Last Saturday was my first Hapkido grading.

I wasn’t nervous.

I knew my theory. I had practiced my solo and partner self defence routines a hundred times. I had filmed myself practising my patterns and reviewed them again and again, adjusting every error I could identify. I’d even gone to the previous grading and watched other people grade for this same belt, so I knew what to expect and what was expected.

I’ve graded dozens of times before in other arts. That was awhile ago, but if anything that made me more confident. I was a kid then and now I was a grown man with a family. Successful. Responsible. What did I have to be nervous about?

Walking onto the mat for my turn, I was calm.

I was ready.

Then, the grading began and the nerves me hit like a sledgehammer. My heart rate skyrocketed. I was second guessing everything. Techniques that I knew backwards suddenly felt uncertain.

What the hell?

I stumbled through the rest of the grading, convinced I’d blown it. I was frankly astonished to find out that I’d passed, and even more astonished when training mates who were watching told me I’d done well. Didn’t they see me? They were just being kind, right?

I’d prepared for a grading that didn’t take place, and I was completely unprepared for the grading that did take place.

I watched some video on one of their phones. It looked better than it had felt. Relieved that I hadn’t forgotten everything, I was puzzled about two things:

  • Why did the nerves hit me suddenly?
  • Why did my performance feel so much worse than it was?

I’ve been pondering on this during the last week. Not sure I know the answer yet, but one thing that stands out was the speed of the grading.

I don’t mean the speed of each technique, I mean the gaps between them.

In all my practise, I’d had plenty of time between techniques to think about each one. To mentally prepare for what was next.

In the grading, the commands to perform each technique came rapid fire. I’d barely completed one before the next had begun. It was a whirlwind of attacks from my partner and my head was spinning.

It resembled nothing I’d done in my preparation, and I think that’s the key.

I walked in calm because I expected the grading to be like my prep. It wasn’t.

I’d prepared for a grading that didn’t take place, and I was completely unprepared for the grading that did take place.

I’m grateful I passed, but on reflection I think I’m even more grateful for the shock I received. Better to learn that lesson in my first grading than later on.