Testing is an integral part of the Counterpoint Tactical System Iron Mountain camp. The days are for curriculum (Day One, Day Two, and Day Three), and the few hours before dinner are for testing. Every year a number of students stand in front of the exam board to display the skills on which they’ve been working. Normally, Fridays are for the color belt curriculum, and Saturdays are reserved for black belt testing. But this year, there were so many curriculum levels, Master Zach Whitson expanded the testing to three nights. Every curriculum level from blue belt up to fourth degree black belt tested at camp this year. Except no one was ready for second class brown belt. This year I once again stood in front of the exam board, but this time, I tested for the big one – first degree black belt.
CTS students can test for color belts at any of Master Zach Whitson’s seminars, but Iron Mountain camp is the only location for black belt exams. The 2015 camp had thirteen total black belt candidates: six at first degree, one at second, five for third, and the first fourth degree black belt exam in the system. Because the black belt curriculum blocks are very large, the black belt exams tend to take more time than the others. Due to the length of the time, the fourth degree test was administered on Thursday night. The color belt up through second degree black tested on Friday, and third degree black went up on Saturday night. The curriculum portion of the test involves students demonstrating their skills whether in form or drill. The end of each test, though, is where the sparring happens. That’s my favorite part.
Thursday is typically a travel day. Students are arriving, finding their rooms, looking for dinner. The night is dedicated to being social and getting caught up with one another. This year, Josh Ryer of Ryer Martial Arts Academy tested for the fourth degree black belt, though. While the rest of us were eating dinner, Josh and the people who would uke for him were warming up. Josh tested over panantukan three, double knife level one, and standup grappling level two. It was a long exam, and Josh had a different training partner for each block. The test took a long time, and Josh was working hard. Since Josh was the inaugural fourth degree black belt in CTS, Master Zach Whitson was the only member of the exam board. Josh knocked it out of the park. The test was smooth. While Master Whitson asked him to repeat a movement or two, Josh made no mistakes. It was clear that Josh had been working hard on his material. Josh continues to lead through action in how to take an exam.
Next, we’re going out of order to the third degree black belt test, which took place on Saturday night before dinner. Russ Haas of Haastyle Martial Arts, Kevin Lee Wagner of Gem City Martial Arts, Brian Brown of Atlanta Martial Arts Club, David Curet and Joel Daugherty of Ryer Martial Arts Academy all stood for the exam. Master Whitson and Josh Ryer were the exam board that oversaw three curriculum blocks. During my first Iron Mountain camp back in 2010, these guys tested for their first degree black belt. For me, they set the example of how to perform on a black belt exam. This year was the third time I’ve seen them test, and each time, the quality of their performances gets better and better. Despite the distance that separates them, this group works very well together. I know they train together every opportunity that they get. They all put on a superb performance, and they passed.
On Friday night, the first belt – blue – all the way up through second black belt tested. The testing board for Friday night was Master Whitson and all the black belts that attended camp. CR Munhall of Atlanta Martial Arts tested for second degree black belt. Due to a change for this year’s curriculum and going into the future, part of CR’s exam was included with the first degree black belt exam. Adam Furlough, Johnny Lacey, and Daniel Lacey of Gem City Martial Arts, Chad Dougherty of Ryer Martial Arts Academy, Alex McGuinness of Atlanta Martial Club, and I tested for first degree black belt. Blue, green, red, third brown, and first brown belt all underwent the curriculum demonstration part at the same time that we did. Since I was a participant, my observations were limited to the 2015 black belt class. I didn’t get to see the color belts test their curriculum skills. Master Whitson gave each belt level its own time for sparring. One match at a time progressed with the rest of camp watching. Based on the sparring performances of the other belts, everyone did a great job. Not everyone passed their exam, but I know everyone gave everything they had. Everyone should be proud of their performance. As I said, the sparring is my favorite part, and watching the various belt levels spar got me pumped up for my turn.
