Countdown to Exam Day

A week from Saturday, on December 13, 2014, my friend David and I are scheduled to test for shodan (first black belt, or “beginning rank”). Tonight is the final (yikes, that word, final…) run-through.

On the one hand, it’s just a test. Afterward I will show up and train just the same as before. But it’s also Kind of a Big Deal. I’ve been training for a bit over five years, and for the past year working diligently with David and our sempai (senior students) to refine and polish our techniques. I’m sure I have improved, but it’s the kind of improvement where you finally catch one thing, and see two others you need to work on. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and incompetent.

As with any big deadline in life – a trip, graduation, marriage – there are a lot of little things to coordinate as it approaches.

I paid my exam fee months ago, just so I wouldn’t have to have it on my mind, but still have my association fee to take care of. Shodan is the rank at which the international association starts to care that you exist, so there’s a registration fee for that. Up to this point I’ve only been an anonymous student at my dojo, as far as the outside world is concerned.

I actually bought two hakama – those black flowing skirt-like pants-chaps things – several years ago, at 4th kyu. I knew I would get here eventually, and my favorite gi supplier was going out of business, so I snapped them up. I finally took them out of the package and tried them on a couple of weeks ago. One fits (the other needs to be tailored), so I have one I can wear afterward. Something else I can check off my to-do list. Whew.

My current gi (training uniforms) are falling apart, so back in July I tried to have a new one made locally. The tailor is still working on it. So… Not counting on that to be done on time, or done right. I ordered a new one online. It needs some simple work to make it right, so at least I should have a decent gi to wear on exam day.  

I’ve been very careful to stay healthy and sound. Interesting… When it matters (and doesn’t it always matter?), there’s a lot we can do to fend off whatever is going around, and to avoid injury. I started noticing this right from the beginning of my training – that as a test or seminar approached I could be a lot more assertive about protecting myself from everything from random coughing people to stupid risks like working around Clementine, our donkey, in flip-flops. The thought “oh, it’ll be OK this once” goes right out the window when the consequences of a bad cold, a pulled muscle, or broken toe are so high.

During our previous run-through we discovered I was not breathing freely. I was holding my breath and getting winded. A lot of that was tension – both from being under pressure, and from other things going on in life. But also I actually was having trouble breathing! I noticed as I tried to focus on breathing more freely that I really couldn’t. Breathing through my nose was like breathing though one of those little plastic stirring straws. And when doing techniques I tend to keep my mouth closed, so I really wasn’t breathing enough at all. It was off to the doctor about that, where I learned I have a deviated septum partially blocking airflow on the left, and a nasal polyp clogging up the right side. Aha! So I’ve been using a nasal spray to try to reduce that problem, and it’s been helping. Then on Tuesday I realized I was set to run out of my nasal spray just a few days before the test, so I just took care of getting a new bottle.

Now that exam day is just over a week away I’m down to the fiddly stuff. I want to clean out my car. I feel unsettled, unworthy, and ungrounded when my car is a mess. I’ve been meaning to clean it out for months. Gotta get that done. And as any big date approaches I refuse to try new restaurants or take other seemingly minor risks. A case of food poisoning a few days before an exam would not be cool at all.

On the mat I’m finalizing some things I need to have memorized – which techniques I’ll be demonstrating for certain parts of the test – and ironing out the details of anything that feels a bit iffy. But the biggest thing is settling down and trusting that I’ll do my best.

“Find your ground,” one sempai says. “If anything goes wrong, just relax and continue – don’t let it take your focus,” says another. Connect, and stay connected. Don’t rush – be earlier. Take center, and don’t give it back. Be clear and ruthless – not tentative or cautious. Use your hips. Use the ground. Move into the space. Be the space. Relax and breathe. You know how to do this.