The web site lists some simple expectations for kyu promotion beyond actual test performance requirements. These are just guidelines, and the instructors give individual consideration for health, age, and other commitments. In this document, I will list some of the other expectations I have have of students as they progress through ranks.
In general, I encourage ambition. If you can maintain constant training and focus, I believe it is a good (but not necessary) thing for students to want to move through the ranks quickly. However, the rank testing requirements are goals for you as students to work toward, and not necessarily what the instructors measure in terms of your readiness to test. If you donʼt get the opportunity to test as frequently as you think you deserve, trust that the instructors really are looking at your long-term potential over the short term. Too much rank too quickly can stunt how far you can go in the long run. Trust me, if you are serious about being a martial artist, the time between kyu ranks is inconsequential; I have taken over 24 kyu tests before I got my first black belt in Aikido.
If you have questions about your progress and when you might test next, you can always talk to the head instructor (me). I am always available for questions, and will never hold it against you if you ask. There is no guarantee I will give you an answer, or an answer that you want; however, I will always listen and I am pleased to hear when a student has ambition and is focused on training goals.
Sometimes students ask me for “homework” or for kata, exercises, or special advice to help their training. I have one requirement for this; I will in fact give you special attention and advice, but you have to demonstrate that you are ready for it and willing to follow through by first doing 40 ukemi (preferably breakfalls) before every class for three months. Or 60. or 80.
Remember that only one characteristic is required of a person to become a black belt, and eventually a respected Aikido instructor: determination. It is within your power to firmly set your mind on these goals, and hold yourself to them.
Training and responsibilities at all levels
It is important for all students at all levels to help maintain and build the dojo; keep it clean, and help it to grow.
You must maintain a sincere and focused attitude on the mat while training. Laughing and enjoying yourselves is fine! However, you should not descend into conversation, stop training while on the mat, or lose respect for your partner or those around you.
You should never teach your partner. If they look frustrated or confused, you can ask if they want feedback; but first you should ask yourself if there is a way to guide them through their confusion by being a better uke.
Sixth kyu-fifth kyu
I expect students at this level to be able to perform basic forward rolls and back falls, and to help new students with warmup exercises.
I expect fourth kyu students to be able to perform backward rolls. If you are not introduced to these in class, you will need to seek a senior student to show them to you.
I expect third kyu students to own a bokken, and be able to teach new students how to do a back fall, and how to do a basic forward roll from the ground the way one of the USF Aikido Club instructors would teach it.
I expect second kyu students to be able to perform breakfalls comfortably. This includes taking a full breakfall from a shihonage or kotegaeshi technique, or koshinage. If you are not introduced to these in class, you will need to seek a senior student to show them to you. I will make considerations for health and age.
Second kyu students should become familiar with bokken kata 1-5.
1st kyu students are expected to own a jo, tanto, and shinai, and be able to lead warmup if necessary. I expect first kyu students to be comfortable performing the Frank Ostoff-style feather falls during warmup, and introduce them to new students. First kyu students are also expected to be taking a leadership role in contributing to the dojo. This can mean for new student recruitment, activity or seminar organization, fundraising, physical care and improvement of the dojo, club administration, representing USF Aikido to other dojos where needed, or any other commitment that will help to make USF Aikido stronger.
First kyu students should focus on learning bokken kata 1-5 and jo kata 1-6 proficiently. Students at this level are expected to start showing leadership. this means helping new students train, greeting visitors and handling other tasks without being asked.
Ikkyu students are also expected to start attending seminars, although students are encouraged to attend seminars (especially local ones) as soon as they have any rank. Attendance of at least one summer or winter camp is mandatory before black belt.
During training, ikkyu students are expected to show superior levels of training discipline. You can interpret this in many ways, but at a minimum expect it to mean that you should never let yourself perform halfhearted ukemi, or let yourself be lazy during training. You may pace yourself, but you should lead by example to show everyone that you are giving 100% the entire time you are training.
Black belt candidates
Of course, black belt promotions are special, and we hold a very high standard at USF Aikido. It is possible to get promoted to every other rank purely based on regular attendance and in-class effort. However, in my mind nobody in our dojo will be considered for black belt until they have put in superlative effort beyond and outside of the dojo – “150% for six months”. This means that you can attend our club regularly for twenty years, and not get black belt. This may seem extreme, but I inherit my expectations and standards from my own sensei. Further, I think that the black belt preparation, test, and promotion experience should be life-changing and transformational, and you most definitely will not experience these things if you “coast” toward shodan. I will give specific instructions, goals and tasks to each candidate as they start preparing for their test.
