Are Your Social Media Friends Correct About the Necessity of Hard Black Belt Tests?

My test was harder than your test!

I have heard this statement many times, especially on social media. Most of the time I saw this claim, it was black belt tests that were being debated.

Years ago I thought this type of talk only involved men who tested for black belt. I chalked this bragging up to the “macho” gene that flows through many of our male bodies. Lately, I have heard women chime in. Why is the duration and complexity of a black belt test so important?

I can see value in the rigor of testing when the yudansha (one who has earned a black belt) was responsible for protecting the family and village. In today’s society that responsibility falls on the local police and the military. Defense in street attacks and robberies, although rare, usually depends on where you may live or travel or who you encounter, is a key component of martial arts training. Will the proficiency of that training be evident in a rigorous and long lasting back belt test? If so, should that be the primary purpose of a black belt test?

I have taken a few black belt tests, headed the board or been a member of the board on many tests, and talked to several senior dojo heads about black belt testing. There are almost as many opinions as there are styles of karate. Most of the instructors agree that there is a certain level of mental and physical toughness that they want their back belts to have. That toughness does not always translate into fighting ability.

That group of instructors also has the notion that the tester must show how badly they want to be in the “club.” They take “the many are called but few are chosen” point of view. If not kept in proper perspective, a school can end up with a contingent of black belts who are mentally and physically tough but are not versed well enough in the technical and historical aspects of their art to pass it on to future generations.

Some instructors whom I have met want the black belt test, if not all belt tests, to be a showcase of what the student has learned. It can be extremely difficult to demonstrate correct technique and kata after running several miles, doing hundreds of exercises, and countless kicks, blocks, and punches, etc. Instead, these tests focus more on knowledge and application of the art. This has merit, too, but if not checked could result in a dojo where the black belts make good teachers and instructors but could not “burst a grape in a food fight”!

So what is the answer? How do you find the right balance? I have come to this conclusion: there is no set answer. I work to bring the best out of all of our students, which means no two tests are alike. My tests are physically, mentally, and technically challenging, appropriate to the belt level, age, and potential of the student.

Hopefully, at the end of their tests, my students feel like their challenge…

  • was the exclamation point to a 5+ year journey that they are excited to continue…
  • helped them to develop the skills needed to defend themselves if necessary…
  • cultivated the knowledge and desire to pass on what they have learned to others…
  • while preserving the integrity and history of our style.

So… when social media friends say “my test was harder than yours”… or vice versa… who cares?

The Centerline… An Essential Concept that Improves your Karate Skill

What is “the centerline” and why is it important? Most martial artists are familiar with the term. We have heard our instructors say “protect your centerline” or “attack your opponent’s centerline.”

What are they talking about?

First, the centerline is the axis that runs down the middle of the body. Draw an imaginary line down the forehead, between the eyes, down the nose, through the middle of the chest, and continuing to the midline of the groin. This is the centerline.

Why is it important?

Many of the important targets you are trying to attack or defend are down the centerline of the body. These include the head, eyes, nose, throat, solar plexus,  and groin. A person’s balance is often along this centerline axis as well. In the chest, many of the organs are near the centerline, such as the heart.

Targeting the centerline gives you advantages over an opponent. Proper stances and blocks are essential the and also to generate significant force when punching.

New students start with stances that are always forward-facing, particularly their upper body. This makes it easier to learn proper alignment of their legs and feet. and the proper length of their stances. Also, instructors want to make it easier to learn how to punching along the center of their body.

As the student progresses in ability, their stances become more consistent, and stronger. It’s at that time that the importance of protecting one’s centerline and attacking the opponent’s centerline can be stressed.

Slight adjustments are made to upper body positioning, turning slightly left or right, to help shield the centerline from a direct attack. That slight turn helps protect vital organs when receiving punches, but it also helps create greater torque with the lower body to deliver strikes with greater force and speed.

The adjustment of the upper body position affects block effectiveness. It is important to practice all blocks to ensure that they are executed properly without creating unnecessary stress to the body or limiting the range of motion. Care should be taken to ensure that punches, kicks, and other strikes can still be delivered to the centerline of the opponent, even if they are turned slightly.

One’s centerline can also be protected with slight shuffling of the feet (side-to-side, backwards, etc.). The goal is to avoid direct contact to your centerline while still placing yourself in a position to deliver a counterattack to your opponent’s centerline. Considering that most fights are conducted at close range, it is extremely important that students learn to rotate their upper body, shuffle their feet, and block to avoid direct blows. Centerline blows can be serious, which is reason enough to protect against them.

Students must also learn to mount an offense while using these countermeasures. Unless there is a one-punch knockout, both opponents in a fight will get hit. As they say about playing cards, “to shuffle, you have to deal.” That is, you need to take control of the fighting situation. The goal is to minimize the impact your body receives while maximizing the impact you deliver to your opponent.

How do you do this?

Positioning yourself to protect your centerline also puts you in position to best attack theirs. As students progress in their ranks, this is one of the subtle areas of difference that can be seen in each level. The centerline is very important because it affects all aspects of their self defense skills.