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Pauliina Lievonen
03-28-2011, 03:36 PM
This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Pauliina Lievonen.
Having survived studying at a conservatory, and 8 tests in aikido so far, I have quite some experience with making a fool of myself in front of a jury.

Every individual of course has their own reaction to testing stress, but hopefully describing my own and how I deal with it may help someone. I'm especially hoping that this might be helpful for anyone who is putting off testing because it makes them feel so stressed.

I feel quite awful before a performance of any kind. A bit nauseous. Shaky. My legs feel weak. My palms sweat. Oh, and my armpits as well. I feel like going to the bathroom all the time. Jumpy. Unable to concentrate.

The first time I did something in front of an audience was more then thirty years ago, but I still feel awful just before a performance. Actually I'm going to be playing a small piece of music for a small audience three days from the moment of writing this, and when I think about it, I already get this familiar sinking feeling. Not really nervous yet. More like the resigned anticipation of something dreadful.

What has changed over the years though is how I deal with the feelings of nervousness. I used to try everything I could think of to calm myself down and to keep myself under control. What that usually lead to was a unconcentrated, disconnected, spaced out sort of a performance. I'd be busy managing my nerves instead of focusing on what I was supposed to be doing with the music.

Sometimes I managed to stay very calm before a performance, just to have the reaction hit full force in the middle of it. Then I'd have to struggle through with fingers shaking, tunnel vision and impaired hearing (not useful when playing music!). There was one time when I remember hearing the first bars of music from the harpsichord, and the next thing I can remember, is sitting on a sofa back stage afterwards. Apparently we played all right. I wouldn't know.

I started to get a better handle on the pre-performance nerves after I learned that most of the things I experience are natural consequences of an increased amount of adrenaline and other things that our bodies do in preparation of a dangerous situation. I started to be able to separate my physical reaction to the situation from my emotional reaction. So even if I still feel bad physically that doesn't mean something has gone wrong, it's just a natural thing for my body to do.

Another important realization was that adrenaline isn't only annoying and unpleasant - it also gives me energy. That is what it's meant to do (give me more energy to flee from the jur... err, tiger). If I use the physical reaction wisely I can channel that energy into a better performance. So I don't fight it; nowadays I invite it.

With time I've found a way to prepare that works for me. I need to give myself time to properly freak out before a performance or test, preferably privately so that no one else has to suffer and so that I can get concentrated and in the zone. I allow adrenaline to flow, my hands to shake, my mouth to go dry. I feel the adrenaline flowing through my body and I encourage that. I might jump up and down a little like a boxer going into the ring. I keep my thoughts focused on what it is that I want to do in the performance or test.

I remember the moments just before my first kyu test. People were milling around in the area around the mats in the dojo, waiting for testing to start. I found a corner with a pile of old mats and just sat there breathing. Once in a while someone would come over and wish me luck, or try to start a conversation. I only grunted in answer or said thanks and didn't let them affect my focus too much. I didn't feel calm when the test started, but I felt focused. I was able to do the things I had practiced and even have fun.

After a test or performance it's very important for me to eat something sugary right away. If I don't there's a dip in energy that will make me feel very depressed, which takes the fun out of the afterglow of the performance. When I've been to a concert by friends, and they ask me if it sounded all right afterwards, my answer often is "here, eat this candy bar".

I feel quite awful before a performance of any kind. But I quite enjoy performing anyway!
“The Mirror” is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:

We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.

03-29-2011, 04:40 PM
Thanks Pauliina for sharing your experiences, I think most of us feel that nerves doing a test even if we are well prepared for it.

Pauliina Lievonen
03-30-2011, 09:35 AM
Thank you for reading Carina!

Looks like most people who are active an Aikiweb right now aren't busy with testing issues at the moment. I think most have practised aikido for a while already...


03-30-2011, 09:46 AM
Hello Paulina,

Wonderful treatise on the natural anxiety and thinking attendant to the examination process,and its stresses on the students.

Please do not forget that the same event is equally stressful on the instructors as well.

If the students' performances fall below expectations, both the mentoring seniors, and the chief instructor are correctly in the spotlight. It is at that time, I believe, that the true agenda, character and integrity of the instructors are most evident.

Happy training!

Diana Frese
03-30-2011, 11:25 AM
Dear Paulina,

I read your article right away, but since I haven't trained or taken or given a test in years, I was waiting to see what others would say, while thinking about whether any of my experiences would be relevant to the topic.

