Preparing for an Aikido Exam – The Week Before

2nd kyu test candidates bowing in with their ukes

Someone in an Aikido group on Facebook has an exam coming up on Saturday. Here’s the gist of his post:

“Next Saturday I will do my 1st kyu exam. I am a bit nervous. I feel confident about the techniques but it’s still a big thing for me. Some advice or nice words would be appreciated” 

I answered him briefly there, and it got me thinking about all the things I do in the week before a test. When you are preparing for an Aikido exam, in addition to polishing your techniques you can also be preparing your body, mind, and circumstances to help you do your best. Sometimes I’ve prepared well, and sometimes not. Here are a few things that have worked for me.

Take care of your body

Between now and Saturday take care of yourself. Drink plenty of water, eat well, and get extra sleep. Stay well and uninjured. Run away from sick people! Wash your hands a lot. This is not the week to start a new fitness program or go to the trampoline park for the first time. If your test will be in the morning, and you are not a morning person, start getting up earlier this week.

Stick with “safe” foods in the days leading up to exam day – things you know agree with you and leave you feeling energized. Don’t try a new broccoli casserole recipe for dinner, or visit that just-opened sushi restaurant the night before your test.

Get in a good mental space

In your training, focus on building your confidence.  Save exploring new variations or cool, weird techniques for after your test. Instead, become more comfortable and fluid with what you need to demonstrate. In class, practice in the same connected, flowing, expansive spirit you want to feel during your exam. Don’t fiddle with things.

Understand how your test will be conducted so you know what to expect and aren’t thrown off by surprises. If you have any questions, ask your teacher, mentor, or sempai (senior students).

Each day visualize doing the beginning of your test brilliantly, starting with knee-walking to the center of the mat calmly, shoulders back, head up, breathing freely. Do not entertain our habitual pattern of imagining all the ways one could screw up. See yourself doing your best. 

Whatever will come first on your test, have it down solid. You will be fired up and nervous, and nailing those initial moments will do wonders for your sense of ease throughout the rest of your exam. Begin on a strong, confident note, and let the rest come naturally.

Handle your circumstances

If your test includes an essay or other written component, complete it several days ahead of time so you aren’t left cramming at the last minute. Same with thank-you notes or gifts – have them done and ready to go.

Set yourself up to have a relaxed, early evening on Friday. Trim your nails a couple days ahead of time. Fuel up your car. Set out your clothes and a clean uniform the day before, so you’re not rushing to do laundry into the wee hours – or the morning of your test! 

Pay your exam fee early, too. Don’t add the last-minute chore of stopping at the ATM to your already-busy Saturday morning.

The morning of your test

On test day, get up earlier than you think you need to. Eat right away, so you’ll have time for your breakfast to settle. Arrive at the dojo early and warm up slowly, especially if it’s a chilly morning – still visualizing doing well. If there are any techniques you’re worried about, review them with a friend. If you need to demonstrate weapons, put them where you can get to them easily during your test. Remind yourself that you are well prepared, and relax.

And finally, some nice words

You are ready or your teacher wouldn’t have asked you to test. You are as prepared as you can be. You have done everything you can to support yourself in preparing for an Aikido exam. Now relax, breathe, flow, and demonstrate your best Aikido with gratitude for all the teachers, dojo-mates, and experiences that got you this far. You will do fine.  

All That Time! Planning the Path to Nidan.

Ahh, free time! I’ve known for days that I’d have a few hours on my own this evening. Michael was to be off at a pub playing traditional Irish music with his friends and wouldn’t be back until late. A whole, spacious evening to myself. Imagine what I could get done!

Here’s what’s been going on in my mind: That will be the perfect, uninterrupted block of time to catch up on work. And I can finally plant the basil, oregano, and sage that are waiting in their pots out front. I should refinish my new jo (wooden staff) so I can start using it at the dojo. I’ll pick up groceries after open mat, get my laundry going, and make a big salad. When it cools off maybe I’ll take a walk-jog around the neighborhood. And I have to deposit a check, pay a few bills, and get the dishwasher going. I could write for a while, practice guitar, or watch some Aikido videos.

If that sounds like enough to keep me busy for a week, you’re right. The me who writes to-do lists and manages my calendar is an ambitious optimist. Task triage is an everyday occurrence. And even with modest plans there are all kinds of little things that interfere. Shopping took longer than I imagined. It’s too hot for a walk, and it’s staying that way. Michael’s plans changed, too. He’ll be home hours earlier than usual.

In the end I’ve managed to buy groceries and make my salad. It looks like I may have a enough time to finish this post – if I hurry – and feed the cats. I’ll have to catch up on work during the week. Laundry can wait until morning.

