Black Belt Exam Tips

Black Belt Examination Tips for Kihon, Kata and Kumite

Shihan Ty Aponte, November 2013

The information provided is designed to help and inspire students in all facets of their karate training – dojo, competition and grading. Preparation is key.

This paper discusses a number of Japanese Budo concepts with which I think all serious karateka should be familiar, especially at the shodan level and above.  While this just scratches the surface, I hope that you will be inspired to seek a deeper understanding of Traditional Karatedo as you continue your studies.   The readings for the written tests for 5th kyu and above will also add to your knowledge of karate and help you progress as a student.

Note: Please give me feedback on this paper - let me know if you feel that additional information is needed or if you find it particularly helpful. 

Look back on your notes from your 1st kyu exam (June 30, 2013):

Review the commentary emailed to you from your last exam, including those directed to you and those directed toward the class in general.  (Let me know if you would like them resent to you.)  Take the comments to heart so as to avoid making the same mistakes in your shodan exam.  As I said after the 1st kyu exam:  “1st kyu brown and shodan (black) are viewed differently (higher expectations).  Naturally, for shodan we will be looking for a more confident and polished performance.”

  • Everyone needs to improve their leg strength and stamina so that they do not tire out after performing a few kata.  Sensei James put it well when he advised you to “train as if you were preparing for a marathon.”

    Remember the question asked by Sensei Vern Vaden (6th Dan) during the 1st kyu exam:
    “What are the six body dynamic ways of generating power by movement?”  
    In no specific order the dynamics are: vibration, rotation, pendulum, shifting, rising, and dropping.  Remember too that power is generated from body contraction and expansion.

    Study your Japanese terminology

    Know what is expected for the rank of shodan as listed on the Adult Rank Requirement Sheet

Kihon Examination Tips:

The three main elements of Shotokan karate training, kihon (basics), kata (form), and kumite (sparring), make up a symbiotic circle (sometimes referred to as the triad of karate).  Neglect of any one of these elements weakens the circle and serious karateka should spend equal amounts of time practicing all three.  As Sensei Masatoshi Nakayama once said, “a tripod with one leg is weaker without the other two.”

Both kata and kumite depend on proper kihon.   Practicing kihon particularly aids in the development of proper body mechanics, including path of delivery, speed, strength, posture, muscle dynamics, and breathing.  Kihon training with the correct attitude (with intense focus and energy) also develops the mind and spirit.  As Bruce Lee once said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” 

Work hard to show correct form in your stances blocks, kicks, and strikes during kihon training. Kihon as in fundamental:  Ki means ‘inner energy’ and hon means – ‘root’ or ‘origin.’  In kihon training you develop the ability to perform and to understand karate techniques in their ideal form, first as individual components and then in combinations.  Kihon may be practiced while stationary (in place) from kiba dachi or zen kutsu dachi or as kihon ido where a technique or combination of techniques is repeated while moving forward and backward across the dojo floor.

Remember to frame your moves, streamline your techniques, use a full range of motion, and use body expansion and contraction (bringing everything to the center then expanding out to the striking/blocking point), but also remember not to rush and remember to breathe.  Value your time in the dojo, especially when you work on basics.  Even the simplest movements are the building blocks of more complex ones. Train hard to build a strong foundation.  As Master Kanken Toyama once said, “Mediocrity isn’t enough. Only your very best is acceptable and then only temporally. Perfection should be your ultimate goal.”

Kata Examination Tips:

Kata is a simulated battle in which offensive and defensive actions are used in various directions against multiple imaginary opponents.  From the start, kata have served as teaching tools for karate techniques and self-defense methods.  They have also served to catalogue and preserve these teachings as they have been passed on from masters to students over many generations.  With kata training, one’s technique will improve, the reflexes will be sharpened (muscle memory), and the body will strengthen. 

Kata is not a dance or theatrical performance. It must be performed with competence and must demonstrate a clear understanding of the traditional budo principles it contains (see below).  It must demonstrate the kind of concentration, power, and speed that would be necessary in a real fight, but also grace, rhythm, and balance.  Kata performance should reflect that you have solid fundamentals and a strong spirit.

