Scheduled Group vs Individual Testing in the Martial Arts

When it comes to belt testing, there’s a couple of schools of thought from instructors. In some schools, it’s a special event, where you’re evaluated on your performance on the day and you earn your level based on how you do. In other schools the belt test is more of a formality. It’s a review session, and the instructor has been evaluating you every class, decided you’re ready to advance in the belt system. You then demonstrate the techniques with a more compliant partner, rather than performing them against resistant “attackers.”

In schools where tests are more formal, there’s generally two methods of arranging tests: a scheduled testing system that sets group test dates far in advance, and scheduling testing as needed.

In a semestered system, belt tests are administered in a group with a scheduled date. For example, test dates may be set every quarter of the year, and students then train towards those days.

Testing by need leads to instructors keeping an eye on students in class, and when a student looks to be ready (or has attended a certain number of classes), a test date is scheduled.

I’ve trained & taught extensively in both types of testing environments, and both present benefits and challenges for instructors to work with.


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The Power of Intention in Self-Defense

I was recently chatting with a Shorinji Kan friend of mine in Toronto who is preparing to test for brown belt in his style. He was saying that he felt that he was ready for the physical rigors of the test but was somewhat worried about the mental pressure and intensity he was anticipating from his ukes (attackers) during the test. I replied, “It’s all about intention.”

If your intention to defend yourself is stronger than your attacker’s intention to see his or her attack through, more than likely, you will prevail. My favourite analogy to explain this is that of the alley cat vs. the doberman.

A doberman is a big dog that could easily rip a cat to shreds in terms of a physical contest. But have you ever seen an alley cat fight? In comics or cartoons, an alley cat fighting is usually portrayed as a whirling mass with sharp claws sticking out violently. This is a pretty accurate depiction. An alley cat also hisses and squeals an awful high-pitched noise while it fights. So sure, the doberman could make short work of the cat, if it wanted to. But the doberman isn’t stupid. It realizes that if it did go in for the kill, it would take many scratches in the process. It could lose an eye or it could take one on the nose, damaging its sense of smell that it relies on for survival. Seeing the risk, the doberman shies away, because it simply isn’t worth it.

Another good analogy is the human vs. the wasp. Many people when encountering a wasp will uselessly flail their arms and run away to avoid a wasp. But why? Humans are massive compared to a wasp. Even if it did try to sting us, we could destroy it with one swift smack of our hand. As with the previous analogy, it simply isn’t worth being stung. So we choose to run away in a comical fashion.

So let’s apply this to our mentality when defending ourselves.

When I teach women’s self-defense classes, I tell the students, it’s not about being stronger than your attacker – that’s not likely to be the case. It’s about being an unappealing target. This starts before an attacker even makes a move. For example, I tell women that if they’re taking money out of an ATM and they feel like they’re being watched and sized up as a target, immediate hit cancel then yell and swear, maybe even kick something saying, “I TOLD HIM TO PUT MONEY IN OUR ACCOUNT! THAT &@#$* IDIOT!!!” This accomplishes 2 things at once. It communicates that the woman has no money to be stolen, plus it shows that she’s no pushover and might fight back or yell enough to bring attention to the situation if he makes a move on her. The woman has successfully made her potential intention stronger than that of her attacker’s.

But then if an assailant decides that the woman is worth attacking in a different kind of context (it certainly isn’t worth taking any risk just for money or material possessions) the woman has to become an alley cat. I teach women to yell loudly and aggressively, using words that communicate that she is in trouble, like “STOP!” or “NO! LET ME GO!”, while combining it with strikes to vulnerable targets.

This plays on the psychology of the attacker. Most attackers who physically prey on women are not looking for a challenge. They look for easy victims that reinforce the perception they are trying to create that they themselves are stronger and more powerful. They also don’t want to get caught. This naturally limits the risk he is willing to take and the defending force he is willing to face in the assault.

A woman can make further increase her intention by raising the stakes in her own mind. She can do this by thinking about the situation like she is not simply defending herself. She can imagine that the man will attack and rape her daughter, mother, sister, anyone she cares deeply about, when he is done with her. Alternatively, she could imagine that this man will take away her ability to do the one thing she loves most in life. If she is an athlete, he could paralyze her. If she is a writer or another kind of academic, he could cause her brain damage. By thinking in these terms, women can increase their intention to fight back to a degree they couldn’t normally summon up in their day-to-day lives. And when a woman fights back with that much intention, you better believe that the attacker would think twice.

Now to bring this into a grading context like my friend is anticipating.

Your ukes who will attack you during your grading will definitely be putting pressure on you as that is what they have been commanded to do to test your skills and intensity. When you’re facing intense circles or V’s or multiple attacker situations, make your intention stronger with a loud kiai. It may not psychologically affect your attackers in your particular situation because they’ll all be fairly experienced martial artists that are used to hearing kiais (though it does have a greater affect on students from the lower ranks). A kiai does, however, put more intention into your weakeners, the strikes you use to soften up your ukes, so you can take them down. When they feel a solid weakener, they’ll loosen up because they know if they don’t, they’ll get it twice as hard the next time. As a result, your intention to defend becomes stronger than theirs to attack you.

