Lessons Learned from Testing


Bernie Gourley

ShoDan Atlanta Gi Yu Dojo


During the 6th Annual Gi Yu Dōjō Seminar, I took the kyu level tests and the shodan test back to back. Below are some of my thoughts on preparing for and taking the test.

Don’t neglect simple things

My initial approach to test preparation—given the volume of material involved--was to focus heavily on the techniques that were the most challenging. However, as we began doing a test material review at the dōjō, I found that many of my most serious flaws were on the simple techniques that I had been neglecting. These mistakes weren’t because the techniques in question were too difficult, but rather because I had lost track of important details through my neglect of them. I had wrongly concluded that I knew these techniques because they were relatively simple to perform, and because I had had a high success rate with them in training. Concluding that the worst way to fail--by far--was to flub a technique that I was fully capable of performing because I was inattentive, I changed my approach.




The power of one

I decided that I needed to go over everything, preferably daily. However, given the large amount of material (75 techniques and kamae) and other pressing demands of daily life, I could only do each once per side per day. So for the last couple weeks before the test I would do each test element once per side each day. At first it didn’t seem like doing each test item once a day could be enough. I had previously been drilling a few techniques many times per side on any given day. However, I began to see this approach’s merit. I had just one opportunity each day to do the technique so as to pass my own personal test (which I hoped to make as rigorous as any to which others would subject me.)   

I remember a story that Hatsumi-Sōke told. It may be in one of his books, or he may have told it at a Tai Kai (most of my books and notebooks are in storage at the moment, otherwise I’d try to look the origin up.) The story was about a master photographer in Japan. The photographer was hired to make a portrait of a wealthy individual. A portrait from this photographer cost thousands of dollars. The photographer came in, set up his equipment meticulously, instructed the subject as to how to adjust his position, viewed the subject through the lens for a time, took and released a slow breath, and snapped a single frame. He then packed up his gear and began to leave. The photographed individual was both incredulous and irate. The subject couldn’t believe that the photographer wouldn’t take many shots in case something went wrong, and was annoyed that he might have to either take more time out of his busy schedule for a second appointment or have to settle for an imperfect print. The master photographer had no such concerns. He took meticulous care of his equipment and devoted all his faculties—mind and body—to the instant that he pressed the shutter release.

My point is that one may be better off going through each element of the test once a day from the time one decides to test rather than occasionally doing each thirty times. However, this is only true if that once per day that one does it, one does it like that photographer—i.e. coming to the task prepared and putting all of one’s self into it. This isn’t to say that doing massive numbers of repetitions is a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s an excellent thing. However, if one ends up just going through motions to get through it, one may not get the best results. One may rush to get done, and not pay due diligence to the finer points of the technique.

In randori, it’s sometimes harder to give than to receive

After passing the shodan test, I heard several black belts comment on the challenge of being on the other side--that is to say being the attacker during the randori portion of testing rather than the receiver of attacks. One individual went as far as to say he would much rather be on the receiving side than the giving side. That statement may sound dubious for someone who hasn’t experienced both. How could anyone say he’d rather face an onslaught of punches, kicks, weapon strikes, and throws rather than giving them? After the surreal experience of going from recipient of those attacks to attacker with only one day in between, I don’t disagree with this sentiment.

Admittedly, being on the receiving end of the randori test is no picnic. It’s a challenge to keep from either being steamrolled or running away, panting in exhaustion. This is because one thinks that the safety constraints imposed upon one’s end (i.e. the inability to go on the attack) leaves one with no way to affect distancing. In other words, one may believe that one has no way to keep the opponent from overrunning one’s bubble. In free sparring, one’s ability to counter-attack makes the opponent cautious and can hold them at bay for a time. However, counter-attacks are not the only means by which to affect the distancing.

Kamae and angling are two means by which one can keep control of one’s bubble without fleeing in panic. Once one has conditioned behaviors such as sinking into a kamae, moving angularly, and jettisoning irrelevant and unproductive thoughts, one can actually find receiving randori fun and exhilarating—despite the limitations placed upon one. It actually becomes a great gift by which skilled people help you learn some powerful lessons. However, achieving the right state of mind takes learning some lessons that cannot be understood intellectually, but can only be earned by putting in the time and challenging oneself. If this all sounds trite and/or dubious, I will admit that a life of shots to the head has left me with little in the way of beauty or powerful brain cells about which to have anxiety. In other words, it becomes easier to manage one’s fear as there is less and less to lose.

My approach this time was to work on having kamae that was tank-like (“tank” as in an armored and armed military vehicle, NOT a large container for storing liquids or bulk solids.) Consider a tank. A tank isn’t a device that’s incapable of being hit by an enemy attack. It’s a machine that can sustain non-devastating attacks, deflect attacks that would be devastating if they were delivered straight on and at force by way of its shape, and which allows the crew to move around so as to be as difficult to get a bead on as possible. Nobody runs up on a tank pell-mell, even if they think that it probably doesn’t have any rounds in its guns (if you get my analogy.) This isn’t to say that an enemy won’t attack the tank aggressively, but they will do so knowing that they must at all times respect it or risk a stupid death, and that instilled caution in conjunction with one’s mobility may help one stay alive. If your kamae is a Vespa instead of a tank, keep working on figuring out how to be a tank. This isn’t about going aggressive, it’s about exuding confidence. I’m not saying this is the only approach. I’m sure there are many other approaches that I have not even begun to understand, but this is one to consider.

So, what’s so hard about being the attacker? One has to find the fine line of attacks suitable to the student’s testing level. That means one must be challenging enough to take the test-taker beyond his or her comfort level, but never abandoning safety. This fine line has to be discovered as one is moving at a rapid pace. While one should probably always err on the side of safety, one does a serious disservice to the test-taker by not pushing the envelope. Finding this middle ground is not without its own anxieties. At various times during the kyu grade tests I believe that I was probably too easy and at others too hard as I tried to muddle toward the right territory. I think few people out in the world would really understand how a person could feel bad about going too easy in attacking a test-taker. However, one takes on a serious obligation to help others to build themselves up, and nobody benefits from milk-toast attacks. As an attacker, the biggest failure is seriously injuring someone, but not pushing that person up against his limits is also a failure worthy of consideration.