With many years of study and repetition, kata can become a form of moving Zen, with all unnecessary thoughts and movements stripped away, leaving behind only the necessary movements, performed with the greatest efficiency and beauty.   You will find that there are a wide variety of ideas, opinions, and interpretations of kata, both ancient and modern.  I myself have knowledge of but have yet to master the 26 Shotokan kata, their many subtleties, and their budo applications.  It is and likely always will be a work in progress.  Osu!

  1. Make technical perfection your goal.  Your techniques should be clean and powerful.  Perform one identifiable technique (waza) at a time, with vigorous execution and a precisely defined target. Try too to perfect the fluidity and grace of each combination of techniques.  Train to improve your technique on a daily, weekly, monthly, annual, 10th annual, and, yes even 100th annual basis (I may be bedridden with a bedpan underneath me but I will still be flicking my wrists to practice my shuto uke.)
  2. Remember that your hips are a main source of power for your techniques.  Without proper hip action, strikes and blocks will be much weaker and much less effective in combat. As Sensei Nakayama said, “punch with your hips, block with your hips, and kick with your hips.”
  3. Show the other aspects of good kihon (basic) training in your kata: frame your moves, streamline your techniques, use a full range of motion, use body expansion and contraction (bringing everything to the center then expanding out to the striking/blocking point), don’t rush, and breathe.  In kata performance, your priority should be placed on good form first, power second, and speed third.  Each of these components improve through constant repetition to build muscle memory.
  4. Present yourself confidently and let that confidence show in your techniques.  Imagine yourself fighting against opponents and visualize your attackers.  Maintain a serious, focused expression of controlled fierceness.
  5. Lastly: as you approach black belt, try to fit the mold that your senseis are trying to conform you to.  As you become a seasoned black belt you can begin to break that mold.  Do your best to own the kata, live the kata, and become the kata!  Let your fighting spirit flow!

By Richard King

Perfect form at perfect speed,
Not the greed of a rushing pace
But total command of
Beauty, power, form and grace
In motion.


Budo Principles:

In assessing your kata performance the Black Belt panel may ask you about one or more of these traditional budo principles and how they related to kihon, kata, and kumite.  Study them well.

