View Full Version : Testing students with extreme anxiety

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07-20-2001, 09:27 AM
I was wondering how you instructors out there deal with students that have extreme test anxiety. I just spot promoted one of my long-term students because she won't show up on test dates. When I talked to her about it, she said it is a deep rooted fear that she has had since she was young. She has an extreme phobia and I don't feel that I am qualified to be the catalyst that cures her by forcing her to test.

Has anyone (teacher or student) had to deal with a situation like this? How did you handle it?

07-20-2001, 09:54 AM

I think you are on the right track with not forcing the student to test. I've noticed similar instances in the past where students that were quite capable of passing all the test requirements would not want to formally test for fear of failure or embarassment. Some could perform everything very well but would "freeze up" when they needed to demonstrate the techniques for the testing committee. I've found that by not holding a formal test but observing the student over a period of several class sessions I'm able to accurately determine their abilities and make a decision for promotion. By doing this, the student comes to class and trains hard each day, not really knowing that all the while I'm watching closely to see if they are ready for promotion. Honestly, most students are not going to test until they are completely ready; and even then, all they are showing is that they know how to do the techniques / exercises. All of that can be determined by watching the student(s) over the course of several classes. I've visited several dojo that promote without the use of formal tests(the dojo I received the majority of my training in had formal tests). I use this method with the children's classes. I've found that when they know I'm watching closely all the time and that they need to train well each and every day; the children put more effort into learning and paying attention during class. Just my thoughts on the matter. Have a good day!

07-20-2001, 04:07 PM
I'm not even close to being an instructor, but I've seen a few methods tried, and know what I tell folks who are scared: one sensei went to 12 kyus, so your first one was rolls, standing in hanmi, and sitting in seiza, the next was the basic attacks, etc, with the idea that those who had anxiety wouldn't mind how little and how easy the first few tests were and as they went along develop confidence. While it seemed like a good idea to me, those who were afraid just saw it as 12 tests rather than 5 or 6. I hear he's gone back to the 6 test version. When i hear someone who is anxious (and i will admit it is often a female while we are dressing, but it could just be women admit fear more readily), I point out how much we all care about her and eachother, so it is really like just practicing with one person while her friends cheer her on, that they wouldn't let her test if she didn't already know it, that it is just a formality and a chance for her to shine. I contrast what they do for a living (PhD, marketing exec, raising four boys, etc) and how hard that really is, "and this is, after all, just Aikido" and besides "if you REALLY screw up, or sensei gets up on the wrong side of bed, and you actually don't pass, what is the worst thing that happens--they call it practice and you take it again in a week or two. One woman, who liked the keeping Aikido tests in perspective with the rest of life thought was heard repeating to herself before her last test "world hunger, global warming, poor little Elian!"
I wonder how students who get promoted without testing (when testing is usually done) feel about that: I know that on one test when sensei skipped me a rank, I felt uncomfortable about it, even though he'd had me do the next kyu's techniques as well as the one for which I was testing.

07-20-2001, 04:21 PM
I have no idea if it will help, but one thing I like to do when I'm leading a class is take the last ten minutes or so of class to have everyone in the class come up in pairs in front of the class to do any four techniques each that they wish. It's not a testing situation, of course, nor is it the reason why I have people do this, but perhaps this will help people to get over the fear of "peforming" in front of people?

-- Jun

07-20-2001, 09:41 PM
I'd have to disagree with the majority of the responses. I think testing is an important part of ones growth in the art. Especially if someone is terrified of testing, they should be encouraged to undertake the challenge.

The dojo is a safe place where people should face their fears not avoid them. Granted there are those who fear testing and are infact paralized by the thought, but that's the point. Training should be more than just twisting wrists it should be about personal and spiritual growth. To avoid testing due to fear is working in exactly the opposite direction the person should be going.

I'd suggest encouraging them to test when they feel confident, or when you know they can pass the test. Having them work with a good and senior uke on test techniques for preparation could help assuage some fears, but there will come a time where they must face their fear, and on the mat is the perfect place to do that.

Giving them the confidence to face their fears on the mat can be rolled into learning to face that fear that we have in the outside world. I think that's what O'sensei wanted aikido to be, a vehicle for self imporvement and growth, not only on the mat but also in the real world.

