To Be Tested
Testing for rank is an important part of aikido training, but discussions about testing often produce more questions than answers…and even more opinions. Likewise, as my understanding of aikido evolves I can’t honestly say I have all the answers, but yes…I do have opinions.
For those who may not be familiar, testing in my aikido organization (the United States Aikido Federation) consists of six kyu ranks below the dan, or black belt grades. Kyu testing begins at 6th kyu, and progresses up to 1st kyu; dan grades begin with the 1st degree or shodan, and continues from there. Test requirements are set by the Technical Committee of the USAF and include a minimum number of training days between tests, the techniques to be demonstrated, and sometimes a requirement to attend special seminars. Once the student has achieved the prerequisite training days and seminars, they will be asked by their teacher to prepare for the next test, and on a scheduled test day they will demonstrate the required techniques for the teacher to evaluate.
To begin, let’s go back to my opening statement: “Testing for rank is an important part of aikido training.” Is it really? I think most teachers and senior students of aikido would tell you that it most certainly is, particularly the kyu ranks. At the same time, there are also those…mostly more junior students, in my experience…who insist that it is not, and that they have no interest in testing for rank. Often this is due to apprehension…even fear…regarding the testing process, or conflating the desire to test with the desire for rank and an unhealthy ego.
The importance of testing in aikido has nothing to do with the rank itself, but in how it is achieved. When a student prepares properly for a test, they will increase the frequency, duration, and focus of their training, in order to deliver the best possible performance on test day. They will study the required test techniques intensely, usually for several weeks, under the watchful eye of teachers and senior students before one of them will sign off on the test application which indicates that the student is sufficiently prepared to test. This process almost always leads to significant improvement on the part of the student, while those who abstain from testing tend to stagnate in their training. Regardless of how sincerely we may train on a day-to-day basis, it is not the same as going through the testing process.
And it is a process. This is the time when teachers and seniors who are assisting the student in their preparation observe for progress. Not perfection…but progress. I personally find this to be a critical component of the test, and when I am working with a junior on test preparation, it is one of the major things I am watching. When corrected on a technique, are they making the correction? If they are not capable of making the correction, are they at least trying to do so? Or is the correction completely over their head?
I also believe that another key aspect of the test train-up is simply the willingness to do the work. By that, I mean the willingness to step up training and actually spend some extra time and effort to prepare. This is where some depart from my line of thinking. Some would tell you that as long as the person can perform the required techniques to a certain standard on the day of the test, it does not matter how they got there. I respectfully disagree. To be blunt, I think if you reduce aikido (or any other martial art) down to nothing more than physical performance of technique, then it isn’t much of an art at all.
What if we could really do that? What if all the information required to perform aikido technique could simply be uploaded into your brain, and then…assuming your body was physically capable…you could then demonstrate aikido perfectly? You don’t even need to go to a dojo. Just purchase and download the files from Amazon Dojo, plug yourself in, and…upload complete…you’re an aikido master! Really?
I say no. I do not believe that aikido is that shallow, and I’d say that unless you want your understanding of aikido to be shallow as well, you cannot excessively abbreviate the process…the experience…of training. This includes testing. If you are sufficiently skilled physically and technically to proceed through the ranks without the challenge of serious test preparation, you may earn rank, but will have learned little.
It is for this very reason that I personally am not impressed by someone whose test day demonstration is technically excellent, although they have invested little meaningful effort in test preparation. Other than physical technique, what have they actually learned? What was their experience? Instead, I would much rather see a student push themselves and their understanding of aikido hard through an intense train-up, even if their test day performance was not exactly textbook. If they put in the work and learned something…experienced something…they have internalized much more of the essence of martial arts training than the student who expends less effort in preparation.
Testing and the work done in preparation…especially the work done in preparation…is an irreplaceable step along the path. You can’t skip steps and be on the path. To pass the test, you have to be tested.