The Parking Lot Test – An Old School Approach to Karate Belt Tests

The following is a true story.  Only the names have been changed to protect the victims.  Just kidding…about the second part anyway.  This story you are about to read is completely true, however. I hope it inspires some to go back to the old school way of doing karate belt tests.

It was a hot, humid, late August weekend in a suburb of Detroit, MI.  As with many parts of the Midwest during the summer, thunderstorms are very common and often intense.  So intense in fact that power outages happen all the time.

I was 10 or 11 years old and a brown belt getting ready to test for red belt.  This was not my first rodeo. I had been to many karate belt tests before. This particular test was scheduled for a Sunday in late August at a local YMCA where we had class.  The night before the test there was an intense thunderstorm that knocked out power all over the area.  I arrived at the YMCA for the test around 7:00am since the test started at 7:30am (yes, you heard me…7:30am).

When we arrived, we noticed my instructor and several other students and black belts standing outside the front door.  We waited in the car for a bit while more and more people showed up, but no one was still going inside.  We finally went outside and joined the crowd as we got closer to the scheduled start time.

As it turned out, the storm from the night before knocked out the power to the YMCA and they decided to close for the day.  Even if it were open, the gym we used for testing was in the basement with no windows.  There were several times I remember thunderstorms knocking out power during regular classes and it being pitch black.  Being this was pre-iPhone flashlight time, there was no way we could have had the test.  Notice the only concern at the time was having light.  The fact that it was late August after a thunderstorm in the Midwest and we could have been in a space without windows or air conditioning did not even register at the time.

So, rather than cancelling the test and having the 50 or participants go home, some that traveled 30+ miles to get there, it was decided to have the test in the parking lot…of course! There was a park adjacent to the YMCA that would have worked just fine, but I’m sure that was considered too cushy.  Everyone who drove a car to the test was instructed to line them up and make an enclosure. We had our test and our instructor took it easy on us.  We finished around 1pm instead of the usual 3pm (do the math, it was still a 5-hour test). Remarkably, we did everything we always did, basics, forms, weapons, sparring, breaking, self-defense, etc. all in bare feet on a sweltering cement parking lot ground.  Techniques were done with control but still done as they normally were done.

The reason I am telling this story is simple.  I want you all to know what a bad ass I am.  Just kidding.  Looking back at the test, I always felt it was like the scene from the Van Damme movie Lionheart, where there is an underground fight and they made a ring by circling all the cars around the fighters.

Old school karate belt tests often seemed like fight scenes from a movie
Hollywood parking lot karate fight

I was just a kid and my memory may be a bit hazy though and there is a chance it could have been more like the Seinfeld episode where they are all lost in a parking garage; no one confident about what to do next.  In all likelihood, it is probably somewhere in between these two extremes.

Parking lot karate belt tests now seem comical, like an episode of Seinfeld
A comical parking lot scene from Seinfeld

There are a couple of serious points I’d like to make regarding this event though.  For one, it is just a really cool story, one of which will probably never happen again.  

Another point is the fact that many people are probably saying right now, “Oh my gosh!  That was so dangerous!”.  Those people are correct, it was, and thankfully no one got seriously injured.  If that were to happen today, there would certainly be serious injuries, complaints, and possibly lawsuits.  

However, it was less dangerous then than it would be now, even if it was conducted in the exact same manner.  The reason being lies in the way we train.  Right or wrong, we trained (even as kids) in a much more physically demanding, disciplined manner, making these types of karate belt tests less dangerous due to preparation.  The danger lies in asking someone to do something based on standards that don’t apply any longer.

I see lots of things get changed or lost because it is deemed unsafe.  Most of them are correct I might add and I agree with.  However, I would really like to see people address the real issues sometimes as well.  Four or more hours of testing are too long and unsafe.  Correct, if you train one-hour classes 1-2 times a week, this is accurate.  People need to take a water break every 15 minutes or so.  Correct, if the student is dehydrated and out of shape to begin with.  (Professional soccer players play a 90+ minute game with very few breaks.)

My last point is that I feel before throwing something out because it is deemed unsafe, let’s first examine the reason why it was the way it was.  Can we accomplish the same goal with our current training methods?  Can we change our training methods to make it safer?  With COVID19 changing just about everything we do, we need to be sure that when we change things to make them safer, we don’t alter the reason why they were there in the first place.

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