Rumination on Examination

Last night (Wednesday at the time of writing this) I conducted two Green Cord examinations. These are concluding exams at the end of our introductory course. The students were suitably nervous at the outset and did not seem very reassured by my comment that this first level examination is focused on language and familiarity with foundational techniques, not a high level of proficiency. I’m sure many of them, if asked, would perhaps say they’d rather not have the test, or at least the stress of it.

I am also preparing the school for our first Silver Cord examination (the 4th level) to take place on August 21st. This is a monumental undertaking for the students who are preparing themselves for it, all of whom have been studying with me for at least 8 years. It involves two days of examination that include technique demonstrations, written tests, combative performance, and defence of the research component of the level, all conducted by a board of examiners that includes masters from other schools.

There is always a certain energy that comes up around an examination. A nervous energy. A focus and rigour that comes into one’s study, whether your study has been for years, or, as with our beginners, just a matter of weeks. Though it’s a stressful experience, I think it’s a positive one. I find that as an instructor I too experience a level of nervousness as my students step toward their testing. There is a reflection on me and my abilities in their performance and I also have an empathy for their trial. I want the experience to be valuable for them. Pass or fail. I want to feel that I have served them and that the exam itself is serving them.

I have been a part of martial arts schools that did not have levels or examinations. My instructors in these schools sought a type of purity that comes from not having particular objectives. They sought to avoid creating a false path of progression or creating a hierarchy between their students they didn’t feel reflected the greater journey of their art. I think some also didn’t like the stress for themselves or their students. I appreciate both sentiments, yet, I also appreciate the meaningfulness of trials and the climax that comes at their end. There is something important in our lives about working toward a particular outcome, facing the stress of that, feeling like you don’t want to go through with it and going through with it anyway. There is also an importance to meeting a test and failing, picking yourself up, processing that, realizing you can get through that too, and going through the testing process again. There is a stress and rigour required in pushing to the summit that adds to the potency of that event and to the value of the lessons you can learn along the way.

There are pitfalls on all routes. Tests can be made meaningless if their outcomes are prejudged (positively or negatively). A destination does not necessarily make a journey worthwhile, and even if the destination has value, it’s easy to get over-focused on it and miss out on a lot of cool stuff in between. The end of a journey can also be challenging. I certainly know that after meeting some of my own greatest challenges — such as winning a particularly meaningful tournament and achieving a high rank in the art I was practicing — that I struggled greatly with a listless sense of, “now what?”. Yet I think these challenges need to be experienced and faced as well. Life is full of plateaus and distractions. Learning to identify and work with them is essential.

Life is full of tests. There is really no way to avoid them. It’s also hard to know which ones are going to be the most valuable. What a martial arts examination offers you is this: it is one of the few tests that you can choose, prepare for, and be supported through. It provides the opportunity to challenge and expand yourself with at least a little bit of structure and hopefully some fun, too. You can do it with peers and mentors and if you fail you are in one of the best environments you can be in to recover and learn from that failure. There is almost no better skill that you could acquire for success in life.

There are many things I have gotten from my practice of martial art but perhaps one of the most valuable has been practice in facing life’s trials, and through facing them, I have grown.

Good luck to all of the Academie Duello students testing on August 21st and 28th and to all others facing martial and non-martial challenges in other places. May you learn all you can from the experience.