This article was submitted as part of a requirement for 3rd Dan test. At the Oakland dojo, students testing for shodan and above are required to write an essay on an Aikido-related subject. These are some good notes for anyone testing at any level..
"Test like you train, and train like you test" Words of wisdom that I once heard from a teacher, appreciated, and didn’t really follow. For a long time I figured it was a nice way to encourage consistency, but not something that should be taken literally. After all, there are so many different kinds of training, from fast and sloppy to slow and deliberate, with all sorts of wild variations in between. Tests are by the book, serious, with only the most specific and correct techniques allowed for display. Everyone knows that tests are special. Or are they?
The truth is that by putting tests on a pedestal like this we are adding unnecessary pressure on ourselves every time we go up for promotion. It’s understandable- Aikido is not a competitive sport, but sometimes we all crave the rush of the Big Game. A dan test can feel like the World Series, and a public demo can be our Superbowl. During these occasions, we want to display the best technique that we can perform, but there are several ways in which the testing atmosphere is different from normal class. There is the pressure of being ‘on stage’ with everyone watching, the mental stress of recalling a variety of techniques from memory, and the physical strain of continuous movement. How can we rise to the occasion during these biggest moments? The mindset of “Test like you train, and train like you test,” is our most valuable tool.
Setting Test Goals To make your training relevant to testing, you must set goals for each test, and then work towards them every day. Make them specific- not just something like “do good Aikido” or “pass the next exam.” Familiarize yourself with the specific test requirements, then consider what you would like to improve on from your last test.
For beginners, memorizing the vocabulary is a priority, and as you work your way up, teachers will provide specific advice about the expectations for your level. You can also add more personal goals- perhaps you would like to have a bolder kiai, or more balance, or set a better pace. If you’re not sure what to work on, it is very helpful to review the notes that the teachers gave you after your last test. Video of previous tests can also be very revealing, both to find flaws in your practice and confirm the things you are doing right. Once you have particular goals, keep them in mind during regular practice. Even if the class is not about something relevant to your next test, consider how it applies to the context of your goals and your current level.
Physical Preparation Kyuu tests often come in bunches, and during test season you can expect a lot of attention to specific requirements during class. However, keiko is primarily focused on the technical dos and don’ts, and you can’t presume that you will become test-ready just by showing up. How can you test like you train when the pace of a test is so different? There are actually two components to test pacing: speed and stamina. To train for correct speed, you need to set a baseline for how fast you wish to demonstrate a technique. This should be slow enough to maintain clarity, but appropriately fluid for your rank. During keiko, mentally acknowledge when you are going faster or slower, and make sure you get some repetitions at baseline speed. To train for stamina, bear in mind that during a test you won’t be stopping between each move to discuss or catch your breath, so train this way as much as possible. It is also helpful to train outside of class with a focus on aerobics and developing endurance.
Mental Preparation One of the benefits of martial arts is the ability to respond to unexpected situations. When a crisis arises, we wish to act rather than be paralyzed by shock and fear, and testing is a good way to sharpen this response.
The anxiety of performing alone in front of your peers is enough to get your heart pounding, and there are many things that can happen during a test to throw off your focus. In order to demonstrate your best technique, it is important to enter a test with the proper mental attitude. “Train like you test” means taking every regular class seriously, and developing a sense that every action you take and every keiko is important, not just another day on the mat.
By fostering a spirit of readiness, you won’t have to change any part of your attitude when test time comes around. The more you can make a test feel like normal training, the more consistent your performance will be. During class, imagine that everyone is watching you all the time, even if nobody is. Regard even the simplest of exercises as a challenge of skill and an opportunity to learn. Keep good posture whether seated or standing, bow to your partner with sincerity and intention, and don’t allow your mind to wander.
The danger of Tilt
In all sports and competitive events, participants run the risk of allowing their emotional state to negatively influence their decision-making process. When this affects performance, the competitor becomes “on tilt.” This is a wonderfully descriptive term for Aikido - not only can you lose mental focus, you can literally lose your balance as well!
