T is for Testing
There are two kinds of tests in our school- Gup Testing and Dan testing.
Gups are the colored belts- individuals below black belt- and their tests are relatively simple affairs. In the course of an hour or two they perform all of their forms, one-step techniques and sparring techniques for a panel of judges who grade them on their level of performance. A proctor will K'ihap for each move which all the testing students will then perform together as one group.
If you practice on a regular basis the test is really just a celebration of knowledge- you know the forms, your technique improves as you move up through the ranks, and now you're simply performing what you know for a group of your instructors. In our school we don't test anyone who we don't know is ready- i.e. if there's any chance of you failing, we wait for the next cycle to test you (we do 3 test cycles a year). Despite my initial anxiety at my very first test (which one of my instructors still loves to remind me of), it's a relatively low-key event.
The Dan test, on the other hand, is a drastically different affair. It still involves the performance of all of one's learned techniques for a panel of judges, and it's still a celebration of knowledge- but that's about where the similarity ends. For starters, the Dan test is 29 hours long.
I know what you're thinking- 29 hours?!? Are you kidding? No, I'm not- but here's why: back in the old days, black belt tests were weeks long, not hours. They tested everything from mental ability to understand all the learned material and demonstrate that understanding through individual demonstration all the way to physical stamina to sustain movement and technique despite exhaustion. Our test is designed to mimic those traditional tests by holding testing over the course of a day and a half.
It's split roughly into two parts. Part one is the graded exam. We go through all of our forms, one-step techniques, knife defense, self defense, a verbal exam on the history of Tang Soo Do and breaking. Breaking wooden boards stems from the time in history when armies wore wooden armor to protect themselves in battle- the break is supposed to replicate a technique that can penetrate such armor in order to defeat the attacker.
We perform everything at the highest level we can and towards that end we get lots of breaks to rehydrate, stretch and otherwise physically prepare ourselves. It's nerve wracking in that you want to perform really well, but it's less intense than part two.
Part two is designed to test one's mental discipline through physical exhaustion. We go through a series of exercises (which I'm not allowed to disclose) designed to basically exhaust you. The test part is that you cannot allow yourself to quit- regardless of how tired you are, how much your muscles ache, how much your mind tells you that you absolutely, positively cannot go on- you force yourself to keep going, and that's how you pass. (Now you see why that quiet mind/quiet body meditation is so important.)
The rationale for this part of the test is to replicate the less than ideal circumstances one might find oneself in a real-life fight. You have no guarantees of having gotten sleep or being in peak physical condition when you get attacked and you have to be able to defend yourself nonetheless. By pushing us physically they prepare us for this real-world self defense.
They keep a bell at the head of the gym that one can choose to ring at any point in time if one wants to quit. To my knowledge, no one has ever rung the bell. Not because we're all supermen, but because we have so many of our peers supporting us and pushing us through. It's like boot-camp in a lot of ways- yeah, it's probably the most physically difficult thing you'll ever do (unless you actually do real boot camp) but the people you go through it with are your brothers and sisters for life. All black belts- regardless of whether or not they're testing, have to be at the test. If it's not your year to test, it's your job to support the other black belts. And boy, oh boy do we support each other. There's nothing like it.
We do a presentation for the parents of kids taking the test for the first time every year to provide them with information so they won't be concerned for their kids' well being. I always tell people that my greatest accomplishment of my life was getting my master's degree- and that getting my black belt was a very close second. Not surprisingly, getting 2nd Dan was an even greater feeling. And I have no reason to suspect that getting 3rd Dan in June won't top that. It's going to be the most difficult black belt test I've ever been through and because of that I've been training for it harder than I've ever trained for anything in my life. When I walk out of there on June 21st having successfully completed the test I have reason to believe I will be more proud of myself than I have ever, ever been.