There’s a moment I can’t shake from the Bordeaux camp: the Shaolin test. It was held in a huge gym with high ceilings but the atmosphere was tense and the air was so thick you could cut it. “Tense” doesn’t quite describe it. There was a strong, collective feeling of dread.
It was my second camp and since I was so caught up in my own world two years ago, I hadn’t noticed the general feeling was the same back then. W said the feeling is always the same and it makes her so uncomfortable that she’d rather not even watch. If I’m not testing, I always want to see how students perform and how the panel evaluates them.
Something about this is wrong. No, no one is going to hold your hand. Students should feel a little nervous and the testing panel should be tough, yet fair. But it’s almost as if the students are on trial for death row. A good number registered for the test months ago and then backed out. Why? Aside from being unprepared, I narrowed it down to two main possible reasons.
- Nervous about performing in front of an audience
This will probably always exist to some degree as long as it matters to you. It means you care about representing your teacher, the art, and yourself and it’s not a bad thing. These are all external and can be motivating factors for training.
- Switch the focus to the task at hand, which is doing what you’ve trained hundreds of times before. Don’t think about embarrassing your teacher. Sometimes it ends up being a self fulfilling prophecy.
- Practice performing as much as possible at demos, in tournaments, and for tests.
- Uncomfortable with being judged
This is related to #1 but with a key difference: ego. I used to associate the word “ego” with egomania and arrogance. Now I associate it with humility. In order to be 100% humble, you have to have no ego and that doesn’t exist in laymen society. Too much ego holds you back from being evaluated and thus, progressing. We’re human. We don’t like to be told when we’re wrong, especially if we think we’ve been doing it right for a while. We don’t like to hear that we’re not good enough.
- Take off your mask and get rid of your ego as much as you can. Even if you think you know something, listen to what your teacher and fellow students have to say. They might have a different perspective. You can learn even from beginners.
- Practice performing in front of others and ask for critiques. Dr. Yang checks our forms weekly. It used to be just 2 Shaolin sequences per person and then I asked for Taijiquan and Taiji Weapons. I only wish I asked for it sooner.
- Perform, perform, perform.
- This is what holds some people back. They reach a certain level and maybe they win a tournament or two and think there’s nowhere to go but down. “When you win, you lose. When you lose, you win!” – Dr. Yang
Short story: J’s son was about 8 years old and competing at his first tournament. Part way through Lian Bu Quan, he froze and looked at his dad, who was also his teacher. His dad nodded and the son finished and greeted without completing the sequence. Dad: “What happened there?” Son: “I forgot.” Dad: “And why is that?” Son: “I didn’t practice enough.” Dad: “Good boy, that’s all I wanted to hear.”
You can be okay with being judged but still nervous about performing in front of an audience. This is where a lot of people are, including myself. It’s just another pill to swallow and we need things that challenge and scare us.
Testing matters… and it doesn’t
Pass or fail, the purpose is to learn. It shows you your level and what your next step is to improving. Without this, you’ll remain the same. When you pass, you have permission to practice on your own because you understand the material to a certain degree. You don’t stop training.
Testing doesn’t matter because we’re being tested all the time. In a way, this should help with the mentality for stripe testing. Your partners and teachers should always be giving you feedback. As long as you’re practicing, you’re testing your skills and abilities. You still give it your all at your actual test.
How often are you testing another person in social situations? You ask questions and gauge them by their answers. You observe how people act and react. We’re testing people all the time to determine what kind of connection we want to have with them.
How can we prepare for tests?
- Students: Train with various higher level students and teachers (in addition to reading books and watching videos). If you’re isolated, shoot a video and ask for feedback. Travel or invite instructors to visit. There are easy solutions for some students, but I’ve seen a number of dedicated ones make huge efforts and sacrifices: Quebec, New Zealand, Brazil, that Vermont/Chicago/and now Boston guy :) to name a few. Dr. Yang used to have a student drive 5 hours one-way every weekend to meet him in Boston.
- Teachers: Update your training. If possible, sit with the panel to go over the corrections as they evaluate your students. If you didn’t catch something, you’re probably doing it too.
- Checks: For tests held during camp, a check should be held at the beginning of the week so students have a chance to fix minor corrections (not major ones that take a long time like lack of root, stances, body structure, power generation, etc…). Students who train hard and travel internationally deserve this much. They can also get a sense of what the panel is looking for and if they realize they’re not adequately prepared, they can forgo testing some material and focus on others.
- Tools: Sometimes it’s not enough to say, “You need more power, root, sense of enemy, etc…” The student could go home and repeat it hundreds of times, but maybe there’s something off that they can’t see and they’ll reinforce bad habits. They shouldn’t receive step-by-step instructions for the rest of their lives, but beginners need tools to build a solid foundation. We’re mostly beginners here.
But, what do I know? I’m a beginner on my way to becoming an advanced beginner :)