Monday, 31 October 2011

Black Belt Testing – entrance or exit exam?

Revolving doors
People are often tempted to compare the abilities of a black belt student from one martial arts system to those of black belt students within other systems. In addition, people often have fixed expectations of what a black belt student should be able to do, this often results in much discussion or argument over the quality of a black belt test.

For some, the new black belt student should be entirely proficient in all aspects of their chosen art or be able to prove themselves in a fight. For others the new black belt student is considered to have just learnt the basics of their art and now their real training is about to begin. This begs the question – is the black belt test an entrance or exit exam?

In case you are not familiar with the concept of entrance and exit exams let me offer you some examples: A medical degree is an entrance exam; at the end of the course the student holds a degree qualification which then gains them entrance into a programme of higher medical training. A medical degree alone does not allow a person to become a fully qualified, fully independent doctor. Likewise a Law degree provides a standalone qualification but it does not allow the holder to practice as a lawyer; it is merely an entrance qualification to higher levels of training.

On the other hand, some training programmes lead to qualifications that allow the holder to go out a work as a fully functioning practitioner in that line of work. For example, qualifications in nursing, plumbing or electrics; these are ‘exit’ qualifications and the student has to pass ‘exit’ exams that prove they are fully competent in their subject and safe to practice. That isn’t to say that there aren’t further more specialist courses that the practitioner can take, there generally are. A junior doctor who has completed a programme of higher specialist training will take exit exams that allow him/her to practice as an independent practitioner.

So, this brings me back to the question, is the black belt test an entrance or exit exam? Does it merely allow you to enter into a higher level of training in your art or does it mean that you are a fully functioning practitioner who has mastered all the techniques your art has to offer?

It depends on the art and the system that you train in doesn’t it? In most systems of karate and other traditional arts I would argue that the black belt test is an entrance exam – it shows that you have learnt the basics and you are now ready to enter into a programme of more advanced training.
However, I think that in some reality based systems the black belt test is treated more as an exit exam and that there is an expectation that black belt students can defend themselves in a very confident and expert way and will have become proficient ‘fighters’.

It may be that the bar is set higher for black belt testing in some systems than in others. I don’t think that this matters too much as long as you are not making direct comparisons. In the same way that you can’t compare degree qualifications from one university with those from another, neither can you compare black belt qualifications of one martial arts system with those from a different system either.

So, if your system of training treats the black belt test as an entrance exam at what point of training do you exit? 3rd dan? 5th dan? If you are a traditionalist then you probably believe that there is no exit exam, that training and the pursuit of perfection in your art is a life-long programme with no end-point.
Then again you may, for practical reasons, assume that there is an exit point at say 3rd dan. At third dan you may feel that the practitioner is sufficiently proficient in the full range of their art to be able to teach it as a fully qualified instructor. If you treat the black belt test as an exit exam then you may feel that the practitioner is suitably qualified to teach at 1st dan or 2nd dan.

The point though is that you understand what the black belt test in your system really represents in terms of achievement and proficiency in your art. It doesn’t really matter whether it represents a basic qualification or an advanced one as long as you understand where it fits into the entire continuum of your training system and you don’t make too many comparisons between systems without understanding where their black belt qualification fits into their system.

So, is your black belt test an entrance or an exit exam? Where would you consider the exit point to be in your system?

Sue is the Blog-Editor-In-Chief for Martial News. You can contact her at
Sue also writes a personal blog called My Journey to Black Belt

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Wide Asleep!

Wide asleep – this was a phrase I came across recently when I attended a knife awareness seminar. It was referring to that situation that many people are in day to day when they are awake and walking around, getting on with their business but are completely oblivious to their surroundings.

You know – people walking around with iPods plugged into their ears, chatting idly on their mobile phones or just lost deep in their own thoughts taking absolutely no notice of their surroundings; leaving themselves a sitting duck for any would be opportunist attacker.

This state of being wide asleep is part of Cooper’s Colour Codes, a simple tool that can aid us in understanding various stages of awareness and alertness and provide a strategy for dealing with any threats we may come across during our day. There are four levels of codes from white through to yellow, orange and red. There is a lot written about the use of this colour code system in self-defence which you can read about here or here, so I’m not going to describe it in any detail.

The other thing that struck me on this knife awareness course was that the techniques we learnt to escape from or disarm a knife attacker were very much based on some of the karate and kobudo techniques that I have learnt in my traditional martial arts classes; they had a familiarity to them.

People often criticise traditional karate for not being realistic or being too stylised or even worse – not teaching any self-defence at all! Having trained in karate for a few years now I don’t believe that the art is intrinsically unrealistic in approach but how useful it is does depend on how it is being taught.

There can be a gap between the way defensive moves are learnt in karate training and the self-defence moves in reality based training but I believe that this gap shouldn’t exist – that it can be bridged with thoughtful and intelligent training. I don’t like it when people say, “this is the art of karate but in real self-defence we do it this way,” as if they are completely different things. To me they are flip sides of the same coin – not different coins.

It seems to me that both students and sometimes instructors can be operating at different levels of the Cooper Colour Code awareness system in the way they train/teach:

Code White: Awareness switched off (wide asleep). The student and possibly the instructor are completely oblivious as to whether what they are learning/teaching has any relevance to realistic self-defence. They are completely unaware as to how the components of their training (kata, kihon, kumite) actually fit together in a cohesive structure.

Code Yellow: Awareness is switched on. The student/instructor is aware that they need to make connections between the various elements of their training and look at its application to real life self-defence scenarios. However, despite this awareness they remain in a fairly relaxed state about it, unsure how to take the training to this new level.

Code Orange: In a state of ‘specific alert’, aware of the threat. The student/instructor knows how to pull the traditional elements of the system together and apply them to specific situations. He/she is knowledgeable about how violence operates in common attack scenarios including an understanding of escalation/de-escalation, triggers etc. They are aware of the common ways in which men and women are attacked and are able to teach self-defence techniques that relate directly to the techniques taught through kata, ippon kumite etc –i.e they are able to bridge the gap between traditional training and realistic self-defence. They can teach students how to make decisions on what action to take in specific scenarios.

Code Red:  Ready to fight and carry out a plan of action. Students/instructor are prepared to be pressure tested in more realistic situations. The instructor is clearly able to articulate to and teach the student how hours spent in traditional kihon and kata training can lead to a level of mental and physical preparedness that coupled with an full understanding of the nature of violence and common attack situations and realistic defence training enables the student to develop full competence in all areas of self-defence.

I’d like to reach the state of code red in my training; I don’t think I’m there yet, I think I’m somewhere between yellow and orange – but I’m working on it. My awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of my training is very apparent to me and I’m working on how to fill the gaps.

If this knife awareness course taught me something it’s this: reality based self-defence is very much based on and dependent upon traditional martial arts. All of us on the course (all karate-ka) picked up the techniques quickly because we already knew how to move our bodies effectively to evade, block, unbalance and apply locks.  The reality vs traditional gap is not so big after all – we just need to be sure that when we train we are not wide asleep

Sue is the Blog-Editor-In-Chief for Martial News. You can contact her at
Sue also writes a personal blog called My Journey to Black Belt