Sunday, August 26, 2018

How To Prepare For Your Black Belt Test

For your black belt test we are going to explore a training syllabus to prepare you for the day of the test.

An outline based on the dozens and dozens of test I have participated in as a judge and the many that I have been responsible for giving myself.

I want to give you a sneak peek of what to expect so you can be a bit more relaxed and at ease.

Being RELAXED is the most important skill you can have, and the one you need on the day of your test. It is and will be natural to be nervous, but being nervous creates tension, and tension breaks down your movement and unbalances your mind.

Worry never worked in school when taking tests, and it certainly doesn’t work on the day of a physical movement exam.

This training outline will help you prepare and help you to relax now that you have the outline to be able to perform to the best of your martial ability.

In preparing for your test we are going to take the list of skills that you need to know- what you are going to demonstrate and perform and work on them from three levels:

ONE: Repetition

TWO: Flow

THREE: Relaxation

(Part three of this guide is going to focus on KEY points for your list of skills in more focus detail, but for now we are exploring the big picture scope of the test.)

The starting point of our test-training outline is going to be repetition. You are going to be called on to demonstrate the skills on your list, and they are going to have to be perfect- so how do we get to that perfection?

Repetition to build muscle memory and confidence doesn’t mean just going through the motions of each kata, waza, or skill you need to know.

Being able to break down each part of that skill, move by  move, bit by bit and perform each movement with correct balance, distance, and timing is what we are aiming for.

In preparing for your test at this point you have been studying the martial arts for a bit of time- perhaps a few years or more, so I feel it is safe to assume that we know how to break down a technique into its component parts.

The KEY is to be able to perform all those parts together and slowly.

Going as slow as possible is the important part of repetition drills.

For many of us, we equate “correct” with speed- the faster we perform something the more impressive it looks, the more power it has. But often when we go “fast” we not only make mistakes, but we fail to see those mistakes or how to correct them.

Practice your skills slowly so you can see and feel what is going wrong, what needs to be corrected, and what is working and moving correctly.

Finding those last minute mistakes before your test and having time to correct them is what we are aiming for.

Practice your techniques a few dozen times each training session, slowly, in an almost yoga speed like manner.

The second and next practice point is going to be developing what is called nagare in the Japanese martial arts, which means flow or fluidity.

The ability to chain one technique after another without pause, loss of balance, or noticing a break is important.

Part of your test might involve going from one set of techniques to another, or demonstrating multiple techniques in a row on the same training partner, or perhaps even an element of sparring.

Lots of stuff in quick succession.

Nagare is generated though correct footwork- by being in the right place at the right moment with your training partner so you can effortlessly flow to the next technique.

If your footwork is off, when it comes time for the next technique you might be far away, or not facing the correct direction, causing you to take an extra step to catch up- breaking the flow and smoothness of what you are looking to demonstrate and perform.

In the weeks leading up to your test review all the footwork drills in your martial arts.

Pay attention to the direction and alignment of your feet and where they are facing with regard to the technique.

Work to develop nagare, which will power the perfection of your techniques and skills that you have been working on and building through repetition.

The final part in our training syllabus is developing relaxation.

Relaxation is the capstone to good technique and nagare/flow.

If you are relaxed your body will be working to make what it has learned and performed better, while on the opposite side if there is tension it will be slower, less crisp, and not as smooth moving.

So just how do we move in a relaxed manner?

Naturally you should be stretching and warming up before each practice session, but when looking to cultivate relaxation in your movement pay extra time and attention to stretching out all the major parts of your body.

When you are limber and in a relaxed state, pick one of the skills you are going to need to demonstrate and perform it at a moderate pace for fifty or so repetitions.

After the last set, stand ready, and pause.

Take a moment to mentally review your body and make note of any places you feel tight, sore, or are a bit off in your body.

These are tension points that are not correct in your movement- either because you have done them incorrectly, returning to the first point of our syllabus, or based on the mechanics of your body you are a bit tight in that area of your body- that area is going to need some more stretching, or relaxation to limber up.