Contrary to what many believe, the shodan test is not about demonstrating mastery of Aikido. It is about demonstrating performance of clear, consistent, basic technique. Your examination committee will be unimpressed by how many elegant, “advanced” variations you can demonstrate during your test, but instead are looking for how clearly you can manifest textbook technique. I say “textbook” because you should imagine that photos taken during your test should all show exemplary posture, dignity, control, and the standard form of your techniques that look like they were taken right out of a photographic “introduction to Aikido for beginners” textbook. It is about demonstrating jutsu, the syllabus of Aikido techniques.
I realize that this may seem at odds to the ideals of Aikido – blending, improvisation, no expectations, infinite variation with no expectations of how the conflict will end. It is resolved when we realize that the black belt test proves that the candidate has all of the basic skills and tools internalized to be able to now focus on the higher content and concepts of Aikido. Remember that for a long time, O Sensei only accepted students into his Dojo that already had a black belt and recommendation from another martial art.
I expect black belt candidates to have mastered basic, traditional ukemi. This means traditional, unhesitating breakfalls, backfalls, and rolls in any direction. I do not expect candidates to be masters of feather falls or any other type of ukemi. However, candidates will be entering a time when they will have greater exposure to high level instructors and other styles, and to represent our Dojo and our Aikido lineage, I expect to see the following characteristics manifest in each candidate:
- Spontaneous, unresisting receptivity. This means when you train, Nage never has to feel your resistance to their technique because you canʼt keep up, because you canʼt feel it, or because you think your job is to try to overpower it. You should have the ability to train for an entire class showing explosive ukemi, without Nage ever having to slow down to preserve you or fight your resistance. You should be able to move your body ahead of Nageʼs technique through the entire technique, to accelerate or surf ahead of the force Nage is applying – even if Nage changes technique. This is critical for your ability to perceive the instruction you will begin to receive at your next level.
- Strong center – It is important to be able to cultivate strong core strength, a powerful center while training, even though you should never apply it to stop a training partner. Your Nage should always be able to perceive – without you explaining – how they can finish the technique by changing what they are doing.
- Breathing – By the time of your test, you should have control of your breath during testing and extended training. This isnʼt to say you canʼt become tired or winded, but you should have been given exercises to help you keep your breath from becoming ragged or out of control.
- Composure and posture – At all times during your test, you should maintain clear, sharp hanmi (stance) and crisp, confident, tall posture. Do not let your back and shoulders droop as you tire. You should always be focused on Uke, with a visible physical focus that looks like you are prepared to be attacked or move at any instant.
- Respect – It should go without saying that you should manifest the highest levels of respect and protocol before and during your test. During the test, short of a medical emergency, there is one acceptable answer to anything the examination committee asks of you… “Yes, Sensei” or “Hai Sensei”. It is acceptable to respectfully ask your examiner to clarify something you did not hear or understand, but never debate, discuss with, or take liberties with any member of your examination committee.
- Blending – You should be able to demonstrate “aiki” by moving the point of connection to where uke cannot apply force into you, so there is no “clash” when you meet and you do not complete the technique by muscling.
Eventually, when you become shodan, your training will change. You will be expected to try to challenge your sensei – within reason – when you are called to uke, but that you should never make your sensei wait or slow down while you decide to take ukemi. When you line up for every class, you should decide right away on your first time as uke to take a big breakfall. The purpose isnʼt to make the instructor look good, but to never slow down or inhibit instruction while you decide whether or not to take ukemi, or to work yourself up to the level of ukemi equal to the level of technique the instructor would like to show.
You should cultivate zanshin, and try to keep an eye on where you sensei is at all times. This is especially important during seminars.
You will need to start setting your own goals and transforming your own technique. Tell yourself, “for the next three months, in every class, I want to focus on _____”. You can be inspired by a seminar you went to, or by a shortcoming you wish to overcome, or whatever you want. You can ask your instructor for suggestions, but itʼs best if itʼs something that appeals to from your own training.
