111) STUDENT’S BLOG: On Testing- By Brad Gould: November 2013


The importance of the Jujutsu:

Our practice places a heavy emphasis on principles of structure, movement, and other internal aspects. We continually state the goal of not thinking of the technique, and just doing it moving properly. Without knowing our techniques well enough and having practiced them properly many times to internalize the details, we can’t be nage without continuing to focus on the technique.

Our Aikido is a sum of two things (at least):

Jujutsu (mechanical techniques) + internals[1] (internal structure, movement, power…)

For example, in a Shiho-nage, a jujutsu element is doing the irimi with palm down to create kuzushi. An internal element (among the most external of them) would include keeping your shoulders relaxed and seated during the irimi. How many times have we seen people doing the technique palm up, focusing entirely on relaxing their shoulders? More often than not, without palm down, they don’t achieve kuzushi, no matter how relaxed their shoulders are. They then compensate by pushing with their upper body, and shortly thereafter with their shoulders. And then they try again to relax their shoulders, ignoring the details of the technique, and the cycle continues.

Until we get really good, we won’t achieve the, “if you move well enough, you don’t need technique.” I’m nowhere near that. So I’ll know my techniques well enough that I can focus on moving well, without poor technique sabotaging my efforts.

In our practice, we regularly slow things down so as not to develop bad habits. The bad habits can apply both to internals, as well as techniques.

Also, the jujutsu comes from centuries of teachings. The idea is that during a fight, you’ll naturally recognize a relationship with the opponent that will flow into a technique (or something related to the techniques that we’ve internalized). For this to happen, also we need to know the techniques and practice them properly many times and with many ukes, and at many intensity levels.

With the emphasis that we place on internals, why let poor jujutsu get in the way?

Why test:

1. Preparing for a test makes you better

In my experience, I, and other students, only seem to really internalize the jujutsu to the point of not thinking about it once we’ve gone through the effort of preparing for a test. It shouldn’t be that way, but in practice, I’m convinced that it is. That’s when we memorize all the details. When we remember what requires palm down; palm up; which arm does aiki age; and which moves horizontally.

I’ve routinely pushed off my own testing until the point when I felt guilty about it, but each time I tested, I was hugely glad that I did. For thereafter I knew a group of techniques much better.

In practicing for a test, one repeats each technique many times with training partners until he or she not only remembers the details, but also feels comfortable doing them. Once the details are memorized, the student typically works on getting the internals right. At least that’s the way my mind works. I want to be able to not think of the technique, so I can focus on the movement, etc.

So I see testing as a great vehicle for learning the techniques and internals. But for me, I need to memorized the techniques properly to be able to focus on the more difficult stuff involved in internal power, which is where I’d rather be focusing anyway. I’ve learned a bunch about the jujutsu, internals, ukemi, etc., from my test practice.

2. Our duty to other students

Ours is a traditional Japanese dojo. For the most part, it is expected that people will practice, prepare, and test every so often. There’s a reason for this: the system of having sempai with the knowledge to be able to help kohai relies on it.

People who have gone through the effort of preparing for a test become a wonderful asset to everybody else because they know, can do, and can teach that much more. Our duties to each other as students include giving each other honest feedback and teaching. We therefore don’t just owe it to ourselves to become more knowledgeable and able; we also owe it to our fellow students.

Learning the jujutsu techniques and practicing them until we are at a level to take the next test is a significant contribution to all the other students, especially to students junior to us.

How to prepare:

Sensei has made it clear on several occasions that it’s up to each student to get ready for tests. It’s even in the Kiku:

The junior student will soon realize that the job of sensei is not to see to it that you are here to prepare for tests . . . .

As students, we take the initiative and make the effort. The effort is principally up to the person testing, but the preparation is a communal effort. The person testing drives the effort, and as people have noticed, other students are eager to hang around after class or to show up at prearranged times outside of class to help with the practice. Usually, they come in, line up, and take turns taking ukemi over and over, with sempai (and others too) helping with the details.

Senior students are expected to help junior students prepare for tests. Junior students are also to avail themselves to serving as ukes when a senior student is practicing for a test. Senior students are expected to help junior students prepare for tests. Junior students are also to avail themselves to serving as ukes when a senior student is practicing for a test.

(Kiku, Examinations)

As I said above, I personally go through a phase in which I’m principally memorizing the techniques, and another phase in which I’m principally doing them better by improving the internals.

In the city dojo, for some of the more advanced kyu ranks, people will start testing months in advance by doing an extra hour or two of practice before class with other students. They get many repetitions.

While Sensei ultimately decides who is ready to test, he has made it clear that sempai have the added responsibility of making sure that students are well prepared before they take a test. While the primary responsibility for preparing belongs to the testing student him/herself, the student is expected to seek and incorporate sempais’ advice and to practice long enough before a test to perform at the level appropriate for the new rank.

So don’t be shy. Ask one person, three people, or everybody, when they can practice with you. Grab a sempai or Sensei and ask them to demonstrate or answer questions. One of the best training strategies is to have a training buddy who is committed to practice with you, especially if you’re both preparing for the same test.

When to prepare and test:

I don’t see why we shouldn’t be memorizing and internalizing everything we practice, anytime. People are usually up for extra practice, even when there’s no test coming up. So prepare whenever. I don’t like cramming, so I try to remember as much as possible after each class. If you also don’t like cramming, as tests get bigger, why not start memorizing the steps to another technique right after you finished your last test. Sometimes I’ll take notes in the printout of a subsequent test and review them later, even when I’m far from actually preparing for a test.

According to the Kiku,

Marc Abrams Sensei will notify a student when it is time to begin focusing on taking a test and will provide that student with a requirement packet.

(Id.) But don’t be afraid to ask if it’s been a while and you’re up for the challenge.

When a student is ready to take a test, the student should write his/her name on the calendar.

(Id.) The Kiku says you can inform Marc Sensei to postpone. For a while, however, the rule in place was that once your name is on the calendar, you couldn’t move the date. But this hasn’t been our recent practice. I think the idea is that you should sign up when you’re certain you want to take the test as opposed to signing up for an aspirational date to force you to practice. Plus, remember that people do plan their lives around others’ tests to an extent after all, since many try to attend.

Film your test, please:

Students taking tests are strongly encouraged to invite friends and family to observe. Non-obtrusive photography and videotaping is allowed.

(Id.) Invite your friends and family. Have someone film it.

I’ve learned a bunch from watching my screw ups on my own tests. But, perhaps more importantly, if you are kind enough to share it with kohai, it can be an enormously helpful tool for their preparation, even if the test had its share of mistakes. Access to others’ test videos is requested regularly.

Parting thoughts:

Nobody cares about obtaining rank in this dojo. I’ve even sensed a stigma that makes people not want to test, lest they appear too eager to gain rank. A statement I’ve heard many times from many students illustrates the general sentiment about testing; I share this sentiment, and it goes something like this: “I’m here to learn and get good at Aikido, not to test and get rank.”

Between the sentiment and our emphasis on internal movement (both good things), we’ve de-emphasized testing too much among us, the students. In the end, this has been counter to people’s intention to learn and improve. I think it’s slowed learning both the jujutsu and the internal movement, and has hindered our ability to help teach each other.

In practice, testing has been one of the most powerful vehicles to accelerate our improvement. Between tests, we’ve all gone through several periods of stagnation. But not during test preparation.

Ultimately, the work you put into preparing and testing is beneficent and largely unselfish, as it benefits the dojo community by enabling you to become a better teacher.

[1] Yup: “Internals.” Sounds weird, but it flows off the tongue better than other options.

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