Richard Harnack
07-21-2001, 03:37 PM
Originally posted by MikeE
I was wondering how you instructors out there deal with students that have extreme test anxiety. I just spot promoted one of my long-term students because she won't show up on test dates. When I talked to her about it, she said it is a deep rooted fear that she has had since she was young. She has an extreme phobia and I don't feel that I am qualified to be the catalyst that cures her by forcing her to test.

Has anyone (teacher or student) had to deal with a situation like this? How did you handle it?

Mike -
Here at AIMA we keep track of hours with the understanding that these are minimums, not maximums. Thus even the most anxious students have plenty of time to work this out.

I realize from you statement the woman says she has test anxiety. Does she drive? Because if she does, she has had to take a driver's examination, hence giving the lie to her statement (or at least modifying it). Sometimes what passes for test anxiety is an over developed sense of needing to be perfect.

Spot promoting her is okay, and I understand your desire not to be her therapist, however, try this perspective for a minute.
Would this woman be able to meet an aggressor in a "real" attack situation? She may need to confront this possibility and come to the understanding that an Aikido examination, while stressful, is nowhere nearly as dangerous to her confidence than "freezing".

Good luck. Just go ahead and double or triple the number of hours for her next rank over everyone else. That way you can rest assured she at least has mastered the skills.

07-24-2001, 10:54 AM
Thanks for the imput Richard. I agree with your philosophy, but the application may not apply to this person. She is a Yondan in a more "structured" kata driven karate style. She often says she has grey hair because of past testing. Think of it this way; she has been a student of mine for almost 3 years. She attends very regularly. (She is so respectful that she gives me her calendar in advance so I don't wonder where she is, if she isn't in class.) And she just earned her yonkyu. I have no doubts about her abilities (she would pretty much destroy an attacker). That is why she loves Aikido--she doesn't want to seriously injure someone. And she is just learning how to relax and blend, instead of tense and smash. And Oh yes she is a perfectionist. (I think that may be part of the problem--she wants everything structured but Aikido waza tends to vary everytime you do a technique with adifferent uke.) And she is very hard on herself.
Very good assumption!! :)

We too use the hour tracking system (remember that Sosa Sensei was a senior instructor for Seidokan for a long time);)

Do you have any ideas how to make her less of a perfectionist? Or would I even want to?

07-24-2001, 12:12 PM
I am not an instructor in Aikido, but I belong to an organization that teaches and tests for proficiency in various weapons for use on stage.

The spot promotion idea seems to work for now -- but what about the future when/if she is ready for higher rank? Would you spot promote her to shodan? Or after a few passes based on experience and "in-class observation" do you have to say "now you have to test". THEN it seems to me that it would become a bigger, hairier deal for her.

I understand the desire to not have to function as therapist, but it seems to me that you are merely postponing the inevitable. Also, I believe that testing provides its own lessons.

As a sidenote, are there any feelings of inequity from any of the other students that, in their eyes, she doesn't have to test?

07-24-2001, 12:31 PM
There is no bad blood from the other students...in fact it was a roaring ovation... for promoting her. Many of the students (new ones) now look at their daily training as testing, so they are more motivated. She understands that she will be required to test formally for shodan. (This is in front of the head of the organization) She also understands that we are going to ease her in to testing and that she will have to test for her next ranks. I just want to make her as comfortable as possible.

More or less, I am looking for ways to make the testing process easier or more comfortable for her.

There will be a time when she will have to put her fears aside and just test. But, I don't want her to have to worry endlessly for the next XX years.

07-24-2001, 03:13 PM
I think I am confused. She is a 4th degree black belt in another art? What is so much scarier about your tests than her previous art? Is is that she is an Aikido beginner who is afraid of tests, or a Black belt afraid of not meeting beginner's standards? Maybe what she needs to do is stop thinking of herself as a yondan and start thinking of herself as a beginner.

07-25-2001, 01:04 PM

She is an interesting woman. She doesn't think of herself as a yondan. Even in karate with her considerable rank, she considers herself a beginner.

It seems everyone would like to find fault in her psyche (including me)...I think I might have to look at myself and the fact that I have extremely high expectations from my students. Maybe too high. Maybe modifying my teaching methodology in her case. I am not looking for faults, I am looking for advice on how to deal with the situation at hand.

Richard Harnack
07-25-2001, 01:44 PM
Originally posted by MikeE
Oh yes she is a perfectionist. (I think that may be part of the problem--she wants everything structured but Aikido waza tends to vary everytime you do a technique with adifferent uke.) And she is very hard on herself.
Very good assumption!! :)

We too use the hour tracking system (remember that Sosa Sensei was a senior instructor for Seidokan for a long time);)

Do you have any ideas how to make her less of a perfectionist? Or would I even want to?
1. Once you mentioned Sosa Sensei, I recalled who you are. Hello!

