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?

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