A bit over a year ago I had an idea of reviving our blog with some posts about getting ready for my godan exam. I never wrote a word but I made the mistake of telling my friends about the idea. Heikka hasn't let me of the hook, so hopefully my post-exam post will offer some consolation.
In May I attended a seminar called "Kendo Master Course". A bit pompous name for a very helpful seminar focused only on exams, some mock exams and a lot of feedback. In this seminar Markus Frey introduced a nice of planning a timeline; what happens a year, a month, a week, a day and an hour before the exam. Also Mikko Salonen pointed out that it might be useful to make a schedule for the exam day just to make things clear and focus on the things that matter. In this blog post I present my timeline, show videos of my exam that Akseli so kindly recorded and give some general tips for in the end.
A YEAR BEFORE (more or less)
I did my yondan in the World Championships in Italy and thought that it would be a good idea to see the godan grading in the WKC in Tokyo. If you're unfamiliar with the WKC schedule the exams are usually on Monday morning after the sayonara party. I had a great time at the party. But still I'm 100% sure that the last thing I did before going to bed after the sayonara party, karaoke party, Atom Club and a desperate walk towards the Olympic Village was setting up an alarm at 9 am. Well, I woke up at 11 am and the whole thing was over. Mia passed so great for her, all I got was a sunny and hilarious day with other Finns and Kouros in a park in Daimon.
The next time I was going to witness the godan exam was in Brussels in February. Well, it happened that I had to leave for the airport before seeing any of this action so that went well. Again.
A MONTH BEFORE
So the earliest possible timing I could have gone for the exam was in May. Godan exams are rare in Finland, in the last five years there have been two chances to take the test. Long story short, I planned going to three different seminars in Europe but every time my plans failed miserably by overlapping with work or seminars in Finland. The only chance for godan in Finland was in the 30th Anniversary Seminar of the Finnish Kendo Association but that then overlapped with a unique family trip. So I missed yet again a chance for the exam.
The good thing about that anniversary seminar was that later I saw videos of the exam. I was studying the videos for what was needed for passing the exam and which mistakes could lead to a failure. From the screen the results seemed confusing and eventually I gave up trying to learn anything from them. Believe me, I tried.
Eventually I cleared my schedule and decided I have to get to Belgrade in October. A big incentive was the fact that there were no godan exams coming in Finland by the end of the year.
A WEEK BEFORE
I found out that I had wrong results of the godan exam in the videos. I rewatched the videos but I was a bit tired of those after watching them already a couple of times. I missed seeing the grading live twice when I had the chance, the one time I saw anything from a grading probably did not do me any good.
A DAY BEFORE
Like I mentioned, I attended the Belgrade Kendo Trophy so the day before I was in a shiai. Concentrating on the shiai was difficult and doing it felt almost counterproductive for the exam. Anyway, the day went okay and two or three beers in the sayonara dinner would put me to sleep and I could get some rest for the big day.
THE EXAM DAY
The plan was to sleep almost until 8 am, have breakfast, do some shiai, have lunch, relax and take the exam.
Woke up at 5 am. Did I need to? No. Turns out I get stressed out. The last couple nights had been quite short so I felt sleep deprived. What a start for the day. I had not planned this for the schedule but I guess getting up earlier is better.
Getting ready for the team shiai was a burden. My teammates noted that I was a bit tense and Joonas told me to think happy thoughts. Before that I was grumpy, after that I was utterly infuriated. Like I mentioned, turns out I get stressed out.
I hadn't gotten lunch for me that day so turns out I'm a bad planner also. Like that would be a big surprise for you at this point…
I was so tired the whole day but my shiai performance was surprisingly good and eventually we picked up the bronze medals from the award ceremony. Couldn't have done that without Lisa who told me to be a great taisho and win matches. Can't imagine why she was saying stuff like that. We won her team mainly because of that.
A MINUTE BEFORE
Ambjörn: "You look pale even for a Finn."
Funny, after being so tense and tired I felt ready when doing the first bow. The first match wasn't perfect for me but I guess my performance was adequate. It felt relieving to get an ippon with the last second in the first match, even if the suriage was a bit lousy. That men got me some confidence for the second match and I would say that it went better for me than the first one. Not to brag, but during the second match there was a moment when I realized I was going for kata. I don't remember much from the matches because the adrenaline kicked in but I remember that feeling. In lack of a better word it was simply awesome. This gave me even more energy to show my best kendo until the last yame was shouted.
Of course I was nervous doing kata in the exam but I wasn't worried. Our techniques and timings weren't always perfect but there wasn't any bigger mistakes.
As you may have figured out the exam itself was the only thing that went according to my plans. Still I don't think that the "effort" was in vain: during that planning period I was actively preparing myself mentally for the exam. I believe this had a huge impact on my performance during those few minutes.
All funny business aside I thought I could share some steps that helped me pass the exam. You might notice some things that could have been in the timeline but a compact list might be more effective
1. Talk with your sensei. Talk a lot. I asked for feedback in every keiko during the last month.
2. Train so much that you are confident taking the exam. Its possible to fail even if you have all the confidence in the world but its really difficult to pass if you have none. If you doubt yourself, go back to step 1 and repeat steps 1 and 2 until ready.
3. "Think that every keiko is your exam." This small but powerful piece of advice was given in the Kendo Master Course. At least for me it was useful in the weeks before the exam.
4. Attend a mock exam. Demand for feedback after one if you don't get it for some reason. The more you can do this the better.
5. Make sure your equipment is okay. You don't want to be dealing with holes in your kote palms or replacing your men himo the minute before the exam. Make sure you wear your bogu correctly. You can make the first impression only once. If you're unsure about something go back to step 1.
These are some general steps that helped me during my preparation. Hopefully they are useful for others too. You can find a lot of tips for the exams in different books and blogs but I can't stress enough that the thing that helped me the most was step 1.
A relieved godan who has to do this again in five years which is practically forever.