2. Yes you do want her to be "less of a perfectionist", here's why.

First off, there is a distinction between being a perfectionist and refining one's art. The perfectionist oftentimes will go only so far then give up, unless their perfectionism is a reflection of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, in which case they need more than Aikido. The problem with extreme perfectionism is that it leads to a type of paralysis ("If I can't get it perfectly, then I won't do it.) Refining one's technique acknowledges the need for growth, but also acknowledges that one may be capable of using a technique, just not as well as one will become.

Secondly, this type of extreme test anxiety, especially in an art such as Aikido where we have techniques and not prescribed kata, is perfomance anxiety. One way around it is to have her along with the rest of the class go through a modified jiyu waza. My bet is that she does fine as long as others are also doing the same thing on the mat at the same time. In other words don't tell her it is a test until afterwards. This way she gets to go through the whole "exam" without feeling that she must perform.

Ultimately it rests with her. As noted above, if she does have OCD, then that is beyond the scope of your purview. If she does not have OCD, then be sneaky in how you "test" her.

Good Luck. Drop me an e-mail with your address etc. Joe Crotty will be coming here at the end of October for a Jo-Ken workshop.

07-25-2001, 04:04 PM
I am not finding fault with your student's psyche, although it is interesting that you would see it that way. I am saying that for at least her previous art, she took tests, and a lot of them to get to yondan. So either there is something a LOT scariet about you, your teaching/testing methods, etc that she can't even get past one test with you, or she is not seeing herself as a beginner able to be no better than any other kyu student at her level. Whether either of you are willing to admit it, she has already proven that when she was a beginner in MA, she tested, and tested sucessfully. May or may not have enjoyed it, but did it. And now she can't. So it is not necessary to figure out how to get her over that fear, she got past it years ago. It is either you are much scarier, or she is not coming from the same place and self expectation she had when she tested before. I think she needs to be encouraged to see herself as she did when she was able to test, with no more expectation than her current kyu level out of either of you.

07-25-2001, 04:29 PM
You could be absolutely right Colleen. Maybe I am too scary or my teaching style too intimidating, or it could be her ego about not being a beginner. I think another aspect that I haven't touched upon is that if you disliked testing, and did that much of it in an art that was as structured as hers was, it may be that rank is just unimportant to her now. So, there is not much of a drive to test. She is in an environment where she is not fored to test.
From talking to her karate instructor, he said he had the same problems, but the organization she was in required testing, whereas I encourage it.

(Albeit, I am a scary guy :))

Richard Harnack
07-25-2001, 09:24 PM
No offense intended, however, I do not remember you as a particularly "scary guy", or do you transform ala Jekyll & Hyde once you step in front of class? :)

Doing kata testing and sparring tests in Shorin Ryu is different from Aikido in that in Aikido the "form" is more open ended and less determined. Thus people who do well in the more highly "structured" arts, may not have the same feeling of security in the more open-ended arts. (Please, to all of the Shorin Ryu people out there, I checked with my Godan in Shorin Ryu who is training here in Aikido. How he described his training was highly structured.)

07-25-2001, 10:29 PM
Well, perhaps it is because you are scary :)
Seriously, one instructor I adored scared the stuffing out of most other students....
You may be on to something with what rank and advancement may mean to her at this point. If it is the structure---or lack of-- (not testing per se) she is uncomfortable with, then that may be another area to explore.

L. Camejo
08-17-2001, 10:54 PM
Originally posted by MikeE

Has anyone (teacher or student) had to deal with a situation like this? How did you handle it?

:confused: Hi all. I've read all that you've said on the subject and there's not much I can add.

This is a serious situation though, as this student must overcome this hurdle to even be called a true Aikidoka. Masakatsu Agatsu - true victory is self victory (easier said than done though :) )

From what I've read, it may be a unique ego problem, where she utilises perfectionism to mask her fear of failure or any other fear she might have. It looks more like this person had this problem from way before they even started MA. I'm sorry, but you may have to take on the Psychologist role for this one.

