American Taekwondo Association | Martial Arts, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Tae-Kwon-Do
Bullying and Me - ATA Leadership NOW

ATA Leadership NOW



We enrolled our son into Leadership to improve his confidence and communication skills. Now he greets people with a smile, looks them in the eyes, gives them a healthy handshake and introduces himself. We couldn't be happier!



By Linda Formichelli • Testing Photography by Jeff Green
ATA World | Summer 2012

Everyone in Songahm Taekwondo must publicly perform certain material and attend class regularly to test for the next belt rank. Whether it’s an official graduation ceremony or a Black Belt extravaganza, each school has its own unique approach to make testing special for its students.  

But once you get to Black Belt and above, the pressue mounts. There are very specific rules in Songahm Taekwondo about what is and is not a successful testing at that level.

And once you get to 4th Degree Black Belt and above, there’s even more pressure—4th Degrees must test before Grand Master and other Masters at a national event or at World Championships, in front of hundreds of people!

At this level, everyone knows their forms and can break boards and spar, so it’s how you perform that counts. Details matter, and so does your mental preparation. When everyone is performing at such a high level, your ability to tame tension, visualize success, and stay positive sets you apart, and it can make the difference between succeeding and having to try again next time.

We talked with high-ranking students and Masters who’ve been through high-rank testing. Here are their tips for preparing for—and passing – upper-level belt tests. And the best part about it: These tips are helpful for White Belts and color belts. Use these testing tips all the way up the ranks!


The judges have an eye on your forms, weapons and sparring. What they’re looking for:


Technique: You need to do more than have the form memorized—you need to have balance, rhythm and flow as well.

Power: Don’t just walk through the form—do it like you mean it! “Does it look like you’re really fighting or just kind of robotically doing the form?” asks Master Izel Rivera, a 7th Degree Black Belt who tested last year. And Chief Master Marilyn Niblock, an 8th Degree Black Belt who tested on stage during Opening Ceremonies two years ago, calls it “attacking the form.”

Fluidity: Your moves shouldn’t be jerky or choppy, and you shouldn’t bounce up and down while doing your form. Think smooooth.

Weapon handling: How you hold your weapon matters, as does accuracy—not to mention all the key points of open-hand forms, from technique to power.

The whole package:  Your form needs to be enjoyable to watch.  Do you look enthusiastic?  Do you give off an air of confidence?  Are you present and engaged with the moment?


Set-ups: You need to be able to set up the technique you want to score with.

Defense: Can you counter strikes and kicks?

Offense: Go after the points rather than just blocking your opponent’s strikes.

Strategy: It’s more than kicking and punching—you must show the judges that you know how to think ahead to what your opponent might do, and create a strategy to counter it.

Versatility: This isn’t competition, so get more creative than your go-to number one side kick. Show the judges all your moves. And it’s important to make your opponent look good! He or she may be testing too, so go back and forth to showcase each other’s talents.


At high-level belt tests, mental preparation is just as important as physical preparation. Here are some mind-over-matter ways to get into the zone, quash the pressure and pass that test.

Visualize it. Master Rivera visualizes herself doing her forms from start to finish. And her tactic is backed by research: Studies have shown that when people visualize doing an action, the part of the brain that’s in charge of performing that action starts working.

Play it. To help get used to the testing environment, some students play the same music or background noise while practicing to mimic the conditions of test day. If you practice with the same sounds all of the time, the music and sound cues will put you right into that frame of mind, no matter where you are.

Turn it around. Instead of thinking about all the ways you could fail, think about all the ways you could succeed. “I try to turn any thoughts that are negative into positive,” says Master Rivera. For example, when you catch yourself thinking your form is not good enough, consider it an opportunity to practice.

Say it. Positive affirmations – when you repeat self-esteem-boosting phrases – can help you get into a winning mindset. Structure your positive talk in the present tense. For example, “I’m getting better every day” or “I am strong, calm and confident.” Write your affirmation down on an index card and look at it several times per day. You may also want to post your affirmation where you’re sure to see it, like on the bathroom mirror or your computer monitor.

 “Omm” it out with Meditation. Meditating is a powerful way to calm jittery nerves and get into a positive mindset. If you’ve never meditated before, start now—it’s best to learn it when you don’t need it so you’ll be ready when you do. Here’s an easy way to start: Sit in a comfortable position and empty your head of all your thoughts, positive or negative. When you feel yourself listening and thinking about outside sounds or thoughts, imagine yourself listening to the listener (you).
Research shows that meditation helps calm you down and focus your energy. Scientifically proven improvements include a lower level of stress hormones in the body, lower fatigue, lower anxiety and a better ability to deal with conflict and high-pressure situations.


