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How to pass your Black Belt

The second hand flicked to the “6” on a cold Saturday November morning.

It was 9.30am.

It was time.

The chief instructor drew their warm up to a close.

With dry mouths, six nervous students took their positions in deathly silence -- each one reminiscing back to six months earlier when their chief instructor had told them that this day would eventually come. 

They would eventually stand on that spot.

And here it was.

All that could be heard was the laughter of children as they playfully kicked a football around a leaf covered park outside.  

For a brief moment each student wished they were out there as well.

A panel of no less than nine grading examiners stared back at them. 

Clipboards at the ready. 

Pens hovering. 

Their cold eyes narrowed.

Today was ‘Judgement Day’.

The first criteria was the dreaded fitness test. 

So many students had fallen at this first hurdle in the past.

But not today.

Red faced and chest heaving, the last student took his position back on the spot. 

Breathed a huge sigh of relief.

But there was no time for resting... the flexibility test immediately followed.

Limbs twisted and contorted.

And then just enough time for a mouthful of energy drink and back to it.

The technical test followed.

An hour of spinning, jumping and leaping. 

A test designed to separate the warriors from the wannabes. 

A true test of spirit. 

So many had also fallen at this hurdle.

But not today.

A well deserved ten second rest followed.

Then back to it.

A further hour of hand techniques.

In the air.

With footwork.

On pads.

The examiners scribbled away furiously. 

Smoke rising up from their pens.

And then another well deserved ten second rest.

The third hour tested kicking ability.

In the air.

With movement.

On pads.

This was the toughest section so far. 

With rapidly depleting energy levels only sheer will, determination and the outright refusal to quit got them through.

And then disaster...

A double hall booking, out of our control, meant we had to move to another room.

A smaller room.

Much smaller.

And matted.

At first the soft cushioning of the mats almost seemed to add some relief to their aching feet and ankles... but unbeknown to all of us that soft cushioining was to bring about one almighty problem that none of us could ever have envisaged...

The most intense muscle cramps.

Some suffered worse than others and four hours deep into the grading we had our first casualty and subsequent drop out.

'Are you sure?' we all double checked...

'It's a FAIL if you can't continue!'

He knew it... but unable to stand let alone kick he had to reluctantly pull himself out.

And then simply collapsed through sheer fatigue, overwhelming pain and devastation.

It was shattering.

The end of his grading.

But then something quite incredible happened.

'Don't quit! Rich'

'Keep going!'

'You can do it!'

The crowd of spectators rose to its feet.

And with a courageous heart... so did he.

And so the fourth hour tested combinations. 

No demonstrations, no second chances. 

One call and then they show. 

It was mind melting. 

If they got it wrong or dared question it the pens scribbled faster.

And they did.

All of them struggling.

And so the grading stopped again.

Six dehydrated, broken students stared back with lifeless eyes.

'You all need to take on some fluids... NOW!'

They did.

And then stepped back on the mats once more.

The fifth hour simply blended into the other four. 

Seamless and without relevance.

And then the six hour arrived.

This would be the toughest hour of all.

A demonstration of their shadow sparring ability started the hour.

Hands only.

Legs only.

Hands and legs.

‘Don’t just attack’, was the instruction. ‘Show everything!’.

They did.

‘Now for real. Kit up’.

They dragged their aching bodies across to their neatly lined up sparring kit that had been waiting patiently for them since 9.00am.

They pulled it on. 

Stepped back out.

Waiting for them were five fresh warriors. 

All with a glint in their eyes.

‘Touch gloves’.

‘Fight’.

They did!

Everyone of them fighting as if their life depended on it.

‘Change. Touch gloves. Fight’.

A new opponent.

And another.

And another.

Again.

And again.

And again.

It was relentless.

Fists flying.

Kicks powering in.

But no one was going to stop. 

Quitting was out of the question.

And then it came. 

The final round.

They faced off against their final opponent.

The previous five hours & forty five minutes had all been to prepare them for this round. 

The next two minutes were what they were being graded on.

Or so they were told.

They faced off against their final opponent. 

Their bodies buzzing with adrenaline.

They touched gloves.

‘If it’s not good enough, you fail’.

Those words hung in the air. 

They took a deep breath.

Then fought for their lives.

Full contact punches flew. 

Bone shattering kicks landed.

Knocked down.

Straight back up.

They could have been hit with baseball bats… they’d have kept fighting.

Nothing else mattered.

They fought like it was the start of their grading. 

Like it was the first thing they’d done. 

None of them stopping. 

None of them giving up.

FAIL?!

Not an option!

‘TIME!’

Bodies bruised. 

Faces bleeding. 

They staggered over to their kit bags. 

Pulled off their pads.

The chief instructor dragged the board breaker to the middle of the room.

The final demonstration -- a test of focussed power.

They all passed.

And as quick as that, it was over.

Almost.

Stuart, Andrew and Stephen.

Three broken bodies bowed out to rapturous applause from an audience that had held its breath for six and a half hours.

But two students had one last thing to show.

They stepped outside.

The cold chill of the winter air hit their aching bodies.

One student still not fully recovered from earlier.

The daunting looking field was now quiet -- the children no doubt now tucked up in their warm houses somewhere.

They took their position.

So did the nine examiners.

‘Five K in under thirty minutes.

Ready?’

Eyes staring straight ahead.  Mind focussed on the final task in front of them.

They nodded.

‘Go’.

They took off.

Muscles burning.

Cramps intensifying.

Hearts pounding.

Lap one.

Lap two.

Lap three.

Lap four.

Lap five.

Final lap.

Final straight.

They pushed harder.

Sprinted faster.

Crossed the line.

Collapsed.

For Alan and Richard, two new 2nd Dans and the end of a very long day.

And for us it was finally all over.

At least until next year that is.

And as we all headed off for a well deserved celebratory drink I couldn't help thinking to myself....

...'Now that’s how you pass your black belt!'.

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