A good understanding of this sort of thing can be gleaned from a novel called "The Celestine Prophecy" by James Redfield. It's a novel about human spiritual evolution and awakening and it defines 4 "control dramas" which we ALL use as an excuse to avoid facing certain elements of ourselves that we need to harmonize with in order to evolve. This person seems to be showing a mixture of the "aloof" and "poor me" control dramas, which you will understand better from the book.

Some of my students have problems like this (albeit not to this extreme). I tend to let all kyu grades of around the same rank do the techniques of their grading as if it were normal practice. Then I would let them all do it over again, at the same time, this time imagining that it was an actual grading... proper zanshin and everything.

This creates an environment where there is movement all over the mat, allowing the students to feel less self aware. I focus however, on the person that has the confidence problem and use the information gained as if it were an actual grading.

If I'm not assured of their ability at that point, I give it a week and do it again. This way you can grade an entire group of students without making them aware of who you are focusing on at any particular day.

After that I show up with belts one day and tell them that they had a grading.

I hope this helps somewhat in your situation.


08-18-2001, 01:02 AM
Like Colleen and a couple others on here I am not an instructor, at least not of rank, I think all of us are to a certain degree but I digress. I just got my yonkyu - awarded tonight in fact (woohoo) (tested 2 weeks ago) so I'm making an assumption I'm pretty much at the same level as your student and can maybe relate somewhat. I had this discussion with an ikkyu, Magma here on Aikiweb, and I was like, "Why do we even test? I mean when you have the technique and mindset for the next rank - just award it." And we got to talking about it and now I feel that - yes you should be required to test. If you even can call it a test, I personally call it review. A test is something I don't really know what to expect and it will take all of my will and character to overcome it. A kyu/Dan ranking will never be considered a test - it shouldn't be - not to me at least. I do think you need to be put on the spot however and add a bit of nervousness to it. I personally love 'testing.' (gives me a chance to puff up my chest and show off :D)

But you should be put on the spot. When 'testing' it should all be second nature to you at that point, you should not have to think about it, it should just be 'boom' technique - look at that I can do it with 50 people watching.
Oh - I can't do it right/good with 50 people watching? Hmmmm I guess you don't know your stuff that well. Then again I'm one of those awful perfectionists that someone mentioned, and if I'm not ready for the test beyond the one I am about to take or even two tests beyond the one I am ready to take I don't bother testing. Then again I said I love testing and being up in front and being called up or even showing my favorite technique to class. On occasions some of our instructors will say..."Hey - um Ed, or Joe, or Bill, or Carol, or whoever - why don't you come up and lead class for a while, show us Edkido, or Billkido, show us your stuff and tell us why you do it your way, tech the rest of us." And none of us are Yudansha. In fact we had a 7th kyu teach 1/2 hour of class one night. Oh my where was I going with this - must have been something about being "up in front" or stage fright. To me that's part of testing and is required to move on. In that regard I do disagree with spot promoting. To me it doesn't seem like it was earned. I knew how to drive a car when I was 10, (a manual tranny even) but just because I knew how to drive the car, doesn't mean I just get my driver's license with no test. I think if you want to move to the next level, you have to do everything that goes with it - even if that includes taking tests. Then again it's not my dojo - so I guess it's up to you anyhow :D

