Getting to your black belt exam is a big step in your training as a jujitsuka. It’s a time full of nervous excitement as you get ready to step onto the exam mat and show off your best stuff. It seems like you’ve been training forever for this moment and the butterflies hit as you bow onto the mat. It doesn’t matter whether you are testing for shodan or yodan, the nerves can be just as bad.

However, before you step onto the mat, there are some niggling details that precede that step onto the mat, the dreaded paperwork. I mean, you’ve trained all this time, years and now you have paperwork to turn in? Really? The reality is, yes, there are a few things that are required. 

“What do you mean I can’t just get on the mat and test?!” Well, if you want an AJJF Black Belt, there are a few things the Federation would like to see from you. The actual process takes a year for shodan, longer for the higher dan ranks. That doesn’t mean you’ll be filling out paperwork for a year, although sometimes it feels like it. What I mean is that as an ikkyu testing for shodan, you are going to want to plan ahead.

Figure out when you want to test and talk to your sensei about it. Your sensei might even recommend it if they feel that you are ready. Once you figure out the exam date and location, you’ll want to fill out the Application for Examination. Keep in mind there are two pages, the first page should be read instead of ignored, because you have to initial the bottom of the first page to say you’ve read and understand what you’re getting yourself into. The second page has a bunch of info about you, pay attention to how you want your name to read on your certificate, because it’s taken from that second page. This will go to the regional exam coordinator of where you will examine.

Is your AJJF membership current? You are going to want to make sure you paid attention to the renewal notice that our Central Office Goddess, Dianna McKinzie, very nicely sends out before your membership lapses. It’d be nice if your sensei reminds you, but ultimately it’s your exam, not his or hers. There is a little leeway, so if you’re a couple days late, it’s not going to hurt your exam planning, but if you haven’t been registered as a member for six months, you’re going to have to delay those plans. 

Not only do you have to have a current AJJF membership, but you need to hold the previous rank for the number of year equal to the rank your will be testing for. Simply, you need to be a shodan for at least two years before you test for nidan and so forth. I used to think you had to be an ikkyu for a year before testing for shodan, but according to the testing procedures, that is not a requirement for shodan, although it’s a good thing to do just so you can practice the upper level techniques adequately. You do have to be at least sixteen years of age to test for shodan.

In that year before your shodan exam, you’ll want to get out and do stuff, go to clinics, black belt classes, camps, contests, any AJJF sanctioned event. You need a minimum of three AJJF sanctioned events in the three hundred sixty-five day period before the date of your exam. More is even better. For shodan and nidan, at least one of those events must be an AJJF sanctioned contest within a twelve month period preceding your exam date. So, if your exam were on, say July 4th , 2019 (and I’m not suggesting there will be exams on that date, just as an example), you would need three events, including that contest between July 4th, 2018 and July 4th, 2019. That’s why planning ahead becomes key. There’s nothing like figuring out you want to test at your regional exam and you find out your contest is too old or you don’t have enough events in the preceding year. As the level of black belt goes up, the planning gets worse. I didn’t want to hear that I should be planning for my nidan exam as soon as I passed my shodan exam. I wanted to enjoy my new rank and learn more of the cool stuff. But those events don’t magically appear, you have to go do them. And, there is no rush, this is a journey, not a race, but as such, if you’re not walking, you’re just sitting on the side watching people walk past you.

When you go to these events, take an activities sheet or better yet, buy one of those awesome Budo Passes from the AJJF Store. Have the event director or their designated agent sign your sheet or pass. It’s cool to look back on all the things you’ve done, because each event you go to represents something cool that you did. You’ll need to send copies of this to your regional exam coordinator as well.

Then there’s First Aid and CPR certification. “Why would I need that?” Well, at shodan, you could be teaching your own class if your sensei lets you. If you’re responsible for the mat, don’t you want to know what to do if someone gets hurt on your mat? We always hope no one gets injured on the mat, but things happen, old folks like me have to consider the possibility that I could have a heart attack on the mat, because I’m old and frail. And, if I were your student, wouldn’t you want to be able to help me if that happened? (My students aren’t allowed to answer that, I think I know their response.) You want to make sure your training is current, so make sure you plan ahead. You will need to send copies of the card/cards to your regional exam coordinator of the location where you intend to test.

Background check, check. Yes, there is a background check for AJJF Black Belts. It can go as fast as a couple weeks, in some cases even sooner. However, the company that does our background checks doesn’t solely do our background checks, they do many background checks for many organizations. It might take eight weeks. “But why do I have to do it?” Imagine you are a parent or a loving spouse or partner and you know nothing about this school that teaches jujitsu. Wouldn’t you want to know that the instructor isn’t going to be somebody who preys on vulnerable individuals? As a sensei, it’s something you can hang out there like, “Yes, I have a clean background check.” The best thing, it gets reported on your Time-in-Grade letter.

Ah, yes, the Time-in-Grade letter. This is a multi-dimensional document that saves you and the regional exam coordinator much redundant paperwork and time. Your Time-in-Grade letter has your status with regard to whether you have adequate time in grade for your test. It says whether your membership is current and when it expires. It will also list the date of your background check and when it’s due for renewal.

A couple more items on the Time-in-Grade (TIG) letter are the Concussion Fact sheet and the Ethics and Risk Management Course. The Concussion Fact sheet is something you read and sign so that people know you’ve read it. It’s to insure that if something happens, you know the signs, so that you can take care of your students. As someone, who has had a student have a concussion on the mat, unfortunately, it did come in really handy (as did having the dojo next to an EMT school). The Ethics and Risk Management Course and its test are to reiterate everything you should do and not do as a moral sensei. The really nice thing is, you do it, send it to the appropriate party, it gets corrected – rather quickly, I might add, and reported to Central Office so that it can be logged on your TIG letter.

Now there is a separate Ethics statement, which you have to sign also on top of the Ethics and Risk Management Course. This is separate and distinct from the Course that gets recorded on your TIG letter, and not to be confused with it. This form, you read and send to your regional exam coordinator yourself. 

Lastly, there’s the sensei’s letter of recommendation. There’s a first page that you sign and a second page that your sensei fills out, and they send it to the regional exam coordinator. That first page is your waiver of right-to-inspect. You’re basically agreeing that your sensei can fill out their recommendation and you sign away your right to look at it first. If you’re testing at the appropriate time, you don’t need to see it, your sensei has already decided you’re ready for this.

All of the above information is available in the School Head’s Handbook on the AJJF website, the link for which I always send to candidates that tell me they are interested in testing (that they don’t read).