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Bowley Kenpo Karate » Belt Promotion, Personal Stories, Sparring » What’s a Black Belt Test Like?

What’s a Black Belt Test Like?

A frequent question from coworkers and friends, what is a karate test like? What’s a black belt test like? Most other hobbies, extracurricular activities, or even passions don’t have a similar evaluation system built in as martial arts does. There is a certain “mystique” to what people believe about karate exams. What follows are stories of my experiences. Keep in mind, other martial arts styles, other schools, even other instructors could do their testing differently. This is just one flavor.

In recent years I’ve had the opportunity to participate in three tests where someone was testing for their black belt. One of them was my own. Each of these tests was at Brian Duffy’s Kenpo School in Austin Texas, and they’ve all had a number of similar characteristics. The tests were attached to the annual Spirit Camp weekend, usually performed on Friday night before the Saturday seminars. It’s generally a 3 to 4 hour test with portions for reciting all the pledges, demonstrating forms, working techniques, and sparring.

Post test at Spirit Camp 2011

Post test at Spirit Camp 2011

In 2010, while testing for my third degree brown belt, there were three people testing that same night for their first degree black belt: Mr. Ray Gilbert, Mr. Colin Duffy, and Mr. Todd Agers. That night there or 9 or 10 of us testing. The testing board included Mr. Duffy, Mr. Dennis Conatser, and a number of Mr. Duffy’s other black belts. Before the test began, my brown belt thesis was submitted. We did all the forms through Long 3, a few of the sets, techniques in the air, then techniques on a body (base and opposite side). We probably did 75 to 80 techniques, chosen across the belt charts but with a heavy emphasis on the front part of the curriculum. Before sparring, we did Bull-in-the-ring, without pads, and it got pretty intense. Sparring consisted of rotating one-on-one matches. The testers for Black Belt also each fought a two-on-one match. Afterwards they then did Long Form 4. Biggest memory of that test was the look on their faces when Mr. Conatser asked them to do Long 4 on opposite side. All three black belt testers were presented with their belts at the conclusion of the evening.

In 2011 there was a total of four of us testing. Mr. John Guzman was going for his first degree black belt. I was testing for my first degree brown belt. The testing board including Mr. Duffy, Mr. Conatser, Mr. Ray McCallum, and a number of Mr. Duffy’s black belts who were not testing. Similar to the prior year’s exam, we did forms & sets, techniques, and sparring. Again, we did about 70 techniques, though this time we did them all via technique line on base and opposite sides. Forms were done all the way through Long Form 3 with many sets sprinkled in. Sparring matches for Mr. Guzman and myself included 3 one-on-one’s, a two-on-one, and a three-on-one. We were almost completely dead-on-our-feet as we waited for the testing board to discuss our performances.

In 2012 there were just three of us testing. I was going through my first degree black belt, Mr. Wilson, my instructor, was going for his second degree as was Mr. Jason Bugg. The testing board included Mr. Duffy, Mr. Bob White, and Mr. John Sepulveda , as well as a number of Mr. Duffy’s other black belts. Like prior years, we did 70 to 80 techniques via technique line on base and opposite side. Forms and sets were done through Long Form 4, including our personal forms. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Bugg did Long Form 5 as well. Sparring matches consisted of 3 one-on-one matches, 2 two-on-one matches, and 2 three-on-one matches. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Bugg did one less three-on-one, but did a team sparring match. That was a crazy match to watch. Though I didn’t pass this test, I still felt it was the best I’d done at a test, especially the sparring portion.

This is what we did at each exam. How did it feel during the test? In a single word, Intense. Even though you may be on the mat with your martial arts family, these experiences can be daunting. All eyes are watching, and it’s the focal point for months or years of training. The gravity of the moment is immense. A secondary description would be Humbling. These tests are designed to push you to your limit and then push you further. It can come mentally through the stamina of sustained performance or physically grinding through sparring. But it doesn’t come free, and you’re a stronger person for it.

When it’s done, new rank or not, you understand a lot more about yourself. Maybe it’s understanding what you need to work on next. Perhaps it’s pride in seeing what you’ve accomplished.

In the comments below, please share your martial arts testing experiences.

Sam Bowley

Bowley Kenpo Karate

Kenpo Karate for McKinney, TX

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