  • KARATEDO NI SENTE NASHI (Karatedo has no first attack): All Shotokan kata begin with a defensive motion.  However, there is interpretation of this concept that allows for a preemptive strike.  Be prepared to say what it is (as was asked in the 20 precepts assignment).
  • YOI (Ready): Kata begins before the first movement, with the performer entering into the correct state of mind, an attitude that says “whatever comes my way, I can handle it.”  While in the Yoi position and state, you should mentally be ready to spring into action, to explode into the first move of the kata. You should be anticipating the command to “go!” as if at the starting line of a race where the announcement has already been made to “get ready, get set, …”
  • IKKEN HISSATSU (To annihilate with one blow): Kata should be performed with realistic speed and power. Think to yourself, “if I use this technique in a real situation, is it going to work?”  The ability to inflict devastating damage on an opponent with one blow was one of the ideas from which karate (the form of self-defense, not the sport) was originally developed.  It is imperative that your kata show application of this concept in each technique.  As Sensei Vance has said, “Power is the proper output and direction of body dynamics combined with mental spirit.”
  • HIKI-TE (Withdrawing hand): The withdrawing hand must move quickly and strongly to allow each technique to be maximally effective.  With both arms moving simultaneously, the faster you pull the harder you’ll punch.  One can think of the withdrawing hand as grabbing, pulling, or twisting the (arm, garment, hair, skin, ... of the) opponent.  One can also imagine the chambered arm locking or pinning (the arm, neck, head, or leg of) an opponent in place or striking another opponent behind them with an elbow.  In self-defense applications, such as kumite, one should remember to follow a technique by having both hands come back to cover (guard) the body, rather than by leaving one hand chambered. 
  • BUNKAI and OYO (Dismantle and apply): You should be prepared to demonstrate how the techniques of your kata can be used for self-defense.  Aside from the obvious, be prepared to show an alternate interpretation for each move or sequence in your kata. There are many acceptable interpretations and some are quite subtle.
  • Tempo: When performing your kata, show good power and speed, but also good balance and body control, smooth transitional movements, proper body shifting, and both soft and hard body applications.  There should be a certain rhythm to the kata that contrasts fast and slow techniques.  Moves should be grouped together to represent defenses and attacks against individual opponents and there should be a natural build-up of power in each sequence, followed by a pause.  Rather than a monotonous or robotic rhythm (1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9- etc.), kata should flow naturally (for example, 123---45---678---9).  You must learn your kata well enough to avoid any hesitations or errors in the performance. 
  • KOKYU (Breath control): The Black Belt panel will watch for whether your breathing is timed to the movement in the kata and aid in proper kime. There are various methods of breathing, but the most basic is 'one breath - one technique.'  Breathing should be fairly natural, but exhalations using a rapidly compressed diaphragm should jet out through the mouth. Avoid grunting and avoid puckering your lips and blowing or whistling, these sounds only distract the people watching your performance. A good understanding and application of how to regulate and control your breathing can help give you the stamina to perform multiple kata without becoming completely exhausted and having your technique suffer.  However, should you ever reach the point of exhaustion during a kata, your spirit (and your attitude of never giving up) MUST kick in. 
  • IBUKI refers to breathing with dynamic tension and is a training method for the hara that is used prominently in some advanced kata like Hangetsu and Sanchin.    IN-IBUKI refers to a soft but firm type of dynamic tension breathing and YO-IBUKI to a harder, more vocalized style of dynamic tension breathing.
  • KIME (Focus): Each technique should end with all of your power directed at the point of contact.  With proper kime, all of your physical and mental energy, breathing and kiai, stance change and hip movement, and muscle tension and body connection maximize at the split second that the technique makes contact. Sensei David Blair (7th dan) calls the result of good kime: “CRUNCH POWER.”  Kime requires the elimination of unnecessary stiffness and tension, the avoidance of excessive relaxation, and the maintenance of mental alertness.  Kime can be shown in kihon, kata, and kumite training and can be applied to blocks as well as to punches, strikes, and kicks. 
  • CHAKUGAN (Correct focus): Kata should be performed with your attention and your eyes set on your opponent, even though imaginary.  As Sensei Whiteside has said, imagine yourself as if behind your own head, looking through your eyes and focusing them, like a camera, on your opponent.
  • TACHIKATA or simply DACHI (Correct stance): You should feel grounded with proper inside or outside tension in the legs as you get set in your stance.  Keep your feet flat and grip the floor. Many make the mistake of lifting the heel off the floor, affecting their power distribution and balance.   Move your feet in a silent, gliding motion just above the floor and land with the toe before the heel. From a solid foundation maintain good posture (back straight), form, and balance.  While from one stance to another, maintain proper leg tension, move from your HARA (center), keep your center of gravity low, and keep your head at a steady level.
  • KI (Mental energy): Control of this internal charge or intrinsic energy is the source of real power and is channeled from the internal state to the external target or purpose, according to Sensei Hidetaka Nishiyama.
  • KIAI: Concentrated spirit shout! Make your kiais as loud, explosive, piercing, and sharp as possible.
  • SEISHIN or KIHAKU (Strong spirit): Show a focused, determined attitude throughout the kata - let your fighting spirit flow!  As Master Gichen Funakoshi wrote, “spirit first technique second.”
  • ZANCHIN (Remaining mind): Demonstrate your ability to maintain an active, aware, 360 degree, combat ready mind even after the movements of the kata have stopped.  After the final REI, one can relax.
  • EMBUSEN (Performance line): Try to finish your kata exactly where you started.  If you are consistently off target in the same direction, figure out how you need to adjust your technique.

Kumite Examination Tips:

As with kata, there are many strategies, theories, ideas, opinions, and counter-opinions about kumite.  There are also many different types of kumite training exercises: ippon (one-step), sanbon (three-step), gohon (five-step), and jiyu ippon (free one-step) to name a few.  After gaining experience with and experimenting with what is taught to you, you should eventually find what works best for you.  Just as kihon is considered the gateway to kata, ippon kumite is considered the gateway to jiyu kumite (free sparring).  Sparring practice will not only improve your sparring but it will also improve your kihon and kata – they are all interconnected.