1.    Close your eyes and have your partner hold up the board and get into position.

2.    Open your eyes, find the board, decide whether to use a hand or foot technique, and break the board - all as fast as you can.

The point is not to overthink, but to react.  At the test, you won't be able to tell the person holding the board to move it, so this practice helps you learn to break without hesitation, no matter where
it is.

Grand Master In Ho Lee suggests practicing going through the boards. Just as with your form, visualize yourself plowing through it. “Many times students think about hitting the board, but you must practice the follow-through. It is the key to any board break!”


When it comes to acing a test, nothing is more important than practice. But there’s more to it than simply going over your moves.

Practice in segments, suggests Chief Master Niblock. Do one small part over and over until you feel it’s your best, and then move on to the next. This will keep you from getting overwhelmed trying to perfect an entire form at once.

Go over the color belt forms as warmup. “They’re good to practice your basics,” Master Rivera says. “Then you’ve got your basics down, and now you can work on more complicated moves and feel good about them.”

Videotape yourself doing forms and breaking boards, and then watch the film to pinpoint where you can improve. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand where you’re weak when someone tells you, but it becomes clear when you see it for yourself on tape.

Practice using pads, suggests Master Rivera. Have a partner hold the pads in the right positions for you as you go over segments of the form to gain power and accuracy. When you can hit targets while doing the forms, it helps the form make sense in both your body and your mind.

Practice in different directions. You never know which way you’ll be facing at your belt test, and many students—yup, even Black Belts—trip up when they need to do a form in a direction different than they’re used to.

Practice with partners. Buddy up with other students, and ask your instructor to critique your form. The more feedback you get, the more chances you have to perfect your moves.

Practice as much as you can. “Train with your instructor, train with your seniors, do all the ‘grunt work’ that you have to do,” says Chief Master Niblock. “Go in there prepared. Nerves? Yeah, you’ll have nerves. But if you train, you’ll know you’re ready.”


Part of the requirements for high-rank testing is a physical fitness test. It consists of five exercises lasting 60 seconds each, with a 60- second rest between – push-ups, sit-ups, kicks, punch/kick combos and punches – performed in that order on a heavy bag. A combined score of 300 repetitions is required to pass. And as if that wasn’t enough, you’ll need to be fit enough to perform a strong form, break multiple boards, and spar like you mean it. Here’s how to get fit fast:

Shore up your weaknesses. If there’s just no way you’ll be able to do 60 push-ups or sit-ups in 60 seconds, practice pounding out more than enough combinations, kicks or punches to make up for it so you get in your 300.

Build Your Endurance. Doing all those exercises requires a lot of stamina. To build your ability to do lots of short, intense bursts of work, try interval training, where you alternate short bouts of running with a period of walking to recover. Over time, you can increase the length of the runs and decrease the recovery time. Interval training is more effective than long, steady cardio sessions.

Do the Warrior X-Fit program. Grand Master In Ho Lee credits the program for  getting him in shape during his 9th Degree testing and Inauguration. By logging on to you have fitness at your fingertips. In just 20 minutes, you’ll be led through six exercises designed to give you a full-body workout. It’s a great workout any time of day.

Boost your strength. Your punches and kicks need to count, and the more muscle power you have, the better they’ll be. Try resistance training, where you work with free weights or machines to gain strength.

Increase your power. Power makes the difference between a lackluster form and a stellar one, and can help you smash through boards. (Check the Winter 2012 issue of ATA World Magazine, where we have a whole article on workouts to help you build power!)

Improve your flexibility. Want to kick higher? In addition to muscle, you’ll need flexibility. To get that, you need to stretch. Master Nominee and owner of ATA Martial Arts in West Chester, Penn., Marc Jouan prepares for testings by doing yoga and stretching really well before and after every Taekwondo workout. Another tip: “A few days before, treat yourself to a professional full body sports massage,” he says. “Your body will appreciate it, and you will be more relaxed and flexible.”

You’ve spent months preparing for the big day – and now it’s here. Here’s how to get the most out of those final hours before testing.

Get ready. Prepare your uniform and equipment the night before. That way, you don’t have to worry about ironing your dobok and gathering your sparring gear when you’re already stressed out on test day.

Keep it simple. “I try to stay as regular to my normal schedule as possible,” says Master Rivera. “I try not to change anything that tells me, ‘Oh, this is different.’” So she gets up at the same time and sticks to her regular routine. (Though she skips her morning workout to conserve her energy.)

Meditate. Take a few minutes to simply sit and observe your thoughts, which will help calm your nerves and give you focus. You can even repeat your positive affirmations and visualize your success.

Get focused. Chief Master Niblock likes to use the last few minutes before the test to walk around the area, taking deep breaths and thinking through her moves. ATA