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Grading In The Martial Arts

Stella punch

You could tell it was grading day…

The toilets stank, the toilet paper had run out within the first 30 minutes of the leisure centre opening.  The horrible smell combined with that of spray starch, ralgex and deep heat as the students strapped up their current strains, sprains and injuries hoping they would ‘hold up’ during their grading test.  Everyone was nervously ‘bustling’ about as the tables were set up in the hall with the various sensei looking totally out of place in their best ‘bib and tucker’ of grey flannel trousers, shirt, tie and blazer with association badge neatly sewn on.

The queue to the registration table was horrendously long, my friend John that I’d come to watch, was number 234 – and he was only half way down the queue!

Most of the students were used to training in the evening and were finding the early morning wake up, journey to the venue, unusual ‘vending machine’ diet, waiting around in a cold hall and not knowing when they would be asked to perform and then finally getting up in front of the intimidating panel was taking them right out of their ‘comfort zone’.

How many times can you ‘warm up’ in a day?  When you don’t know when you’re going to be on and are likely to be called up at any time you try to be ready, but in the end have warmed up so many times you’re exhausted and stiff.

Instead of getting up once and ‘doing your thing’, you have to get up four times, once for kihon (basics), once for kata (form), once for ippon, sanbon and kihon kumite (pre-arranged pairs work) and once for ji yu kumite(free fighting).  The constant stress of waiting to be called, warming up and getting hot and cold puts extra pressure on to all the students.

It took ages to line the students up exactly side to side and then long ways, meaning that as they were standing behind each other they were not easy to see by the panel!  The idea was obviously to test the students under extreme pressure as the whole day was taken into account and it certainly did that.

The students were treated like cattle and with about as much respect and politeness.  At the end of the day John passed and we went out to celebrate.

Sitting back in the pub with a pint and a pie, John let out a deep sigh…..  “Well thank god that’s all over…”

“It was a long day….”  I didn’t need to remind him.

“But successful, it’s good to be tested and pass….”

“Just not so good if you fail..”

“I’ve done that, come back and passed” he reminded me.  “You don’t grade like that in your club do you?”

“No, we follow the ‘continuous assessment’ route and grades are awarded in class without fuss.”

“Don’t you miss the testing – the sense of achievement?”

“No, we’re pressure tested bit by bit in class on a continuous basis.”

“Yeah, but the grading, the ceremony, the sense that you’ve ‘won’ something..”

“We work on opposite idea, we attach virtually no importance to the belt other than it defines the relationship between student and instructor, it’s just a bit of cloth, the training is the most important thing

The belt tells you which classes to attend and helps whoever is instructing to immediately know what standard to expect, what you’ve learned and what you need to be taught.  Its easier to say “yellow belts over there and orange belts over there than to try to remember everyone’s name and standard and list them each time you want to gather a group.”

“But don’t you think that the whole grading process and testing gives the student a sense of achievement, raises their self esteem and gives them confidence?”

“You’re beginning to sound like one of those American martial arts sales or debiting companies! Yes it does, but is that what martial arts is all about?  I think maybe we’re just achieving the same thing by different routes, we don’t need to grade huge groups of people, we don’t have any grading fees, the grading officers are present in our classes all the time.  They talk to us, teach us, put us under increasing pressure as we train and award grades during class, including black belt without any fuss.  The point is made that the belt is just a piece a cloth but has its uses.  The focus is on the training, we’re not encouraged to measure ourselves against others but by our own progress, feedback is given from the instructors and we’re encouraged to give feedback to them.”

“So you’re not proud of your grade?”

“No. I try not to be ‘proud’ of anything, I try not to feel ‘superior’ to anyone.  We say that the only time you should look down on someone is to give them a helping hand upwards.  Belts are not worn with pride, they’re simply articles of clothing.”

“Yeah but it’s not the belt it’s what it stands for that counts.”

“Exactly, respect beyond normal civility in the Dojo is earned and not automatically given.  I don’t think your way is wrong, just different.  It’s not necessarily what you do, it’s the way you do it that counts.”

“I’m not sure if I’d like your way.”

“It’s whatever you get used to.  In many martial arts there are no grades.  The purpose grades serve in our classes is useful, but as soon as you start to attach an unnatural importance to the belt, it becomes a liability and goes directly against the humbleness that underlies the ethos of our art.

If you give someone ‘confidence’ they have something I can take away from them and destroy, give them a ‘survival instinct’ and they’re more likely to come out of combat alive.”

I’m not dissing your system, just explaining ours, this is your day, let’s celebrate you ‘winning’ your grading, another drink? ”

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