My Black Belt Exam – Before, During, and After

John O'Gara and Sensei MatsuyamaIn the sections below, I try to capture some of the thoughts, experiences, and feelings that came with my black belt examination in Shotokan Karate at the Doshi-Kai Karate Dojo in Acton, Massachusetts, where I am a student of Master Nagao Matsuyama. I hope that in sharing my experiences, people who are presently students or who are interested in becoming students of karate (karate-ka) will read something that helps them continue with their study or will make them want to begin study of this noble and humble art.

John E. O’Gara, Dec 2005

Before the Exam
My Sensei let me know about 6 months before my exam that I would be allowed to test for my black belt (shodan). This was something I had been working towards for a very long time. I was happy the time was finally here, but anxious and nervous as well. I knew I had a lot of work to do to get ready such as refining my techniques in both basics (kihon) and forms (kata). I also knew I had to be even more ready for sparring (kumite). I understood kumite was where you demonstrated your ability to put together what you have been taught, to combine the mind and body, to show you really understand karate.

I then set out in the next six months to improve in the above areas as best as I could. I would have to say I didn’t do as much as I wanted. As I am sure many who may read this can understand, the demands of my job, maintaining a home, and meeting my responsibilities as a husband and father take a lot of time. It is hard to train with all of these other responsibilities which are obviously very important. Nonetheless, I pushed myself the best I could to work out early in the morning on my own a few extra days a week. This included stretching, karate work, and some light weight lifting. I would be over 40 years old when I tested, I knew I had to get at little stronger to hold up longer in sparring. On a busy day, I would at least try to get in some push ups and sit ups. On a really busy day, I would hit the pillow and at least try to envision myself doing kihon, kata, and kumite as I fell asleep. I would try to see myself making a clean front kick (I tend to tighten the shoulders and have bad hip position), to understand the commands given to me in Japanese, to spar with imaginary opponents in my mind, to see myself when I was exhausted yet still remember to keep my hands up, to go in and attack with whatever I had left, to be free of any concern for myself, to only be concerned with that exact moment.

During the Exam
I woke up early the day of the exam and headed in to my morning gym. Instead of my usual work out, I focused only on loosening up and having one more review of my kata. I purposefully tried to make it regular day at work, nothing out of the ordinary to eat or drink. An old high school coach always said to eat and do the things you do every day. That advice has worked for me, so I have stuck with it through the years. Nonetheless, like a random thought it would pop into my head throughout the day, “today I’m testing.”

Driving to the dojo that evening I tried to practice in my head once again what could happen. I was trying to get up for the exam, but trying to stay calm at the same time. Class started with warm ups as they were normally held. After that, we did some basic techniques for a short time. Class was then stopped, and all those testing were told to take a few minutes to get ready. I went through my kata one more time, but I really just wanted to get the test started.

The test started with basics (Kihon). Test order was from lowest to highest rank. I watched the other students testing, at this point trying to stay loose. When I was called up, I was directed in Japanese to do various basic techniques to demonstrate an ability to do them correctly. I was really trying to be technically correct to show that I had good technique. At the same time I was worried I was thinking too much, and that I would make a mental mistake. I threw various punch, block, and kick combinations, both linear and with shifting (Tai-sabaki). I made a kiai on every punch or kick and tried to put a lot of energy in each technique to show good spirit. I guess I was up for about 15 minutes, but when I was asked to sit down, I was tired and sweating pretty hard. I was glad to have this part of the test over.

The next part of the test was three attack sparring (Sanbon Kumite). The test order was the same, but this time I went up to serve as a partner for a brown belt. Again I tried to show good technique, with a strong kiai. I stayed up for a second round with a shodan.