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There is something about having a discrete amount of free time in my sites that lends itself to overcommitting. Or over-planning, I suppose. I imagine that left to my own devices for an entire day I will be able to finally clean out the garage, go for a hike, train with my friends, shop for groceries, make myself a healthy dinner, and get to bed at a reasonable hour. A whole week on my own? Maybe I could go for invigorating walks every morning, then spend a solid chunk of time writing before focusing for hours on client work. I could complete all those unfinished projects, declutter my life, write in my training journal, get in touch with old friends, and develop better life habits I’ll carry with me for years.

In the same way that one can spend gift or bonus money several times over, I find it all too easy to dream up multiple conflicting uses for a single block of time.

I forget to allow for the mundane details of life — hours spent updating software, the time it takes to shower, dress, unload the dishwasher, make coffee, and eat breakfast, the unplanned hour of effort required for cleaning up the from an ant invasion in the kitchen or unclogging the drain in the bathroom sink. Add an important long talk with a friend or an urgent trip to the store for cat food, and before I know it, my day or week is coming to a close. I may have only gotten a few of the things on my list done. If I’m lucky. Add to the mix one minor disaster – a computer issue, unexpected household maintenance chore, or a tight muscle or mild head cold, and things fall apart even more quickly.

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This isn’t a new pattern. In the late 1990s Michael and I went to Ireland for a vacation. Two whole weeks with nothing to get in our way! We figured we would drive for a few hours each morning, arriving in the next small town with plenty of time to settle into our B&B, enjoy the afternoon, and see the local sites. I would find a hack stable and go horseback riding, then we would have dinner together before Michael joined in playing music at the local pub.

That was the plan, anyway. The reality was that travel between each town was slow. We were late getting out after breakfast. The roads were small and winding, and there were things to see along the way. For the first couple of days we skidded into town after the shops had closed, just in time for a quick bite before hitting a pub for some tunes.

We quickly realized we were attempting too much. We cut out every other stop to allow a full day in each town. Even at that, our trip was rushed and hectic. During my probably once-in-a-lifetime visit to the best horseback riding country in the world, I only managed to arrange two hour-long hacks. On top of it all, we both got brutally ill with some kind of respiratory ailment the last few days, coughing so badly we feared we must have kept the whole house awake. So much for fitting everything into just two weeks.

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Now, 20 years later, here I am looking forward to my nidan exam – the test for second-degree black belt. It was originally scheduled for early December 2017, which seemed like time enough to prepare. I’ve known for a couple of months that I would be testing around the end of the year. I have been giving myself time to pause, looking inward, considering what I want to demonstrate, and what I want to get from this period of intensive training.

Then circumstances changed. The date was pushed out to late February 2018 – coincident with a big seminar. Almost three additional months to train. All that time! Eight months from this weekend. Eight long, glorious, spacious months, filled with potential. All the time in the world.

Just think of it! I’ll be able to really polish my empty-hand techniques. Kaeshi-waza (reversals) will feel natural and smooth.  I’ll spend weeks refining my weapons work, even the partner practices. I’ll demonstrate responses to some attacks we don’t do as often, just to spice things up. And meditation – of course I’ll be doing that regularly. I’ll even get the sleeves of my gi hemmed, and well before my test, too, not at the last minute.

Uh-oh. Where I have seen this before?

Maybe this is the real challenge. Maybe that’s a breakthrough this phase of my training holds for me. To envision a reasonable amount of work. Of course I’ll train diligently. Of course I’ll aspired to do my absolute best. But maybe I can devise a plan that allows for the intrusions of reality, one that supports me in calmly accomplishing exactly what I set out to do. That would be a real achievement.

8 Years In, and Still Loving Every Minute

Wow. Here we are again. Another year. Time seems to fly. I must be having fun.

I have been training consistently, as always. On the mat 6 days a week, most weeks, and participating in as many seminars as I can manage.

Teaching has been coming up more and more. I enjoy it, and always learn a lot. Teaching will keep you humble about your skills and knowledge, for sure! I am in the rotation for Saturday morning’s class. Sometimes I lead an evening class if a regular instructor can’t be there, too. Saturday is 90 minutes, so we can develop a theme or progression more fully. I start out with long, slow warm-ups. I don’t know about you, but my body is not ready to move first thing in the morning. We usually do some weapons work, too. Saturdays are especially interesting because the mix of students usually includes yudansha who are senior to me, some of whom come from different lineages, a mix of ages from children to seniors, and often a new student or two. A class that keeps them all engaged is challenging! Now I have a little girl regularly asking me to help her with her 31 jo kata. How cool is that?

Last month a dojo mate organized a trip across the border to train with friends there, and the Sensei asked me to teach next time we visit. I’m looking forward to that. Such a nice group of students! During my road trip to the “O Sensei Revisited” retreat two weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit another dojo (more on that later), where they handed the class off to me for the last 30 minutes. Acck! Note to self: Always have a few lesson plans in the back of your head. You never know when you’ll be asked to lead a class!

