I sit down at the dining room table together with my wife and friends, our laptops open in front of us. We’re at my friend’s parent’s country home for the weekend, and we’re there to work. Each of us has a written package to put together as part of our (shodan) black belt submission.
It’s been months since our mudansha exam – that is, the exam between our brown belt and black belt that showcases our progress and helps our sensei determine whether we’re ready to grade for black belt yet. We’ve been training hard since then, and yet, sitting here staring at our laptops, I get the feeling that none of us feels quite as prepared as we’d like to be for our grading.
As I work through the components of the written package, I find my mind wandering to the grading itself. Will my physical conditioning get me through the grading? Will my nerves get the better of me when performing my kata? Will my countless hours of sparring practice serve me well, or leave me when I need it most? Further still: will they ask me to do anything I wasn’t prepared for, anything unexpected?
It wouldn’t be the first time, not by a longshot. In gradings past, they’ve asked students to spar blindfolded, to perform their kata blindfolded, and to defend themselves against multiple attackers. Anything is possible. And that has me nervous; I don’t like being caught unprepared.
I’ve been told that our mudansha grading was more intense than what we would face at our shodan grading, and maybe physically it was, I don’t know. But I know this for sure – nothing can compare to the pressure I feel to perform at my shodan grading. I didn’t feel it for mudansha, and there’s no denying the impact your mental game has on your performance.
I’m reminded of my past, when I used to play tennis competitively. Tennis is an intensely mental game, as much as it is physical. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the lead on my opponent, only to choke and cede the match in the end. It happens because of what’s going on in your head: you get ahead, and you start to imagine the win. It makes you nervous, or careless – either way, the mistakes start to happen, and the lead starts to slip away. This only makes things worse mentally, creating a vicious circle that is very difficult to recover from.
I’ve built this grading up arguably too much in my mind – the culmination of four years of sweat, blood and tears. I would hate to show up, only for my nerves to get the better of me. But I’d like to think I’ve matured since my tennis days. I also have an advantage here that I didn’t have in my tennis tournaments: I am not competing against anyone.
There is nobody I need to “beat” in order to earn my black belt. I am not there to do better than everyone else; I am there to do my best. The only person who can beat me is me. The only question is: will my mind course like a raging river, or can I calm it so that it has the stillness of a lake in the early hours of the morning?
This realization – that it’s my mindset that will shape my performance as much as anything else – changes things for me somehow. I am reminded of all my practice, and of the weeks remaining until the grading itself, valuable time that can be used to practice and practice some more, until I can perform each technique and movement as if they were as natural as breathing. I will test each movement out in different settings, purposefully disorienting myself each time, until nothing can shake my resolve.
My mind shifts back to the present, and away from the past and future. I’m back in the dining room with my wife and friends. I look down at my laptop, at the blank screen, and begin typing. If nothing is standing in my way but me, then it’s about time I got out of my own way.
It’s going to be a good grading.