If you take a moment to explore a variety of martial arts, one of the truisms you’ll identify is this: for every martial art, and every organization within a given martial art, there is at least one philosophy behind testing. Some martial arts, for example, heavily utilize testing in an effort to (and I’ll be polite here) ensure the viability of their style as a business. I have written at least once before about a martial arts business close to my home that charged a neighbor of mine close to $400 for their child to test for the next rank. Most of us who approach martial arts training with some semblance of a conscience recoil at such blatant attempts to monetize training, yet clearly this model works, because schools like these are not uncommon.
On the other extreme are martial arts that proclaim testing to be a useless exercise–after all, the merits of a martial artist lies not with the color of belt, or the certificate on the wall, but in their skill on the mat. More often than not, these schools are fall into one of two categories: they are small schools at which the needs of a rank seem like overkill; or they are glorified workout facilities, at which the cardiovascular efforts of the “students” are covered with a thin veneer of martial strategy.
Moving more towards the middle, we find dojos that do conduct testing, but do not charge for test fees. I, personally, find nothing inherently wrong with this particular practice. In general, if the dojo in question is part of some larger organization, there are test fees at some point along the way. These schools, however, often elect to roll the test fees into the monthly dues charged to the student. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that–I bring it up merely to point out that the student is being charged a test fee–it’s just not itemized when they pay their dues.
Perhaps the most common scenario, however, are dojos like mine: dojos at which there are tests and there are test fees, and we do charge for them. There are a number of reasons why I’m comfortable with this practice. First, testing is a community event. It allows everyone to come together and demonstrate where they are at in their training. I always attempt to emphasize that testing is not just about the test candidate; it’s about the dojo as a whole. In fact, I as an instructor learn a great deal from testing–it is an excellent way to identify trends in training, which then allows me to adjust how I teach accordingly.
Second, as a member of Kokikai Aikido, I recognize that we owe a debt to the Kokikai Organization, and to Sensei. I am comfortable with the fact that test fees go to support both; while I don’t expect new students to appreciate this to the same degree as I do, I try to point out that, because of Sensei and Kokikai, we are able to make much more rapid progress in our understanding of aikido than we could do otherwise.
Third, let’s face it. We live in a society in which “value” is almost always synonymous with “monetary value.” Almost every time I try do something without charging for it, I find that it is treated with less importance than if I charge a modest sum. This is a facet of our society, to be sure, and has nothing or little to do with martial arts training. However, it factors into the personality of nearly every person who gets on the mat, and it should be acknowledged, even if we wish it weren’t true.
Where I have shifted in my perspective has to do with when students should test. Every now and then, I have students who step onto the mat who do not want to test for ranks. Some do not want to test because they are afraid of getting up in front of people. Some have trained in other martial arts and have long since satisfied their need for rank. Whatever the reason given to me, I would always respond that testing was required. It is good for the dojo, and it is important to the organization.
Now, however, I am starting to realize that, if you’re going to have a ranking system, it is best if the students attach a momentary event; it represents the transition from static movement to motion. It shows that the student is starting to understand the basic mechanics of aikido technique. As a result, a student should feel a sense of accomplishment when they test, and a sense of responsiblity to raise their level of practice from that point forward. This mentality has little to do with the actual test or test fees. As a result, I’m now exploring a different policy: if a student truly does not wish to test, then they do not have to. However, I reserve the right to have them demonstrate their abilities just as if they were testimeaning to those ranks. An orange belt does not just signify ng. In such a situation, there would be no test fee and no rank given. My guess is that students who do not wish to test out of fear or anxiety will change their minds and test–if they know they have to do it anyway, then they might as well earn the rank. Students who have no interest in testing will be happy as well–such students typically have no reservations about demonstrating what they know–they simply don’t wish to go through the ranks.
There are some dilemmas here that must be considered. Some might say that, by allowing an option to not test for a rank, I might be taking money away from the organization. This obviously is not my intent, but I am willing to bet that the percentage of people who do not want to test represents a small fraction of the overall dojo community. (Certainly, this is true for now.) There is also the risk that some students might attempt to avoid testing in order to train without accountability. In those cases, I would have to ascertain the motivations behind the student’s unwillingness to test, and work with them should those reasons seem to me to be invalid.
It is a delicate balance: testing is a privilege, not a right. Yet the testing process is an important part of dojo life and of an individual’s training–it cannot be avoided lightly.