Jorge Garcia
08-19-2001, 08:29 AM
This issue is a tough one for sure because the reasons that every individual will have for not wanting to test will be different and the particular fears that we each have about testing will be different, maybe every time, even for the same person. There won't be one cure all answer for everyone so the sensei will have to be both sensitive and creative to figure out each individual situation.
I , for example, am a public speaker with over 20 years experience, but I can't ever remember being more scared that when I took my kyu tests in front of Akira Tohei sensei of the Midwest Aikido federation. I think though that there were several factors involved. One, as a speaker, I was doing something I was confident in, while as an aikidoist, I was doing something I was not very good at. I also know that the fact I was doing it in front of Tohei sensei himself didn't help either. Then, you have the thought of all the people he's seen test who probably looked so much better than you are about to look. Also, Midwest did their testing at seminars where there would be a lot of students from the neighboring dojos and the test would be conducted with the other instructors sitting on the front row.In our dojo, we were always afraid of embarrasing our instructor. If you did something wrong and Tohei sensei stopped you and asked you,"Is this correct?" If you said yes and it wasn't, the follow up question in front of all those people would be,"Who is your instructor?!!!" Then your poor instructor with his peers all around him would have to raise his hand and say,"I am, sensei" and then with the follow up question,"instructor, is this correct?", your own instructor would have to disavow you by saying,"No it's not sensei".
This all made for a pretty frightening atmosphere. While I know that what I have described wouldn't apply to everyone who tested in Midwest, at least in our dojo, it tended to have a fear engendering effect. I know people who were so scared that they don't remember their test at all. We had one big tough guy that would go to the restroom before the test and "loose his lunch" everytime. By the way, he avoided testing whenever he could. I knew of another fellow that would try to avoid testing whenever he could and eventually quit aikido because of it. Once he was at brown belt, the pressure was really bad on him (because he felt he was suppose to be much better than he was) so he quit rather than having to face the test again.
Conversely, my experience with Hiroshi Kato sensei has been very different. He tends to be more informal in his daily demeanor and before the test, when people are out there getting ready by practicing their techniques, he will go out there, talk to you and give you pointers and advice. When I was tesing for 1st kyu, we were practicing like that one day and he came over and said, "I want you to do some techniques for me" and he went on to call out techniques for 15 minutes in an informal kind of way. When I actually took the test, he gave me a real short test and left out the stuff he had already called out previously. I was very relaxed (and relieved)!
By the way, I mean no disrespect for Tohei sensei. I feel that although his way was pretty strict and he could be an intimidating figure, it gave more value to the test and for me, the fact that I was able to go through that and still gain the promotion made those kyu certificates something I value almost as much as my Dan certificate today. I think though, that if I had my choice, I would prefer Kato sensei's way but again, there probably is no one best way. Anyway, that's my two cents! God's blessings to all!

08-31-2001, 12:09 PM
For those testing at 4th kyu and higher, we do a less formal pre-testing phase (the higher the rank, the more pre-tests we do).

While conducted like a test, it is less formal, and nage can stop and ask questions, get corrections, etc.

Doing this type of pre-test in a less formal class setting might allay some of her anxiety as well.


08-31-2001, 04:13 PM
I'd have to agree with some of the other respondents to this thread. Testing is important. It is one of two ways a person can perform under stress. The other situation is doing a public demonstration.

I've seen my instructors give a scheduled test to students and when one student failed to show for the testing, they just waited until the next class the student showed up.

The next class went on as scheduled, but in the last part of the class, the test was given to the absent student. :D

09-01-2001, 08:16 PM
Originally posted by tedehara
. It is one of two ways a person can perform under stress. The other situation is doing a public demonstration.

Isn't real-life the greatest stress, Ted?

09-02-2001, 10:45 PM
Originally posted by mj

Isn't real-life the greatest stress, Ted?

Let me parphrase some relevant quotes.

Life is a poor teacher, it gives the test before the lesson. - Koichi Tohei

It is a totally different feeling to truly face cold steel. - Shinichi Suzuki

Lowell Richey
09-20-2001, 11:37 AM

I am not a teacher nor do I play one on TV. However, I do have a suggestion for you. Don’t worry about her rank. When, or if, it becomes important to her she will again make the decision that she can pass the test like she did before. She may not need the outward validation of a different colored belt.
The rank is not what is important. What is important is if she knows the technique. If she performs like a 1st kyu but wears the belt of a 5th kyu the other people in your dojo know how good she is and if they need help they will ask her because she knows not because of her rank. Likewise in the “outside world” an attacker is not going to stop and ask her rake before attacking.
I don’t think that you don’t know this but it had not been said.

09-20-2001, 12:21 PM
Excellent suggestion.

This is more or less my position until I feel the need to pull her outside of her comfort level.

In Aiki,

09-21-2001, 08:49 AM
If she is fearful of testing, how afraid would she be if someone actually attacked her full of hate and loathing? To me this is one of the most frightening things to experience, and testing in a very severe atmosphere is the easiest way to apply stress.

Aikido isn't just about doing technques; it is about self-defence. I would worry that such a personality may freeze up given a real situation. Therefore this problem is something FUNDAMENTAL which must be overcome. Maybe see why she is afraid of testing. Maybe she has to overcome a fear of failure, an embarrasment of people looking at her. However, I would certainly try to get to the bottom of this, and not just an easy cop out of lessening the pressure during a grading or not requiring a grading.

Sounds ruthless, but I think everyone will be better off at the end of it. (What you could do, is do a grading within the normal class - if she fluffs it, fail her. Then do it again a few weeks later (maybe just for her) etc until grading becomes routine for her).
Eventually she will get bored of worrying.