A common scenario is that a performer will make one mistake and become frustrated, then overcompensate on the next attempt, which spirals into more mistakes and more frustration. If you don’t have a plan to refocus and return to a centered state, tilt can compound your mistakes and make the whole test much more difficult. To make matters worse, it can be very hard to identify tilt in yourself during the stress of a big event. The most common issue during tests and demonstrations is that a performer reacts to the anxiety of the event by becoming ‘too tight’- characterized by fast, choppy movements, stiff shoulders and hips, and a lack of connection with uke. Sometimes, in an effort to relax, a tester will instead become ‘too loose’- arms hanging limply, taking long pauses or shuffling around between techniques. Both of these attitudes are forms of tilt that can create mistakes, which in turn can lead to distracting negative thoughts. “I’m screwing this up… I must look so bad right now… I can’t do this…I just want it to be over.” If this gets really bad, a tester will draw a complete blank, or just do something random while ignoring the instructor. The very worst outcome is that carelessness will lead to injury.
Performance distractions Diligent training and preparation are the only things that you can use to increase your chances of a successful performance, whether you are trying to win a baseball game, deliver a dance recital, or pass an Aikido test. During the event itself, the greatest distraction you may face is thinking about the outcome of the day. Can you win the game? Finish the ballet? Pass the test? How great it will be if you emerge victorious! How sad and how shameful if you fail. The truth is that focusing on the outcome of your test is totally worthless to the action itself, and just an opening for mental tilt. No matter how hard you try or how badly you want to succeed, nothing in the world is certain or completely under control. Unexpected problems arise all the time. Sudden injuries can disrupt the performance, and even a small accident can throw off your flow. There are wardrobe malfunctions, illnesses, and venue disasters that are impossible to foresee. Sometimes your uke will make their own mistakes, or refuse to cooperate as expected. Sometimes everything will be going great until Sensei asks for a technique that you haven’t practiced, or haven’t even heard of!
Overcoming Tilt Testing is much easier if you can avoid the trap of becoming “results oriented.” Despite your best efforts, the results of your performance will be out of your control, and therefore no effort should be wasted in worrying about them. Put one hundred percent of your attention and energy into the movement that you are currently executing. Do not think about the end of the test, do not worry about the next technique, and do not dwell on the one you just finished, whether you were satisfied or not. This is why “test like you train” becomes such an important motto: if you have done the technique in class hundreds or thousands of times, then simply let yourself do it. The fact that the stakes feel higher, the setting is different and everyone is watching, makes no difference whatsoever. Of course, this is easier said than done, and we are all only human. Mistakes WILL happen, and you will have an emotional response to them. It’s important to have a plan to get back on track when things start to go awry. The first step in handling emotions is to acknowledge and experience them rather than clash with or deny what you are feeling. Anger, frustration and anxiety are accompanied by specific physical sensations, and often they will pass if you simply take a moment to observe them. Breathing is an incredibly valuable tool for refocusing and staying centered. Distracting emotions can also be managed by replacing negative thought patterns with positive ones. This can be a very intentional process. Just as we seek to remove the opportunity for uke to strike us or reverse our techniques, so must we be wary of allowing openings in our mental attitude. Here are some examples of negative thoughts that can be changed into positives:
It may seem cheesy or insincere, but thoughts and even facial expressions have a great effect on your emotional state and external attitude. This is why it is so important to have fun with your training, and not let it become a chore or just a daily workout to get through. Let the joy of Aikido shine through on test day! Smile, kiai with enthusiasm, and you will find yourself enjoying the moment in spite of all difficulties.
Do we need to take tests to learn Aikido? Definitely not. Some people love the attention and adrenaline of taking a test, while others would prefer a more organic promotion process without all the fuss. For the dojo leadership, it is a useful metric for the progress of each pupil, but rank is by no means directly correlated to ability.
The true tests of your training most often occur outside the dojo, in times and places that you would least expect, where nobody cares about the color of your belt. Whether it’s a matter of actual self-defense or simply responding to a stressful situation, the true value of dedication and training like you test will reveal itself when you need it most.