I never had the same symptoms as you, but then again I wasn't a performer! That would be really scary for me, although of course I would have anxiety about an Aikido test. Not to say I don't have it rather in my case there was a certain anxiety about whatever class. I'm one of those people who loves Aikido but I never knew what was going to happen in any given class. I guess it's a form of social anxiety, "Will I say the right thing?" In the case of Aikido, will I be a good uke (and nage), will I understand the technique that's being shown? Will my effort reflect a sincere approach to learning in respect to the instructor?

Not to go off topic but in a one o clock class at NY Aikikai which was less crowded than the evening classes Yamada Sensei was showing a technique at the end of the mat near the windows and fans and there was a small group of us watching. In the back of my mind was, "How does he do the footwork?" So I was staring at his feet. Then he asked, when we students started to do the technique again, looking at me a bit annoyed, "Didn't you watch?"
Too bad I didn't have the nerve to just tell him after class that I was honestly trying to learn. Missed the hand movements while watching the feet.

Years later, as a teacher at a Y, I had the bad habit of just springing a test on people when it seemed like a good day to do it. But this was because there were few students and I knew them well. I did, however take care to be sure the techniques were correct before I advanced them in kyus. I remember running a couple of them thru the fourth kyu requirements and because the hand grip for nikyo was not secure I just corrected them and didn't send in any paperwork on it until the next test. By then they were third kyu and looked okay at it.

Thanks, Paulina, for your encouragement to post. I hope my experiences are interesting, though not exactly related to the tests I have taken. Maybe I'll post again on them. In the meantime I'm looking forward to other people's posts, and yours of course.

Pauliina Lievonen
03-30-2011, 04:38 PM
Thank you Francis and Diana for your comments!

Diana it's very nice to read your reminiscences and I hope in the future also your current experiences with training.

I have been on the other side of the testing situation as well as I nowadays sometimes assist my teacher in gradings together with the other yudansha of our club. Last year I taught the beginners class and some of "my" beginners tested for their first grading. That was scary since indeed any mistakes they made were my mistakes! The extra challenge was to appear calm and encouraging and not show that I was even more nervous than they were. :D



graham christian
03-31-2011, 05:45 AM
Hi Paulina.
A well written piece, I liked it, it took me there with you like a little journey understanding your experience.

Personally I found in the past, and true for me to this day, that the biggest factor in handling nerves for me was the practicing I did leading up to the test.

I mean by this that I go into a focused training time period leading up to the test and have it as a process rather than a program.

During this process I am passing through the many 'fears' and the process is complete when when that 'determined something' in me says 'I'm ready!'

Many years ago when my friend and I were told that in one months time we would be doing our first dan grade test we both went into mode. We trained for hours every day, six days a week, towards that end.

The teacher seemed to join in with this for us two and got more firm with us and emphasized ore precision. I remember clearly when it came to sword work I would always be put in stressful situations, a great reason for learning the sword by the way. Not only becuse of the disciplined concentration needed where if I drifted or feared or got arrogant for one split moment I then got hit and that bokken hurts.

For there was also the fact that if he said my elbows were sticking out too much when I thought I had just done a perfect cut then I was put in a position of no way out. If I said that's not true then he would demonstrate and I would get whacked on the offending part. If I played dumb-- the same result. If I agreed -- the same result.

Anyway, after the month passed the night came and my friend was put under test and he duly passed. Nothing was said to me though.

So we carried on training and this went on for a month and still nothing was said to me so after talking to my friend I said THAT'S IT! That evening I approached the teacher and asked him what was going on. I pointed out he said I could have the test last month and yet nothing was done. I pointed out I had done all that had been asked etc.

I noticed as I said it, little me facing up to confronting and expressing my views to the teacher, that I was calm, certain and untroubled. Stranger than that he was just nodding and smiling.

He told me to sit seiza and dissappeared into his little room. I thought he was coming back with his bokken but it didn't worry me any more, I was ready for any humiliation he was about to dish out for my cheek.

He returned with a package, sat seiza in front of me and placed it before me. He then explained to me he had indeed been watching my training very closely for the last two months and had put me through more than I had realized. He said not only had I surpassed his expectations and that my Aikido had improved dramatically but that I had changed in myself. He said I had become a dan grade. He bowed and left me to open the package.

Inside was a black belt and an Hakama, a present given to him by Tohei Sensei.

He was gone, my training partners were all clapping and patting me on the back and yet I was still in a kind of shock.

I'm sorry for the long piece here but your writing has brought up this memory and even now a tear is falling down my face.

