Grading Problem…


Is there a difference between a popular instructor and a good instructor?

A popular instructor is often a charismatic and friendly character and structures his training around what the students want to do.  “Popular” often means good businessman these days as well, marketing the club efficiently and ensuring its financial stability.

The problem can be in finding the balance between popularity and good Martial Arts.  Often an Instructor works hard at getting his club off the ground, caring about the students and encouraging them as much as possible, as they progress through the grades a personal friendship develops.  Often the clubs base depends on whole families that train together.

The problems start to develop when the training begins to get more intense to obtain the higher Kyu grades.  The student thinks that that he/she is ready to grade and the Instructor knows that he/she isn’t and that quite a bit of work still needs to be done.  Despite all the explanations, the student thinks that he/she is good enough and it’s time to grade. In the old days it was no problem. You just told them straight, hurt their feelings and if they had what it took they would “suck a lemon”, get down to some hard work and raise the standard until they were good enough, or if they couldn’t “cut the mustard” they left.

Many Instructors find this too difficult and the slide downwards begins, they grade them and suffer the consequences.  They think that “if so and so leaves, the whole family is likely to leave and that also means that a good friendship is ruined”.  They compromise their standards and the higher grades fill up with bad Karate and bargaining characters and before you know it the good guys leave and the tail is wagging the dog. 

I couldn’t count the times I’ve been asked to grade so and so to black belt because he/she was a club stalwart, who never missed a session, arranged all the outings, dealt with all the money, made the sandwiches and “tried really hard” but just couldn’t quite make the standard.  When I’ve watched them perform they were inevitably crap.

I couldn’t pass them and have inevitably lost the whole club or group as a result.  At the end of the day a black belt should at least have good, clear precise basic technique.  I deliberately set my association standards at average, the same standard that would be acceptable to any decent group, I don’t subscribe to “inverse snobbery” and pull up the ladder behind me – all I want to see is decent basics and a good strong spirit.

The problem is in this age of “fast” everything people expect to go through the grades without challenging their basic character, they don’t understand that its not what you do but how you do it that is important.  To alter the “feel” of a movement, you have to change, to become more focussed, more relaxed, more aware, more determined and that takes hard work challenging the very base line of your character, confronting your fears and conquering them.

Very few people are prepared to do that any more, but many want to “do” karate……

So we have a world full of “Suburban Samurai” who want to include karate in their social life between visiting relatives and swimming and are happy to find a club with a friendly, accommodating Sensei…..

The “briefcase” Sensei who came up in the old school shut their eyes to the standards and kept taking the money or went bankrupt. The Sensei that they created followed their example and now talk about students as “punters” and don’t know any better.  They only receive a shock if they meet a real Martial Artist!

The relationship between student and Sensei is inevitably a love/hate relationship.  A student will love his Sensei at first and then hate him when he has to “suck a lemon” and work harder to get his next grade, then he will love him again when the improvement becomes apparent and then hate him again at the next stage.

If both sides can stick it, this develops into a real relationship built on blood sweat and tears from both sides.  A relationship that is worth having and lasts for a lifetime based in mutual respect.  The Sensei shows how to be a good student by setting an example with his Sensei and this is then passed on down the line.

So, is there a balance between popularity and standards?  I think that the first step is honesty, tell the prospective student exactly what is to be expected at every stage of the game.  Give constant, accurate, honest feedback. Don’t leave it until they think that they are ready to grade and then tear them to pieces, tell them each lesson where they stand and what you expect from them to get towards the next grade.

You will still lose the people that don’t want to work, but you would also lose them anyway in the long run when they discover how poor their standard is (usually at the hands of a real Martial Artist) and they will blame you (quite rightly) for their poor state.  You will also keep the good guys that would otherwise leave when they realise that you don’t have any proper standards.

Good coaching requires giving and receiving accurate feedback.  Remember that you are the guardian of the standards and as such need to stand firm and help the students to make those rigorous levels.  It takes two to do that and you must both play your part, this needs to be made very clear and you must honour yours.

Some people may never make black belt, but does that really matter?  If they enjoy their training and enjoy being part of the club what does it matter what colour belt they wear?  Black belt is a heavy responsibility and doesn’t suit everyone.  It only becomes an issue if you make it one.

Your club may not have as many students as the “Briefcase Sensei” down the road in the short term, but follow this guide and you will develop good students that will accumulate as good friends over the years making you more successful, and most importantly – you will be able to sleep at night.

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