I personally expect all yudansha, beginning with shodan, to begin to innovate with their ukemi. A good baseline will be to master feather falls – not just Frank Ostoff Senseiʼs style which we often practice, but feather front falls and feather irimi backfalls too. I think it is important for you to take your ukemi above and beyond basics, and come up with something that uniquely fits you; it does not have to be breakfalls but anything that lets you attack with speed and power and adapt / respond quickly and safely.
It will begin to be important for you to, in your own mind, start “picking and choosing” which technique and instruction you will embrace. Certainly, while you are in an instructorʼs class, you should do things the way they are showing right then and there. However, you have an obligation to develop a critical mind and analytical eye to what you are shown, and not absorb blindly. You should feel that any reason you are told to do something a certain way has the weight of concrete proof behind it. You should ask yourself “will that work for me? Can I make it mine?”. You should especially look at the instructor from a distant, objective perspective, and ask yourself “What about him or her do I not like? Do they have any chronic injuries or blind spots I wish to avoid? Is there anything in what they are trying to teach me which can, or cannot be modified so that I donʼt suffer the same problems they do?” This sounds disrespectful, and you should certainly keep your thoughts to yourself and your interactions very respectful. However, nobody else will tell you how to not end up a physical wreck as you get older, and itʼs up to you to learn to recognize when an instructor is saying something with deep value in it and when an instructor is saying something out of lack of perspective or ignorance “because thatʼs how I was taught”.
At this point, it will be important for you to attend national seminars, and meet and build friendships with other yudansha you can trust and train with at a high level. Locally, find other yudansha you can build a very high level of trust with so you can “key up” your training to the point of physical fear, to the edge of danger, to a high level of training… particularly with weapons. See if you can break some weapons. Find a way to train to the point of sheer exhaustion, and to train in the moment where it requires so much focus that you become mentally exhausted quickly and it takes all of your attention to move, adapt, strike, and take ukemi appropriately. You are entering a time when you and somebody else near your level can start “bootstrapping” your technique to new levels purely by the amount of effort and intent you invest in your training together and your mutual exploration of technique.
Start playing with kaishiwaza in your regular training… keep an eye out for the rare opportunity when you can reverse your nageʼs technique by adding to it, not resisting. It must be effortless, and if you fail, fail gracefully and take the ukemi. You should only count it as a success if you surprise your nage completely and they laugh.
You should learn how to lead your partner by example, and not by words.
You should learn all 12 of the bokken kata and the six jo kata.
You should have a ready answer for why you do Aikido, and what Aikido is. These will change over time.
The nidan exam is essentially the same test as shodan, except with more weapons kata and perhaps with an additional randori (such as against three different weapons). During the test, however, the examination committee will expect to see more confidence, more power, and will be receptive to more improvisational expression so long as a good foundation of basic technique stays present. Your breathing should be under control, and your energy level should be noticeably higher. In my mind, for this test you should be able to begin summoning a little “fire” into your eyes, which is a marshalling of all your attention and focus and intent and projecting it at uke in a way that is visible to all.
Nidan is the bridge between shodan (the introduction to true Aikido training) and instructor training. The time between nidan and sandan will seem like a long wait by comparison to your other ranks, and this does create an opportunity.
At this point, I encourage every student to build proficiency in an outside art or sport. Go get some rank in another martial art (systema, tai chi, whatever – just not something too similar to Aikido), or physical discipline (yoga, chi gung), or sport (running, golf, etc) or meditative art (zazen, calligraphy, etc). Embrace it like a discipline, without leaving Aikido. Discover what Aikido teaches you about it, and what it teaches you about Aikido. You will find this will help you break through times in your training when you run out of progress and inspiration, and help to distinguish and define your style.
You should start seeking out shihan, and following one to multiple seminars. Try to build a relationship with one that appeals to you and your Aikido. Try to discover how you can advance your training in those instants when you are interacting with them.
Start training with authority. When you deal with an attacker, try to be simultaneously relaxed and powerful, and put uke on the mat with no question of noncompliance.
Pick up some lightweight weapons for kata training. Try to train hard without breaking them.
Learn the bokken kata variations, or the jo patrol kata.
Learn how to maintain intense levels of training, but reduce the injuries you receive (I call it “operator error”). Relax more. Pay more attention. Wait longer into the technique. Give more but be ready to move more. Bounce, donʼt fight.