Testing is nerve wracking. Still. The 2013 Iron Mountain camp was my seventh time standing in front of Master Whitson and being evaluated on my current curriculum. This time I was testing for my second class brown belt. The material was Pekiti largo single stick tactics, Pakal twelve attacks, and empty hand vs. knife level 02. This is one of the largest curriculum blocks in Counterpoint Tactical Systems. The Pekiti largo set is a huge expansion of the material started in green belt. I spent more time studying for this belt than any other so far.
The color belt test group (white belt to first class brown) tested on Friday night. Every belt rank except for third class brown was represented. A total of sixteen students were testing, and Master Zach Whitson enlists the help of his black belts for testing. Kevin Wagner of Gem City Martial Arts and Brian Brown of Atlanta Martial Arts Club conducted my test, and I took that test with Alex McGuiness, who studies under Brian Brown.
I was a bit nervous going into the test, but I knew that I had worked hard on the material. I had spent about 18 months training, two private lessons with Master Whitson, three private lessons with Mike Miller of Springfield FMA, and weeks of training that Evan Ringle of Ryer Martial Arts Academy to get to that point. As soon as we walked outside, my nerves went into overdrive. I don’t really know why; Kevin and Brian asked important questions about the material that pierced below the surface of the techniques. For example, in the Alphabeto block, there are three different finishers that can be mixed and matched at the end of each technique. Alex and I were stuck doing one of the finishers, and Brian asked to see one that contained the breakout technique. His reason? “Because you know that strike is coming for your head.” It’s a statement that I will be telling my students when it comes to time to teach them Pekiti largo. My training had been focused on this narrow view that I had, and Brian’s one sentence opened up a whole new perspective for me. This shifting of perspective is a theme through this year’s test for me.
Then we started the Pakal twelve attacks. It was the area of the curriculum that I had considered easiest, and Master Whitson had covered it earlier that morning. This was the hardest part of the test for me. Brian and Kevin asked for the twelve attacks but with different footwork than I practiced with it. My brain said nope, not gonna happen. I just screwed it all up. I actually said aloud, “Relax, Eric. Clear your mind.” I thought, well, the worst that can happen is that you fall down and make a fool of yourself. So, I started. It wasn’t the prettiest thing I’ve ever done, but when I settled into the flow, it looked better. The big lesson here is the obvious one. Footwork, footwork, footwork. I’ve written before about how CTS footwork can be mixed and matched with the upper body work, but I had failed to follow my own advice. Master Whitson would drop in and out of our part of the test, and the only time he commented was during this section. I think that speaks well of how prepared Alex and I were. During the empty hand vs. knife part of the test, I felt at home. It was by far my best performance of the test. Alex looked smooth through each portion of the test, and I knew I was sparring was going to be rough. I couldn’t wait for it.
This was my first time sparring when we both had helmets on. Before we began, Kevin came over and gave me a short pep talk, which I really appreciated. It was the most fun sparring that I’ve ever had. Since largo range is characterized by big, powerful strikes, we wear protective gear. The goal, however, is not to rely on the protective gear. My own personal goal for sparring was to enter on angles instead of moving just straight forward and straight backwards. Upon review of the videos, I accomplished that. At the end of the first video (above), Master Whitson says take a breather. He then looks at me and says, “Breathe.” I had been holding my breath for who knows how long.
If you watch the videos, you’ll notice that I tend to be focused on hitting the arm more than the head. Again, my intense focus isn’t a bad thing but there are more targets than just the arm.
So, I dropped the stick twice. Hey, it happens. Alex is a talented fighter, and he did a great job. I failed by just bending over to pick it up. I was so focused on the stick part that I forgot about the sparring part. It was embarrassing, but mistakes happen. Next time, I spar, I’ll remember to NOT do that.
It was stressful and fun at the same time. I learned a lot and put helmets on the STL Counterpoint “equipment to buy” list. I have a number of notes written down to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Once we finished and sat down to watch the final round of sparring, I crashed. I was exhausted. I left everything I had out on the floor. Kevin and Brian came up to Alex and I to congratulate us. We both got numerous positive comments from the CTS group; I don’t remember if I replied or not because I was so damn tired. We both passed our test.
On Saturday night, the black belt level tests were conducted. This year, the five candidates were testing for first black. Each of them had their strengths. The first that comes to mind is CR Munhall’s foot work. It was fast, smooth, and might actually have been dance moves. What I enjoyed about watching their test was how they all handled it in their own way. Congratulations to each of them. Counterpoint Tactical Systems has its first and only female black belt in Jenna Pattison, and if you looked around the training hall that night, you’d have seen that she’s not gonna be the only one. She’ll have company soon.
This is the fourth time I’ve watched Master Whitson conduct a first degree black belt test. This is the fourth time that I’ve been inspired by the candidates. They all were prepared, and they finished their test off with the best sparring of the weekend. Because of those tests, I have an idea of what I need to do when my turn comes.
It would be easy to think that the test is just a review of your level of material. It’s also a test of yourself. I’ve talked about how testing is also a time to learn. Mistakes are made, and if a note comes from Master Whitson or the black belts that are administering your test, take it. Learn from it. Master Whitson likes to throw curves at you during the test as well. I think he does this to test whether you’ve played with the material or just learned it as rote memory. Counterpoint Tactical System is not concerned with memorization; it is not a list of techniques to be applied only as laid out in the curriculum. It is a system that requires play, one that requires you to mix and match to see what you come up with. So, changing up the footwork on a portion of the test reminds us that we need to be versatile with the material. As any adult knows (or should), things don’t always go the way you want them to. This is another reason for the curve. It’s an opportunity to learn how you react to changes.
The 2013 Iron Mountain camp was an important milestone for a lot of us, and as usual, Master Zach Whitson delivered an experience that was better than the year before. I want to thank Master Whitson and Ms. Dian Whitson for their hard work. Each camp is a huge effort, and I know that all of us who attend appreciate everything they do. Iron Mountain camp is the social heart of the Counterpoint Tactical System. We make friends; we form connections; we learn; we test; we eat, drink, and be merry; we train; we laugh; and we grow as martial artists.