Good luck to all the Shorinji Kan-ers who are up for gradings this and next month!

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Memory Work for Belt Tests

I have a few students who are testing for yellow belt this weekend. As always, the students have to memorize certain aspects of the curriculum and this sometimes stresses them out. They worry about forgetting what to do on a test while under pressure. I recently found a useful article about how to memorize for different learning styles, the advice from which I’ll combine in this blog post with techniques I’ve used or recommended from my own experience.

There are 3 types of learners: auditory, visual, and tactile/ kinesthetic. I’ll break down my advice into these 3 categories.

For Auditory Learners
Look for patterns within the curriculum you’re studying. In our style, similar attacks are associated with a particular takedown or throw. Once you’ve broken down the associations, categorize them on a page, writing down descriptions of each in your own words. It’s important to write them in your own words as you’ll have a stronger connection with them if you do. When doing memory work, read the attack or technique out loud, then go through the motions of the defense, for real or just in your head, while talking yourself (out loud so you can hear it) through each motion. If you’re having trouble remembering, consult your notes.

For Visual Learners

Follow the same process of categorization described above. Once you have everything grouped together accordingly on paper, colour-code the information with highlighters or coloured pens. When doing memory work, read the attack or technique, noting its assigned colour, then visualize yourself going through the technique in your head. An even better option is to go through the motions in front of a mirror so you can see yourself doing it.

For Tactile/ Kinesthetic Learners

If you’re this type of learner, it’s not a bad idea to go through the same process of categorization as the auditory and visual learners, but ultimately, you’ll learn best by actually doing the techniques, practicing them over and over. If you’re this type of learner, make the most of open training times. Don’t spend too much time talking about the techniques as this takes away valuable practice time, which is necessary for you to ingrain things into your memory. If you want to practice at home without a partner, physically go through your techniques, imagining the partner is there.

Everyone has a different style of learning. Some people use a combination of 2 or more of the different styles. If you can identify which learning style you are, you’ll be able to help yourself learn faster. Or as an instructor, if you can identify the different learning styles of your students, you’ll be able to help them better on the mats when you’re working through something with them. Personally, when I demonstrate techniques, I try to use all 3 in combination so as to have the broadest reach. I show the technique while explaining it, but I try not to take too long doing so, so that that tactile/kinesthetic learners have as much time as possible to practice.

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How to Deal with Belt Test Jitters

I have a student who is testing for his purple belt test today. He has a tendency to get very nervous about belt tests, even though he is well-prepared (I wouldn’t let him or anyone test for a belt if they weren’t.) Here are my suggestions to students of what to do in the last 48 hours before a belt test.

1. Hydrate. Sometimes when people are nervous they forget to do some of the basic things they need for their body to be ready for the rigors of a belt test. Students should ensure they properly hydrate in the days leading up to a test. Here is a blog post I wrote about hydration for more info. This is especially important if it’s a senior belt test, which can last 2+ hours. Also, avoid overindulging in caffeinated and alcoholic drinks, which dehydrate the body.

2. Fuel your body. Eat healthily to give your body the fuel it needs to last you through your test. The night before, have a meal that’s high in carbohydrates, like pasta. The morning of your test (but not closer than 1.5 hours before your test), have a solid breakfast. If it’s a longer test, you may be testing right through your lunch, so you want to make it will last. That being said, don’t stuff yourself either as you don’t want to be bloated during your test.

3. Get a good night sleep. If you’re especially nervous, you might have a hard time with this one, but do your best to get a good 8-hour rest the night before a test.

4. Visualize. The day before a test, some people want get in some extra training. What I suggest, however, is to avoid training the day before or the day of a belt test. If you’re especially nervous, your focus will likely be off and you may find yourself forgetting things, even things you know well. This will have the opposite affect on your confidence and make you feel like you’re not ready even when you are. If you don’t know your stuff by the day before your test, you’re not going to make it right with cram training. If you’re going to do any training at all, do visualization training. Go through each technique and simply imagine yourself doing it. If you can visualize yourself doing something, you can usually do it in reality.

5. Distract your mind.
If you’re nervous the day before a test, treat yourself to a distraction that you enjoy to take your mind of it. Read a good book. Watch your favourite martial arts movies. Cook yourself a nice meal. Whatever you enjoy most. It’s hard to stay nervous when you’re having a good time.

6. Warm up properly. Sometimes people get so nervous they forget to warm up well for their test. Show up to your test at least 30 minutes before your start time and warm up. I like skipping best for solo warm-ups. Once you’re warm, take your joints through their range of motions to lubricate them and do some dynamic stretching for the muscles you’ll be using throughout your test. It would really suck if you got an injury during a test simply because you didn’t warm up properly and had to postpone it to a later date.

The moment your test begins, keep breathing and try to stay relaxed. You know your stuff (if you have a good instructor, you wouldn’t have been asked to test otherwise) just let it pour out of you.

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