Teaching the children’s classes when Sensei is away now feels natural and comfortable. I even had one class recently where the kids were so into the training that they forgot to ask if we could play a game. Kids were smiling and laughing, and parents were taking videos. I rate the success of my kids classes starting out with “no injuries and no tears” as a baseline. Smiling, laughing, forgetting to ask to play a game, and parents taking videos is my highest success score so far.

It’s interesting feeling like a beginner with two left feet, always questioning what I know and refining my understanding, and at the same time standing in front of a class and owning what I say and show. There’s something yin-yang about that, I suppose. A couple of years ago I could claim newly-minted shodan status, and excuse myself for blundering a bit. Now I’m more comfortable leading, while at the same time being more curious than ever about discovering new details and depth in the art.

I (obviously) haven’t been writing as much as I’d like, or doing much fitness coaching either. In a stroke of random luck I fell into the perfect paying gig. It’s good work for a great organization, but it does keep me busy. Doing some thinking on prioritizing things to make room for writing and coaching again, as those things are really important to me, and are my longer-term career. But income is important, too. Alas.

Sensei is offering mindfulness training at the dojo, and I’ve been taking advantage of that. It’s a new exploration, and I’m just seeing where it leads. I have also been making time for some strength and mobility training, at least. That’s fun, and makes everything else go better, too.

Sensei let me know that I should expect to test for nidan (second-degree black belt) later this year. Right now I’m “living in the question” about that. Thinking about what that means, what I want to demonstrate, and how I hope to grow in the process of preparing – both in my technique as as a person. Meanwhile, we have a group of high-level exams coming up next month, so training has been getting more intense. Ukemi is a big area of development for me, and there will be plenty of opportunities to work on that!

Off now to meet a writing friend for a late lunch, then to the dojo for Sensei’s monthly-ish Exam Technique Workshop, and dinner with dojo friends who are visiting from out of town. Tomorrow is class in the morning (I’m not teaching that one), more training with dojo friends, and then assisting in two children’s classes run by a dojo-mate for kids from his church and other local churches. Sunday is working with a friend/fitness client, and then two hours of open mat.  And that’s pretty much how things go. Loving every minute.


PHOTO – Yudansha Books

This month’s posts are part of a series of 26 posts, Aikido from A to Z, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag

Since the A-to-Z Challenge takes Sundays off, here’s a little extra something about testing and rank, which we discussed yesterday.

In many Aikido schools, when you you reach the black belt level you become a yundansha.  In addition to getting your black belt, you will receive a small book similar to a passport. These are called “yudansha books,” or sometimes “passbooks.” Throughout the rest of your training you will record the seminars you have attended; the instructors will sign your book. Each time you test for higher black belt ranks, your instructor will send your book to Japan, where your new rank is officially recorded in the book and in your record at Aikikai World Headquarters.

Aikido yudansha - black belt - passbooks

Testing – Taking It to The Next Level

This is the twentieth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

T is for Testing.

Testing for rank is almost universally done in martial arts. There are many benefits to following that system. Most obvious is that you know where you stand – how you are doing – and that can be very reassuring. It’s a chance to get clear feedback. Being promoted to the next rank is valid reason to be proud of your accomplishment. You’re being acknowledged for your diligent training and hard work.

Another reason for rank is to know where others stand. Especially as a new student it’s useful to be able to seek out help from senior students, if you can figure out who they are. Rank is the instructor’s assurance that a person has met certain standards, both technically and in terms of participation in the dojo community.

Another huge benefit to testing is that it forces you to push yourself. Your friends and instructors can push you, too. If you’ve been feeling root-bound in a small pot, this is your chance to be transplanted into a larger one, with more room to grow. As you go up in rank, more will be expected of you, and you’ll find yourself rising to the challenge. As some friends shared on Facebook after our recent exams: “Have friends who force you to level up.”

You might feel ready – or not ready. Don’t be in a hurry to get rank. If your teacher hasn’t asked you to test, there’s probably a good reason. Keep training! If you think you are ready, and have been for a while, and are afraid your teacher may have simply overlooked you (unlikely), you could ask “Could you give me some guidance about what I should be working on?”

Finally, testing is a chance to run up against whatever is stopping you – and if it’s stopping you on the mat, it’s probably stopping you elsewhere in life, too. We each face our own obstacles – fear of being judged, fear of being inadequate, fear of screwing up. Maybe we’ve always told ourselves (or been told) we’re not physically up to something this taxing. Maybe have have an ongoing story about not having enough time. Where have these fears or stories stopped you in the past? This is your chance to stand up and face them.