When I was receiving I tried to stay still as long as I could while still having time to move back. I didn’t want to look like I was going early. The problem with this is I had some trouble keeping my distance (mai). I tried to balance the two as best as I could. Once again I was glad to have the chance to sit down with the end of this part of the exam. I was called up for forms (Kata) next. Two kata were mandatory, Gankaku and Jion. I thought I did the moves correctly for both, but truth be told I don’t remember each move distinctly. I reviewed the first move of the kata in my head before I actually started, from there my mind was pretty much on autopilot. I do recall once hesitating for a second, like I had too many moves in my head, and had trouble picking which one. Since I wasn’t asked to repeat either kata, I figured I didn’t make a wrong move. I was then given the chance to do a kata of my choice, and I went with Heian Yodan. This kata has always been a favorite of mine, and I had been practicing it in expectation for the test. I guess it has a nice blend of techniques which seem to make sense to me internally (I also think it looks good in a test or tournament situation where people are watching every move). As a final kata, I did a weapons kata called “Shushi-no-Kon-Sho” with a six foot staff (bo). Doshi Kai black belts are required to demonstrate a basic skill in bo technique. Feedback on kata from the senior students (sempai) in the club later confirmed my feelings. They told me Heian Yodan showed good fighting spirit, they could see me behave like there truly was an opponent. On the other hand, Gankaku and Jion, although technically correct lacked this spirit. They were lifeless. This is an important area for me to work on both in kata and kihon in the future.

I then got a chance to sit down for a few minutes while the lower ranks tested each other in sparring (kumite). In not too long a time, I was up in my first match against a brown belt. I knew I had to win or draw most of my matches, especially against lower ranks. I also knew I couldn’t lay back and take only a defensive posture. I had to attack or go in, both physically and mentally. For the first three or four rounds, I felt for the most part successful. The mind and the body were there, working together and holding up. I was ending the rounds by being first to score two points as opposed to running to a draw after 2-3 minutes. Wining a round was a double-edged sword. I completed the round more quickly, at least buying 15 seconds to rest. The down-side was that a fresh pair of legs was facing me after that 15 second pause. In the middle rounds, the senior black belts starting coming out. There experience and ability combined with the beginnings of fatigue on my part, started making things tough. I couldn’t get out of the rounds quickly by scoring, and they scored against me with oftentimes painful accuracy and efficiency. As the number or rounds increased to around 7 or so (I really am not sure), each time with a rested opponent facing me, I physically and perhaps more importantly mentally started to struggle. In my mind I tried to hit the target and simultaneously command my body to execute, but my body started to fall behind in execution. This decline accelerated with each new and rested opponent, as I became less effective, they were able to execute even more punishing techniques. By the last round, after about 20-25 minutes of almost continuous fighting, I tried to keep my hands up to defend and still strike. I must admit I suppose I looked like a punch drunk fighter by then, having trouble breathing. Through 16 years of martial arts training at schools in Philadelphia, Gainesville FL, and in Boston with Doshi-Kai, I had started to pass out only twice before. This night became my third. I guess Sensei could see this, and he allowed me to sit down. My black belt exam was over.

I had some time to regain my breathing as the back belts and Sensei discussed amongst themselves the exam. All the testing students were then called to line up. Each was given their results along with a discussion of what they needed to improve upon. When I was finally called up, I was given my grades for each section of the test. Although a number of deficiencies would need to be addressed, I would be granted the rank of shodan from Sensei Matsuyama!

After the Exam
Following the end of class, most of us went out to a nearby Mexican restaurant to eat and have a drink. It felt good to sit, relax, and not have the exam hanging over my head. We talked about all kinds of things, from martial arts to the Red Sox to who wanted the last nacho! Everyone was congratulatory towards me, they were as happy for me passing my black belt exam as I was.

In the past two months since the exam, I have had a fair amount of physical healing to do from the dings and bumps that inevitably occur with a spirited exam– from joint and muscle stiffness to bruises. I have also had to heal mentally from the emotional drain of the exam. As this healing process of mind and body has taken place, I think I am actually starting the grasp the meaning of the saying that a black belt is really just the beginning of your study. I guess that by getting shodan, maybe I have freed my mind from worrying about “getting the belt,” and now am ready to see or comprehend new elements of karate. I hope this is true. I am at least certain that I will need to train my best to find out. Wish me luck as I pursue my way. I wish you luck pursuing yours!

John O'Gara and Sensei Matsuyama