See what points as your practice are not relaxed and work on those body areas, joints, and parts over the next couple of weeks leading up to your test.

Think of these three points: repetition, nagare, and relaxation as a formula to work through for each skill, waza, or demonstration expected for your test. Work through your list taking each point through all three elements of this syllabus to help position you in a good point for your test.

Now we are going to explore some focus points in the martial arts for striking, grappling, and postures (kamae) to help guide you to perfection.

We are going to explore these three skills sets from the perspective of movement on the martial arts- what makes them “work” from a body mechanical perspective vs. a single school, style, or discipline.

My plan is to give you another diagnostic tool to explore your movement with outside of your style so you can examine how you are moving and improve it for your upcoming test.

As you practice any techniques that fall into these categories use these training points to help refine your movement: Are you doing or not doing the following.

ONE: Striking

Footwork naturally powers any striking technique, stepping through the target, putting your body behind it, using the hips to generate force, but what about your feet?

As you move to strike are they always completely on the ground as they move?

After you finish your punch or strike are both feet completely flat on the ground- or often with your lead foot are you shifting your weight forward to the balls of your feet and lifting your heel off the ground.

If you are doing this, you are shifting your center of gravity, weight, and balance a bit forward beyond your movement. This will cause you to move less smoothly as you have to follow by shifting back to not lose your balance, and it will make transitioning to the next strike or technique a bit harder.

When kicking it is extra important to keep your base foot flat on the ground and NOT lift your foot up on your toes taking your heel off the ground. This creates massive imbalance when you are already on one leg vs. two legs.

Finally, pay attention to the direction that your feet are facing as you strike, or move to strike.

Are they facing and moving in the same direction as the rest of your body and your leg/arm in the strike?

If not, you are losing some transference of power- part of your generated power is moving in the direction of your foot and the other part of your power in the direction of your body. You want them both aligned for maximum fluidity and delivery of power.

That is what turns a hit into a strike.

TWO: Grappling

Grappling techniques be they throws, takedown, or immobilizations are about unbalancing your training partner while remaining in perfect balance yourself.

Bluntly put if your spine remains straight as you execute a grappling move and your feet are under your hips you will be in balance, while if your training partner’s spine is bent and their feet are not under the hips they can easily be thrown or taken.

Get them unbalanced ahead of time with footwork or movement, while you are in balance, and then perform the technique.

Likewise your hips control the center of gravity in a technique so if you want to make it easier to perform a grappling waza/move make sure your hips are always lower or below your training partner’s hips.

THREE: Postures

Martial arts postures known as kamae, stances, or ready positions have two aspects of movement in the martial arts.

They allow you to protect the weak points (kyusho) on your body that a training partner can attack, while at the same time making sure that if your training partner does attack, they will be forced to expose weakness in their own movement in order to attack you.

These martial arts postures also allow you to use the best and most powerful footwork to power your techniques.

Spend time drilling your postures as a foundation using the syllabus in part two.

If any element of your black belt test involves sparring or randori against a training partner, make sure our postures are PERFECT.

Before you even apply a technique to them they will be in a weak spot with their body in terms of balance and timing if your postures and movement make it hard for them- making your own technique that much easier to perform.


As we close out on the training guide here, I want to wish you the best on your upcoming black belt test and offer one last piece of advice to help you on the day of the test.

The very fact that you are able to take the test, that your teacher has recommended you for promotion or signed you up to take it, means that you DO have the tools, martial tech, and talent to make it happen and pass.

It will be a stressful event, it has to be, and it will be one of the hardest and most personally challenging events in your life.

But it is only a single moment in time, and a few steps on the path of your martial journey.

Work through the guide here, review your own lessons, and look to the senior students and other black belts in your school or training group for advice.

I will be with you in martial spirit on the day.

See you on the mat.

Each week we aim to post training highlights from recent classes as a way of sharing the expressions of budo, while giving those interested in pursuing training insight into some of the movements and philosophies explored in each class.