Why Am I Not Testing in Karate?

Why am I not testing in karate?  This is a question many martial arts instructors have heard all too often.  If you haven’t heard this question, you are either a really good instructor or a really bad one.  You would be a bad one because you just test all of your students all of the time, just for showing up.  You would be a really good one because your students trust and respect you enough to not need to ask.

Testing in karate has become less sacred
Testing in karate has become less sacred

When I started training, asking this question was certainly a no-no.  I witnessed students on occasion ask the instructor if they would be testing.  If that happened before class, we would usually be in for a really tough class as the instructor would be in a bad mood.

While the extreme discipline for asking whether or not you will be testing is probably not warranted these days, I feel the concept of and reasons for not asking are valid.  Expectations just need to be clearly communicated early and often.

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When I get approached by a student and get asked why they won’t be tested, I cringe, then ask them the following questions:

  1. Have you attended classes regularly, 2-3 times per week, since your last test?

This question is rather easy to answer.  Using attendance cards or a computer software tracking program you can quickly see how many classes the student has attended.  If it is inconsistent or sporadic, you can easily point to this as the reason

2. Do you know the requirements for your rank?

If attendance is not the issue, I would then ask if they know the requirements for their rank.  Student manuals, study guides, websites, posters at the studio, and requirement sheets all clearly communicate what the requirements are.  There is some subjectivity here though.  You need to define what “knowing” means.  Some students will say they know the requirements but when you ask them to show you a technique or form, they can’t do it.  That is the easy case to prove.

The harder case is a student that can perform all of their requirements but are severely lacking technical ability, effort, or attitude.  This gets us to the next question.

3. Have you participated in class with focus and effort to the best of your ability?

As with the previous question, this can be a bit subjective.  Some students may think they are doing their best and are focused all the time, but their performance shows otherwise.  I have had countless students that I have needed to correct small things over and over again.  Keeping tight fists, giving max effort, reaction hand placement, bending knees in stances, etc., are things that are easy to fix.  If your instructor corrects you when doing something and you are able to fix it but just go back to doing it incorrectly again, it shows a lack of focus and/or effort.

I don’t ask these questions to every student who enquires about testing.  I only follow this process with beginner and newer students.  It is pointless to get upset with them since they simply don’t know.  They are still being acclimated to the martial arts culture.  However, when a student is an intermediate or higher student, I expect them to know the process and trust the instructor, so asking is not appropriate.  

It takes time to build this trust and respect which is why beginner students get a pass.  If you have not built that trust and respect by the time a student is an intermediate rank, there are bigger issues at hand.

Let me share a personal story on trust and respect that will illustrate this clearly.  When I was a 3rd gup brown belt testing for 2nd gup red belt, I rocked the test.  The months leading up to the test I was on fire, working hard, not missing class, etc.  At the test, there were students (not many) that were double promoted (skipping a rank).  I was not one of them.  I felt I did a fantastic job, certainly on par with those few students who received double promotions.

Now, I could have complained to my parents (I was 11 years old) and approached my instructor or have them do so and ask why I had not received a double promotion.  That did not happen of course because I, and my parents, trusted and respected my instructor.  A few weeks later, I was surprised at the end of class when my instructor promoted me to 1st gup.  He made an error not promoting me after the test and made the correction.  This just shows that I trusted and respected him enough not to question him and the correct outcome resulted.

All this being said, I feel like the purpose of testing has been changing over the years.  In my opinion, testing and promotion should be a reward, not an expectation.  If you read any texts on martial arts, most will claim the purposes of training are for self-defense, health, and to be a better person.  Getting belts is not one of them.

Getting a karate belt is not the reason for training
Getting a karate belt is not the reason for training

Our primary goal in training should be to learn and improve.  Getting different belts is just a consequence of that.  What you know and how well you do it has little to do with the belt you wear.  Rather, it is all up to you; how hard you train, how much you train, and your attitude in doing so.

Testing in karate is not a participation trophy
Testing in karate is not a participation trophy

We live in a world that expects results for showing up.  We also expect things to happen right away.  Hearing we need to get better at something or need to work harder are not accepted these days.  Unfortunately, the martial arts are following suit in many circles.  Personally, I have been trying to change the culture in my studio from testing and belts to learning and improving, over the last several years.  It is a struggle, and it is not nearly where I’d like it to be.  It may be a futile effort, but I feel it is an important pursuit.

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  1. Take heart; some students get it. 🙂 What actually irked me even more as a student is when I saw the techniques being watered down to make the “belt mill” practices easier to justify. My training was always primarily about self-growth, but at the same time, I wanted to know IF I had to, that my training would actually help me defend myself.

  2. This is less an issue with adults than it is with children. And unfortunately, while you can try to maintain standards, you are swimming upstream getting kids, and more importantly, parents to buy in. I once saw an ugly incident at a belt testing where a younger student failed a test, and the child’s father got all into a snit with my instructor about it. He said he filmed the test and in his opinion, his son performed perfectly. Well, my instructor didn’t like that and things went downhill from there.

    But that was an extreme example where as most students accept a belt test delay, or fail, or at least a re test with more grace than that. But you still have the issue of students that get the curicullum but fail the eye test. Maybe it is a lack of confidence, intensity or power, but you can sometimes see it in both child and adult students. Maybe on the day they tested they had it, but then slacked off for 3, or 4 months and lost it. But somehow, they still wear the same belt in class.

    Then there is the issue of leadership. Some folks have it, others most definately do not. And yet, that is something we expect of our advanced belts.

    There is no easy answer to these questions, especially if you teach children martial arts. Telling a student why he has to wait another couple of months for his belt promotion while his classmates don’t is a hard conversation to have with a child especially.

  3. I think belts and testing are good for kids to keep them focused at an age where they are not good at focusing. It is less important for adults but they do need to buy into the no belt idea from the beginning. In the end belts are a symbol of knowledge rather than skill.

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