilarated which, at the end of the day, is all I can ask for in my martial arts training.