I was sitting in a coffee shop with my good friend and training partner, Carol, when Jason, a black belt, sits down to join us. After chatting a little, Jason looked straight at me and said, “This is your black belt test.”
This is your black belt test. I’m not joking.
You’re [transitive verb] me.
No, I’m not. Sifu Fred is right out there waiting.
He gestured toward the window.
I stopped breathing, turned bright red, but still refused to turn my head to look. I wasn’t falling for it, but there was still the tiniest kernel of fear that this might be legitimate.
Jason’s face broke into a wide grin. “Nah, I’m just joking. But you should see your face.”
Black belts are evil.
When I say “fast,” the attacker is going to speed up a notch. You’re just going to keep evading the knives, keeping the same calmness as when you were going slower.
The knives are wooden, metal, or plastic practice knives. No sharp edges here. The drill is just to evade the knife. It’s harder than you think, even though Sifu makes it look so easy.
My challenges are to keep calm, keep moving, keep my shoulders level, keep my center centered, keep my confront level from going out the back door.
Even when I think I’m doing okay, I’m really not. Knives, even blunt practice knives, represent a major confront issue for me. But the only way to deal with that is to do knife drills, constantly working to find and reinforce calmness in the face of the weapon.
I paired with Sifu Patty. She swung the knife wide and I ducked to evade.
Two mistakes: I shouldn’t have tried to duck under a swing at my midsection, and I didn’t have my arms up to protect my head.
I took a good smack with a metal practice knife right in the face, on the left side of my nose. It broke the skin and I oozed a little blood, but nothing serious.
I do have a black eye now, which looks pretty bad ass.
Quick! What’s the nearest object you can grab as a weapon? Is the chair you’re sitting in going to help you or hinder you? Is the table or counter going to shield you from your attacker? What if it’s in your way?
Creativity is one of the cornerstones of Mo Duk Pai. That means sometimes training is extra fun, like last night.
Even though we’re past the heat wave, our late summer days are still pretty warm and the training floor can get pretty stuffy. So it was a nice change when Sifu told us to grab air shields and hand pads and come outdoors.
We moved a couple smallish wooden tables over to a soft grassy area. Sifu told us to pair up, take an air shield and work out some drills involving the table.
Laura and I took turns perching on the table, feet dangling, to see how much power we could generate kicking and punching from a seated position. That exercise originated from a little altercation I had in a bar with a jerk who thought he could teach little ol’ me about martial arts. It ended when I grabbed his throat.
Then we practiced getting away from someone, from a seated position, across the table. Laura scampered under that table and surprised us all.
That’s why she’s a black belt, Sifu said.
I tried. I didn’t quite fit.
You probably read that as “sparring is not good for pedicures.” Seems a bit obvious doesn’t it, that intense physical activity would damage a pedicure? Au contraire. A good pedicure will stand up to a lot.
No, I mean that having gotten a pedicure makes sparring harder.
Huh? What kind of airhead must I be, I’m sure you’re thinking.
Part of the pedicure involves removal of dead skin. The latest craze is having little fishies chew away at the dead skin. For a more moderate price, though, it’s a girl with a razor.
At my last pedicure the girl was a little too enthusiastic with the the razor. So my heels are a little tender. Not to mention the divots.
At first I wasn’t going to go to sparring, then I thought, hey, Sifu Patty is always getting on me for going flat-footed. If my heels hurt, I’ll stay up on the balls of my feet like I should.
Guess where else the girl with the razor scraped? I no longer have protective callouses on my toes and balls of my feet. About 40 minutes into class I was trying to figure out how to spar while balancing on the sides of my feet, as I now had blisters forming on my big toes and the ball of the foot.
It hurts to walk. My heels hurt, my toes hurt, the balls of my feet hurt. There’s no where else to to stand. Nothing to do but sit on the couch with my feet up and a drink.
It hurts to sit down. It hurts to stand up. It hurts going up stairs. It hurts going down stairs. My quads and glutes are so sore, I am limping as I walk.
Last weekend was our annual Mo Duk Pai training camp. The theme of this year’s camp was Tradition. Naturally this meant we had the tradtional guts class: 1-1/2 hours of unrelenting physical training and psychological pressure.
I haven’t been training much lately and am terribly out of condition. I made it through the guts class, though my technique went to crap toward the end.
We also had the traditional 2am banging of pots and pans to wake everyone up for a middle-of-the-night class. At least we didn’t have the traditional, or perhaps merely mythical, beating of the underbelts with Arnis sticks to wake them up.
Camp was held at a Kiwanis camp on Mt. Hood. Even with several feet of snow, the weather was gorgeous. In a break from tradition, we got to play games in the snow. We had to chase each other around and try to grab socks we had tucked into our belts or waistbands. I tried to get away with tying my sock to my belt. If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.
Also traditional, I smacked a very junior underbelt in the face during a fast speed exercise, cutting the inside of her lip on her teeth. She had never been hit like that before and was pretty flinchy afterwards, even though I stayed away from targeting her face.