  • Kumite Waza (Sparring Techniques) - Set 1: Prearranged offensive and defensive sparring techniques that include footwork, attack and counter strike, designed to prepare students for kumite. 
  • Prearranged Sparring: If you prefer not to participate in jiyu kumite for the examination it is an acceptable alternative to focus instead on practicing and demonstrating prearranged kumite, either ippon (one-step) or sanbon (three step).  However, you must inform us of this sufficiently in advance so that we can help you prepare. 
  • Jiyu-Kumite: You must be able to show a general knowledge of offensive and defensive blocks, kicks, and counter attacks.  You should be able to perform your kumite techniques with realistic intent and strong spirit but with an equally strong emphasis on control with little to no actual body contact.
  • Keep it simple: The simplest techniques (lead jab and reverse punches, front and roundhouse kicks) work best as they are quicker and easier to do.  Remember that we are not looking for you to show the fanciest moves in your arsenal.  We are looking to see if you can apply the techniques you have learned.  Concentrate on basic techniques to start.  Once you feel you have a good grasp of those, begin experimenting with other techniques as with combining techniques.
  • Don’t tense up: Relaxation is key.  Avoid unnecessary tension.  Tense muscles are slow muscles and they will tire you out much faster.  Keep loose and in motion.  Tense your muscles at the extension of your punch or block, then relax again.  However, I myself keep my stomach muscles (abs) fairly tight throughout a sparring match to maintain my body connection.  Try to keep your stance light and agile, move from the hara (center), and avoid leaning too far forward or back at the waist.
  • Control your breathing: This idea goes hand-in-hand with staying relaxed. Breathe out sharply as your techniques connect, tensing the body for good kime (and tightening the stomach just in case your opponent lands a simultaneous counter-attack).  As you maintain your guard, find times to breathe in.
  • It's not a competition: Use your sparring time to work on your footwork, timing, and fighting skills and try to do the same for your sparring partner.  Work together so that you both grow stronger.  As Master Funakoshi wrote, “Those who follow Karate-do must never forsake a humble mind and gentle manner.”

Additional Kumite Concepts:

  • TAI SABAKI (Body movement): Good body movement and shifting and is made up of proper timing, distance, body language, intent, reflex, and action/reaction. While sparring, the aim is to control the distance between you and your opponent so that you avoid your opponent’s strikes wile leaving yourself in a good position to counter-strike. A good example is the angling done against kicks in the Kumite Waza exercise.   As Mr. Miyagi said in the 1984 version of The Karate Kid: “best block, no be there…”
  • JIYU KAMAE (Free fighting ready position): Kamae refers to readiness not just of the body, but also of the mind, infused with a fighting spirit.  The command to "get ready” is KAMAE-TE, at which point you should KEEP YOUR HANDS UP and your ELBOWS TUCKED IN.  Protect your head and body at all times.  I like to teach the idea that keeping your hands out in front of you (but not overly extended) establishes your line of defense with an attitude of: I AM READY FOR YOU -- THE QUESTION IS, ARE YOU READY FOR ME? Your hands need to be out in front to intercept attacks early.  If you leave your hands by your face (as if holding a microphone to your mouth) you will be too late to block or deflect a fast strike and you WILL get hit.
  • YOMI (Reading your opponent): As part of being generally aware, you should try to read any signs which your opponent may give (telegraph) just prior to an attack.  Such awareness can allow you to take decisive action before your opponent is able to react. Conversely, you should try to remove any of these "give away" signs from your own attacks.  Another type of YOMI is to assess the style of your opponent.  For example, do they always use the same technique?  Do they always have the same leg forward?  Do they always move backwards when threatened?  Do they have a favorite leg to kick with?  Are they counter-punchers, runners, headhunters, etc? Awareness of this sort will help you to choose the attack and defense strategies that will work best against each opponent. Once you have seen how your opponent reacts to a certain attack, throw it as a feint, then switch to another attack that will strike an unguarded area.  As Master Funakoshi wrote, “move according to your opponent.”
  • As a moving target is harder to hit, consider keeping your feet and body in motion, even if just a little.  You can slide step forward and backward or even from side to side. Starting a movement from non-motion can be slower than changing speed and direction while in motion. Just don’t overdo it or you will wear yourself out before you even engage with your partner.  On the other hand, holding still, watching for opportunities, and moving explosively from a cold start can be done successfully -- it’s a matter of superior timing and decision making.
  • Blocks are good, but if your partner continues to punch and kick, something WILL eventually get through. Don’t let your partner take all of the initiative.  Block an initial attack if you have to, then TAKE the initiative back, moving in and counter-attacking. A good offense can be the best defense.  In a real fight, consider hangeki: (defense as attack) blocking strong enough to discourage further attacks.  However, in the dojo, show control and do not try to harm your opponents.
  • If you have to back up, avoid doing so in a straight line.  If you angle or circle to the sides, you can force your opponent to change direction of their attack and, if you are lucky, you can stop their momentum. Remember, your opponent can advance toward you faster than you can back up.
  • SUN-DOME (Stopping the moment before): You should aim your strikes at a spot just in front your opponent. In pre-arranged kumite, your distance should be such that attacks and counter attacks make no contact but are also no more than 1 inch from the target. In jiyu kumite your distancing should be such that fully extended techniques will make light contact with your opponent.  However, you should stop extending your technique as soon as surface contact (not penetration contact) has been made.  Adjusting distances and fully extending techniques would produce the heavy contact needed in a real combat situation. Remember, karate can be for everyone, but not everyone wants to break bricks with their head or have their blood spilled on the mat. Everyone wants to be able to continue going to work, school, etc. the next day without being laid up with broken ribs or a broken nose just because they sparred with someone who was overzealous and out of control.  Just the same, however, you always bear some responsibility for defending yourself – never underestimate an opponent, keep your eyes open and your guard (mental and physical) up at all times.  As Sensei Nakayama wrote, “Karate training transforms various parts of the body into weapons to be used freely and effectively. The quality necessary to accomplish this is self-control.  To become a victor, one must first overcome his own self.”
  • TODOME WAZA (Finishing blow technique): While we are not trying to literally destroy our opponents in the dojo, you should still strive to the produce the fastest and most powerful techniques possible, showing proper form, kime, balance and zanshin.  
  • MA-AI (Interval): Kumite practice develops your awareness of the distance between you and your opponent, your ability to move to control this distance, and your ability to apply the techniques most appropriate to any particular distance.   Good distancing is a compromise between staying at a safe distance from the opponent while being close enough to attack quickly.  Good distance control naturally incorporates timing, rhythm, and tai sabaki.  Good timing is required to block and counter-strike while maintaining an advantageous distance.
  • Etiquette: Kumite should above all be a demonstration of courtesy, humility, positive attitude, and mental & physical control.

by Richard King

Superior mind with a lion heart;
flashing weapons, quicker start;
perfect speed in relentless fire,
attacking wind that never tires
of wreaking havoc to unbalanced foe;
only the Warriors Victorious know--
champions never, e’er give up;
their will, unyielding, fills the cup
of victory.


Kumite strategy:

Many successful kumite competitors have based their strategies on one or more of these three concepts.  Serious karateka should aspire to practice applying them all in their kumite.  Sen (initiative) simply means to attack before your opponent strikes you, through better timing, distance, or both.

1)    Go no Sen (Late initiative): This is an elementary strategy in which you allow your opponent to attack first to open up a target for counter-attacks. However, the timing must be such that your counter-strike lands at the same time your opponent completes his attack and before he is able to launch another one.  You can block and counter or you can remove yourself (escape) from the line of attack, such as by angling off to the side, and then counter.

2)    Sen no Sen (Simultaneous initiative): This is an intermediate strategy in which you attack at exactly the same time as your opponent.  Your quick perception of his intention to attack allows you to intercept his attack and/or counter-attack just slightly faster.  You use your awareness and quickness to simultaneously attack and avoid/defend, cutting off the opponent's advance or strike before he can make effective contact. 

