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Reflections on Dan Grade Examinations

I was reflecting recently on the experience of taking black belt examinations that I have taken over the decades on my journey of study of Shotokan Karate Do. It is a part of the human condition that any exam is a challenge and should be treated as a hurdle to be overcome, or as an achievement to be gained. Interestingly, I have always said when teaching over the years, that whatever academic or professional achievement that I have been fortunate to achieve, all this faded when I consider what gaining a Dan grade in Karate meant to me.

Let me tell you why I hold this point of view. Passing exams in the world of academia is a team process, you the student have to do the work, make the effort and ultimately deliver. However, quite rightly there is a strong support network of teachers, friends, and hopefully family to help, guide, persuade and push you to that point where you succeed in achieving that grade, that A-level and indeed that degree. Hard fought for but, when achieved, a great feeling of accomplishment. Not unlike achieving a Dan grade; however, for me there is one core difference and this is it.

When you take a Dan grade there is you, other students, and your grading examiners. There is quite literally no place to hide. And this is not just a test of qualified Karate technique, of Kihon, Kata and Kumite, for this is not merely a test of your physical skill. It is much more than that, it is designed to test your mental strength, your personal resolve, your ability to go beyond your limits, and then dig deeper. An emotional test of your character and determination and you need to have equipped yourself correctly for it and if you have not, it can and will beat you.

I have failed a lot of Dan grades over the years and I understand that bitter sting of disappointment, frustration and anguish. Utterly understandable, but it does one of two things: you either give up, or you shrug it off, wipe the slate clean and determine to re-take it and pass it no matter what. Karate, for me, is about overcoming your own shortcomings and weaknesses to make you stronger and resolved to overcome failure and adversity. A black belt around your waist is a symbol that you did not quit, you showed strength of character to achieve your ambition. And this is the thing: this is a lesson in dealing with life - the good and the bad bits.

Apart from taking and failing and then eventually passing Dan grades, I was very fortunate to be part of the grading team under the leadership and great experience of Shihan Cyril Cummings, my Sensei of over 30 years. He was a master in the art of preparing people to take Dan grades. He made it hard, he pushed you to the end of your physical limits... and then some more. He would also push your ambition, as the exam got closer, the pace and velocity of training got harder, but he would also test your character. He would be highly critical and sometimes you would feel as if he was deliberately winding you up, this was part of the test. You needed to be tough enough to suck it up and deal with it. He knew exactly what he was doing. He used to say: "You will thank me one day. If you ever get attacked, you need to be strong enough to fight not just physically but mentally." And to be fair, he was spot on.

Very often at the end of grading exams pass or fail, a lot of people cannot control their emotions. Tears are often part of the process and in my opinion there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Men, women and children, if you want something enough, it is happy tears of relief and pride, and when you fail the same tears flow from that sense that failing something makes you feel. If you care enough, if you want something, then when you get it, let your emotions flow. They say that when you train long enough and hard enough, your black belt eventually reverts back to white as the black satin is eventually worn off as the years of sweat, effort, and endeavour take their toll. I find it quite fitting that this reverse process takes place, for while the belt goes from one colour to another, you are still learning and growing in your journey. And more importantly, it reminds us all that the journey is always about continuous learning. It never stops and neither should it. White goes to black then back to white.


Sensei Austin