Thanks for the posting and if you have managed to read this then thank you for listening. I need to go now and recompose myself.


03-31-2011, 08:22 AM
Nice post. Testing is certainly an intense time for me as well. Usually about a week prior to test day I have a total melt down and am sure I don't know anything at all and am completely unprepared. On test day itself well that's always a fun time.

My 5th kyu test in particular was interesting. My adrenaline was way up during the 90 minutes of class prior to testing. So I trained pretty energetically during the entire class in hopes that I would settle down. During the break between class and the start of testing I was still pretty up so I grabbed one of the more energetic people in the dojo and did some really hard jyu waza and just took a lot of ukemi. This went on right up until sensei clapped for us to sit. I was still breathing hard when I was called onto the mat to test. It did the trick though. I was able to keep my focus and have a good test.

4th kyu was much less intense. I think because I felt much better prepared. I was totally relaxed and training at my usual energy level up until it was time to start the test. I'm hoping that 3rd kyu will be even better. In a way I kind of like the time period leading up to a test. There is a pressure there to keep working on polishing the skill I have gained so far and working it so that it is as good as it can be. I welcome the added energy and adrenaline as it helps to carry me through, makes me more focused and more aware. It brings a feeling of being very alive and in the moment. After all of this intense attention leading up to it the test itself is almost a relief.

I think when the day finally comes that I am up for Shodan that will be a very intense time period. Not only because I want to do well but because I will represent my sensei in front of their teacher and peers for the first time, under pressure. It is my desire to be a credit to the dojo and to the excellent teaching skills of my sensei. No doubt on that day the adrenalin boost will be very welcome and hopefully by then I will have learned to harness it as a useful aid, rather than a hindrance, to my performance. :)

Diana Frese
03-31-2011, 12:17 PM
I don't know how many of you are familiar with the phrase "go with the flow." In my case taking tests were not easy, I did have plenty of anxiety, but at least I didn't have to think much about whether or not I was ready.

T.K. Lee of New York Aikikai did that for us, at least for those of us who accepted his offered help that was available at pretty much all times, from the basic suwari waza moving forward in a line like a bunch of ducklings following their parent, on through many practices of jiyu waze during and following class . We had several sempai who were a great help, but Lee in particular wanted to make sure we took our tests.

We had a great teacher, Yamada Sensei, great senpais and fellow students. And no illusions, I think. T,K. Lee said to me one day on the stairs, as we climbed up the steep stairs to the dojo, which was on the second floor of a loft building, " Wakizashi (a nickname), you're racking up a lot of hours"

Knowing Lee, I think he meant just that and may have even been implying he hoped I was learning something. It was already standard procedure with him that we should be preparing for every test we had the hours for.

I remember especially my third or second kyu test. I think there were two ukes. I remember kneeling but somehow I didn't get up in time and it was unclear whether I was throwing or my supposed uke was going to throw me, It was tenchi nage, amd would have looked from the side like a ladder or an inverted V. (Years later I wonder why the second uke if there was one didn't just hit me? For me, at least, time stood still, and not in a good way)

The pressure and the stress and the suspense were too great for me and I heard myself let out our version of the famous Tohei yell that our dojo had picked up from his visit to the dojo. I didn't know afterwards whether I could possibly have passed seeing as how it had felt like an eternity waiting to see if I or my partner was actually going to complete the tenchi nage.

After the test there was a dinner and I remember being in the back seat of a car on the way to it with some of my dojo friends and Yamada Sensei was in the front with the driver. Suddenly a familiar voice was heard to make a comment. Directed at me. Sensei was probably still facing forward but the "aside" was definitely meant for me. Bluntly, and plain and emphatic, "If you didn't scream you failed the test."

Up to that moment I was sure I couldn't have passed.

I guess the Kiai was appropriate, because I finally did throw the uke but it had seemed like forever waiting in suspense.

In the months that followed, I was sure that Lee would recommend me skipping the next test because I hadn't done very well in the freestyle. But guess what, in one of his more laconic moods, almost as an aside, he remarked, with no preamble,
"Take the test again."

You don't "re-take" the test your dojo has already announced your promotion, so after a few seconds reflection I knew what he meant. Sure I was going for the next kyu rank on schedule, but he was letting me know in no uncertain terms what he thought of the last one and I'd better not be "late" again.

Pauliina Lievonen
04-01-2011, 09:44 AM
Those are great stories! Thank you for writing, Graham, Cherie, Diana!