First black is a milestone for the CTS student. It transitions from basics to intermediate and, then, advanced skills. It’s a time when you learn not only new skills but how to teach and how to run an exam. First black belt is an important belt. Needless to say, I worked very hard for the past year on this material. When I got to camp, I was strangely not nervous. My typical test experience is one where I’m so nervous that I mentally list all that could go wrong and then have to argue against all those reasons before the exam starts. The nerves continue on throughout the curriculum demonstration portion. Because sparring is awesome, I typically don’t notice the nerves until it’s done. Then, I review and pick on the things that I know I did wrong. For this exam, I was nervous for the weeks leading up to the exam. I knew that this was a talented group, and that I’d have to be at my best. Master Whitson visited Springfield FMA a few weeks before camp, and we worked two of the three curriculum blocks required for the test. He told me I was ready, and you think that would have lessened the nerves. Sadly, it increased them because I knew I was ready. But would I step up and perform during the exam? Or would I get test amnesia?
When I landed in the Charlotte, my nerves went away. Reuniting with my friends had a part in it. The first portion of the exam was the espada y daga twelve attacks. This is a solo form that is sort of like a traditional martial arts kata. For these twelve attacks, the count is made on the daga strike, and the group counts to keep the form in sync with each other. The solo drills are always the hardest for me. I respond better when someone is trying to hit me in the face with a stick. Once we started the partner drills; I settled in and had fun. We got notes; a few adjustments were made. Joel Daugherty oversaw our test, and he was assisted by Josh Ryer. The test went faster than I expected. I was really enjoying myself, but soon it was time to spar.
Part of my curriculum was double stick tactics and sparring. All of my preparation was geared towards double stick. I had sparred that with Mike Miller and the guys of STL Counterpoint. But before we began, Master Whitson decided to go with espada y daga (EyD) sparring. We had a padded stick in one hand and a Nok knife in the other. I think I only got one session of espada y daga sparring in before camp. But I was happier sparring EyD than double stick. Double stick sparring involves maintaining range until you can barrage your way in; whereas EyD has a component of both long and short range. You play at long range with the padded stick, but you try to crack through into short range. I really, really enjoyed this and look forward to doing it again. Here’s the video of me and Alex sparring. Thanks to Shaun Caplan of Haastyle Martial Arts for recording this for me.
Alex was a tough opponent, and we started out fast. We slugged it out, and in the end, we both got to show some good technique. The only thing that I remember is Master Whitson saying ten seconds left, and I thought what the hell and just waded in. The final portion is me going straight ahead and just swinging away with stick and knife. It’s not the prettiest technique ever. But that last bit was just for entertainment purposes because I was exhausted. Then, I tried to catch my breath while the other black belts sparred. Next, Adam needed a sparring partner for espada y daga; so I stepped up. It was a lot of fun, and Adam disarmed the daga twice during this session. He was able to knock the knife from my grip, and I was unable to recover without a break. The video is from Durham Tactical Martial Arts.
If I’m being honest, I knew I had passed the test after completing the twelve attacks demonstration. That block of curriculum caused a little bit of nerves, and I decided to just do what I knew I was capable of. We got notes from Josh and Joel, and I took a lot from the test. But it was the easiest one I’ve taken as a CTS student. I had prepared so much that I was confident enough to just act and not think. The material, drills, and sparring were the most difficult that I’ve encountered so far, but the test was easy because I had fun. For the rest of the exam, I was in the moment and didn’t focus on the outcome. In fact, my focus was on being a good partner for the other guy testing. But I didn’t have to worry about that because everyone had a high skill level. I’m proud to say that the whole first degree black belt group passed their exam. It was an honor to work with these guys. They challenged me to work hard and spar hard. Congrats gentlemen, and let’s do it again in two years!
The 2015 Iron Mountain camp is history now. Camp was amazing as always. It had its ups and downs like anything in life, but what made camp amazing is that the CTS family is there for you. They’ll support you at your lows and toast you at your highs. I saw this time and again at camp. The group rallied around pain, listened when needed, and had a great time. In short, camp was inspiring. Thank you to all who attended for making it a special year. Thank you to Zach and Diane Whitson for all the work they do to make camp what it is. Also, thank you to Master Whitson for bringing this group together, for sharing his knowledge and his time with us, and for his encouragement. See you next year!