My only injury, aside from muscle soreness, was a light sunburn from sitting in the sun, knitting during a break.
At least I’m making it to advanced class one Saturday a month. It feels so good to get a workout in the morning. Makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something.
Showering after class, I notice pinpoint bruises all over my body. There’s a nice one ripening on my left wrist. I wear my bruises as badges of honor. Plus, they freak people out. Really, they look worse than they feel. I bruise like a peach.
Our annual training camp is coming up next week. I’m told there’s still snow on the ground, so this should be interesting.
Due to a wicked work schedule, I’ve been out of training for several weeks. I was able to get to a Saturday sparring class at our sister school only just this week. Wouldn’t you know it, I manage to get myself gimped up.
I was having myself a great time sparring with an underbelt when I executed a left spinning hook kick. Which he blocked. With his knee. In my calf. Hard.
Instant Charlie-horse. I immediately rubbed it out as best I could. I tried putting my weight on my left leg until I felt I could move at least a little. Which is to say, not much.
Back to the sparring and I mostly just stood there, defending myself and looking for my partner’s vulnerabilities when he committed.
I iced up my calf as soon as I got home. Driving was no fun. Shifting was a bitch. I downed a couple ibuprofen, the martial artist’s best friend. I also downed a couple vodkas, the martial artist’s other best friend.
Now my left calf is like a little grapefruit and I am gimping around with a cane.
Gawd, it’s good to be back.
That’s not exactly true. I have been joining in our Saturday open training sessions and going to sparring class at our sister school afterward. But I can’t remember the last time I went to regular weekday class.
My work schedule has me either staying late or bringing the lap top home to work. Some day it’ll let up, but not in the foreseeable future.
Fortunately for me, Sifu understands. Even if you can’t train as often as desired, it’s important to keep training as you can, rather than just give up.
We’ve talked about when I can next test for black belt. I wanted to go to our spring training camp in May as a black belt. I’m tired of cleaning out cabins and the training/dining hall as an underbelt. But given my sparse training regimen lately, I may have to take up the broom for another year.
The other night we worked on being direct with our techniques, letting one technique flow right after another. Specifically we were working street drills, but it could also apply to firing combinations in a sparring situation.
Throw a technique, then follow with whatever weapon (foot, hand, elbow, knee, etc.) is closest to a target (shin, ankle, groin, floating rib, temple, throat, nose, etc.). Then another, then another. The aim is to close up the gap between techniques.
Because what a lot of people do, including me, according to Sifu, is throw a technique and wait to see, did it work? Whew! I’m safe. Now I can throw another technique. That’s a significant time lag. What is my opponent doing during that time? Clocking me if they have any sense.
This is something Sifu has brought to my attention in the past. It’s not about speeding up, it’s about flowing smoothly and directly from one technique to another. By closing up the gap, you achieve the effect of speed without actually going faster.
Following my (first) black belt test, I wrote this article for the Mo Duk Pai website . I’ve gotten good response from other students. I’m planning to also write an article for the PAWMA newsletter. After I get my black belt essay finished.
One fine Saturday in October 2007, five brown-black sashes lined up to test for their black belts, perhaps one of the largest groups to test for black belt together. Along with the people testing for brown-black, we were, on average, probably the oldest group of testers in Mo Duk Pai history. We jokingly referred to ourselves as “Team Geritol.”
At the end of the day, only three people were promoted to the rank of first degree black belt; two of us went home, still wearing our brown-black sashes.
Was I disappointed? Yes. I trained long and hard for this test and it meant a lot to me. Was I surprised that I didn’t promote? No. I recognize that I did not demonstrate that I was up to the level of a black belt. As I said when asked about my martial code, my first duty is to be honest to myself.
Does this mean I failed? Not at all. Not promoting is not a failure. Rather, it’s an opportunity for growth that you just don’t get otherwise. In fact, not passing the black belt test may very well turn out to be the best thing that could have happened to my martial training.
Like a stress test on a steel girder, a black belt test pinpoints strengths and weaknesses. My own test showed with crystal clarity those areas in which I excelled and those that aren’t yet up to the standards of a Mo Duk Pai black belt. For myself, I know that I didn’t achieve my personal goal of staying calm and in control of myself throughout the test. At the same time, I do have to keep in mind that I did do parts of the test very well.
Not being promoted is a humbling experience. It has made me philosophical about my training, and a little more reflective as I confront the truths about myself that were revealed that day. It showed how much work I have in front of me to reach the level of black belt.
It’s important to remember that the standard for black belt in Mo Duk Pai is very high. Our tests are more rigorous and demanding than most other systems. Not everyone passes the black belt test on their first attempt.
My next step will be to take what I’ve learned from the test and work with my sifu, focusing on those areas where I need to improve. I will be testing again, despite any previous declarations that I wouldn’t.
To quote Vince Lombardi: “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.”