What do tests look like?

In our dojo exams are about 15-50 minutes long, depending on the level. The format typically goes like this:

  • Demonstrate classic pinning techniques (ikkyo-yonkyo) from several attacks.
  • Demonstrate several techniques of your own choosing from a given list of attacks.
  • Demonstrate a set of weapons forms (jo and bokken suburi).
  • Demonstrate weapons take-aways (jo, bokken, and tanto dori).
  • Demonstrate freestyle Aikido (jiyuwaza) with one or more attackers.

If you’d like to see examples, here are videos of all of my exams, along with some brief commentary on each one.

What’s expected on an exam?

On the most fundamental level, you should be able to demonstrate technical proficiency appropriate to your level. That is to say a beginner’s best effort isn’t expected to look the same as what a high-ranking student would be striving for. Doing a technique clearly and correctly is preferred over rushing and getting sloppy. As Sensei said once to a friend who was preparing for their second black belt rank, nidan, “You don’t get bonus points for doing it faster.”

As important as technical proficiency is how to present yourself. Are you calm and grounded? Do you show proper etiquette. Do you execute the techniques with confidence and good posture? Are you staying present and connected with your partner throughout, not getting distracted by other things happening in the room, or rolling your eyes up in your head trying to think of how a technique goes? Do you lead your partner in the techniques (almost like dance, in that regard), drawing them in, entering into their movement as soon as they form the idea to move, or do you stand, frozen, until a strike almost hits you, and then react with a start?

Preparing for your test.

In some dojo exams are announced at the last moment. “Morgan, you’re testing today. Front and center.” Acck! I’m glad we don’t do that, but there are some good reasons for it. One could be that people don’t have time to get nervous and fret about it. But a more important one is that it encourages one to train every day as if the test might come at any moment – which is an idea very much in line with the kind of continuous attention we try to develop as martial artists.

In some schools, you can opt out of testing. I urge you not to. It’s too valuable an opportunity to pass up.

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“Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it.”
~ Andy Rooney

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I find that I and others get a lot of benefit from the process of preparing for an exam. In our dojo we are told at least a month ahead of time (sometimes several months) that we will be testing. We know what we will be expected to demonstrate, so we can focus on polishing those things. We use a system of mentoring, typically working with someone at least 2 ranks above us. This gives the text candidate access to lots of personal instruction and one-on-one practice, and also gives more senior people an opportunity to begin learning how to teach others, not to mention having to expand their own knowledge along the way.

During the period before our tests we typically train a bit more than usual, sometimes including open mat sessions and practice run-throughs with our mentor and others.

A rising tide lifts all boats.

When exams are coming up at the dojo – usually 3-4 times per year – nearly everyone gets involved on some level, and all grow from the experience. I and many of my dojo mates have observed that we have never felt so strongly the truth of the saying “It takes a village.”

There are, of course, the people who will be testing. They need to bring their practice up to the level of the next rank. This usually means getting a hundred questions answered about this or that detail of a technique, drilling them over and over until the body remembers how they go, and ironing out a thousand rough spots.

Their mentors have to up their game as well. It’s easy to think we have a pretty good grasp of things, and then someone asks if a technique is done this way, or that way, and we find we aren’t sure at all. So there’s a lot of development on the mentors’ part during this process.

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“Testing leads to failure, and failure leads to understanding.”
~ Burt Rutan

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Students of all ranks benefit throughout the intensive training leading up to exams, too. Beginners get exposed to more advanced techniques as they are covered in class. Everyone’s ukemi – skills in attacking and falling or rolling – gets pushed to higher limits during open mat and exam run-throughs, when things are done with more speed and power than we sometimes see in class.

The instructors – senior students who teach some of our classes – get asked to present some material that we might not cover often. Like the mentors, these students have a chance to deepen their understanding of the techniques during this time, too.

Even Sensei himself gets feedback on his teaching. He can see how everyone is developing during daily training, of course, including the instructors. And sometimes misunderstandings or uncertainties about techniques reveal themselves during the run-throughs, or on them exams.

Throughout the process everyone involved is challenged and grows in some way.

And circle comes ’round again

Just before our most recent exams (2 April, 2016) I watched Sensei go to the chalk board and write down the next exam date, 6 August, 2016. He listed below it the names of several people who will be testing.

One of them, a woman who had just mentored a candidate for that very day’s exam came over and asked me if I’d be her mentor for August.

As one group were feeling satisfied and relieved to have done their best, after the past months of focused work, a whole new batch of people were excited to be diving into the next months’ of intensive study and hard training. Roles change – the mentor now has a mentor. Some new folks step up to get more involved, and some back off for a while.

Such is the cyclical nature of testing – it circles around, like the seasons.

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”