3)    Sen Sen no Sen (Superior initiative): In this advanced strategy, you and your opponent are both ready and willing to attack. Your attack must be made first in the split second between the time your opponent mentally commits to attacking and the time he begins to move. His commitment to attack will prevent him from responding with a defense.  You must perceive your opponent’s intention to attack before the attack is physically launched, the “gap between intention and action,” and preempt it with your own attack. 

As Master Funakoshi wrote, "When there are no avenues of escape or one is caught even before any attempt to escape can be made, then for the first time the use of self-defense techniques should be considered. Even at times like these, do not show any intention of attacking, but first let the attacker become careless. At that time attack him concentrating one’s whole strength in one blow to a vital point and in the moment of surprise, escape and seek shelter and help.”  This is an example of Sen-sen no sen and is considered the ultimate aim of martial strategy for self-defense. 


 MUSHIN NO SHIN – (The mind without mind)

 “When the mind is clear the body can react spontaneously”

-- Miyamoto Musashi


Close the gap between your thought and action.
Don't think too long or the opportunity is lost.


 Kumite No Gogensoku (Five Principles of Kumite)

1.     Kiwa Hayaku. Attack your opponent with a strong spirit; do not think about defense, only your attack.  (Do not confuse strong spirit with Anger).

2.     Kokorowa Shizuka. Always maintain a calm mind and spirit.

3.     Miwa Karuku. Your movement and technique must be polished and smooth.

4.     Mewa Akirakani. When you look at your opponent, see all of the opponent. Do not fix your gaze only on one spot.

5.     Wazawa Hageshiku. Your technique must be sharp & well controlled.

 Learn to attack opponents as you attack the training bag: Focused, uninhibited, with no reservations brought about by your opponent’s size, rank, or reputation.

In Kumite: Courage first; power second; technique third, and MENTAL AND PHYSICAL CONTROL ALWAYS.


 “In the heart of combat I am calm, which is as it should be because I have discovered that fear is shadow, not substance.”

-- Bong Soo Han


“If all else fails – Reverse Punch,
When in doubt – Reverse Punch”

-- Sensei M. Wolf


 “Think of your attacker’s hands and feet as swords”.

-- Gichen Funakoshi


 “The most important thing in any game is not to win but to take part.  Similarly, the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.  The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” 

-- Baron Pierre de Coubertin


My Closing Thoughts:

I do not wish to end this paper on a combative note because this is not what the modern martial arts or Budo is about.  The tough training, along with its inspirational moments, helps students to look inside, learn more about themselves and develop the means to understand and to overcome their own fears, limitations, and insecurities. 

The process of karate training is used as a vehicle for instilling self-confidence, building character, and inspiring personal excellence.  Karatedo has traditionally sought to fulfill three primary objectives.  First is the promotion of good health and vitality.  Second is the pursuit of a higher level of understanding of the art, both physically and intellectually, which includes the study of culture, tradition, and philosophy.  Third is an aim to cultivate and nurture good character and a reverence for such traits as benevolence, courtesy, humility, and respect for the intrinsic worth of all human beings. The karateka who perseveres will develop courage and skill, but also self-control and discipline. If all three objectives are used for guidance, the karate dojo becomes more than a destination – it becomes a path by which one can continue developing mentally and spiritually throughout one’s life, while prolonging that life through physical fitness. 

Shihan Ty Aponte (6th Dan Shotokan Karate-Do)
(951) 204-0341


"The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of character of its participants."

-- Master Gichin Funakoshi


 “Karatedo is a martial art for the development of character through training, so that the karateka can surmount any obstacle, tangible or intangible.”

-- Sensei Nakayama



Jewels become objects of beauty by polishing,
Man becomes a true man through training,
What jewel is lustrous from the outset?
What man is superior from the beginning?

You must always keep polishing and always keep training,
Do not relax and depreciate yourselves in the study of the Way.

-- Dogen (13th century monk who brought the Zen arts from China to Japan)