This time I would like to write about approaches towards gradings, belt systems and the black belt. Starting with my story, I began training in martial arts when I was 14. The same as all beginners I dreamt of becoming a black belt and being able to kick ass! After 13 years I achieved my goal of attaining a black belt. By the time I achieved my black belt my attitude and opinion of what it meant had changed – I was happy to have it, but now I realised that it was not that important. During my time training in Karate my teacher did a great job of imparting the belief that it is only a belt – “belts do not fight, they are only there to hold your Gi top together”. This was his endless mantra. Looking back, I am very grateful for him impressing this view on us.
Now I am teacher myself, I try to pass this approach on to my students and friends. Looking around I see lots of people chasing the dream of being a black belt, but they do not want to invest time and effort, they want it now, almost instantly. In this way, the black belt has become something like a driving licence. You go for a course, when you have done your hours you go for a test and if successful, receive a certificate. You can then hang this over your toilet for all your guests to admire! Then you can retire from training as you now know it all – you are the master, the black belt holder…
With more and more people looking for an easy way to achieve this holy grail of martial arts, there are more and more opportunistic teachers and organisations that give away black belts, for a certain price of course.
Another growing trend for extracting money from people is the creation of grading systems with up to 20 kyu grades (or more!), each of which having a separate belt colour. So the student not only spends money on taking many grades, but also has the pleasure of buying many belts as well.
Shortening the times between examinations to 1-3 month intervals provides a steady income for examiners. Students on the other hand may experience a fake impression of progression and achievement. Such short interval between gradings does not usually provide enough time to properly learn techniques (unless of course you are training every day for many hours). Speeding through grades at such a pace creates students who often can only remember techniques associated with the current (or very close) grade as they are constantly having to focus on the requirements for the next grade rather than building a solid body of knowledge based on an accumulation of techniques. Organisations then build black belts and instructors on this foundation. This causes a lowering of standards within an organisation and damages the image of Karate. Unfortunately this practice has become very popular in martial arts as a means to make money. I cannot understand how students are being charged (sometimes ridiculous amounts) for gradings on top of their membership, classes and licence fees. I understand that obtaining knowledge costs time and money, but to my mind this is extortion.
In line with the realities of supply and demand, people want a black belt quickly and so other people provide this service. Having a very small Dojo, I try to fight this approach. At my club we have gradings typically once a year, if (and only if) the instructor decides that a student has done enough to be graded. When permission is granted to grade, I consult my opinion with one of the other instructors within the organisation to see if they agree with my assessment of a student. If we are all in agreement that a student(s) should grade, then a grading is organised. However, we do not setup an isolated exam for only those that are being graded, but observe the students during a few hours of normal training, with a panel of instructors present. As a panel of instructors are required, our gradings often coincide with international seminars. The benefit of this is that students can be judged not only by instructors from within our own style, but also by instructors from different martial arts. All of our gradings are free of charge until black belt when there is a small fee for producing a dan grade certificate and embroidered belt.
Recently at our club we have decided not to wear belts at all as we are a small group and know each other well. We now only wear our belts when joining our friends on seminars, competitions etc. I have noticed that this approach is putting off some potential students as one of their first questions when they come through the door is “how long do I have to train to become a black belt?” After I finish explaining our philosophy on the subject of belts I can see the disappointment in their faces, most of them do not come back…
Another thing I have noticed recently (and is the subject of one of my previous blogs) is that people want easy training, where they pop in for classes for a bit of a workout and social interaction, but do not want to get tired. At our club our sessions are physically challenging and often involve students having to consider the details of techniques, which requires concentration and constant correction, hence my popular catch-phrase “something like that”.
I suspect that most people expect from their instructor a ‘pat on the back’ and encouraging words like “yes, you are doing this well”, but being from Eastern Europe I am often seen as being rude as most of the time my focus is on ensuring techniques are performed correctly. Besides, I do not like to lie and “beat about the bush” and so I am very direct and honest – some people do not seem to get on well with this.
In an age where everything is nearly instantly accessible, people do not often have the patience for long, hard training and being told that they are not ready to grade makes them angry. That is why McDojos are doing so well. Organisations like this have adapted to the modern, fast pace of life and fulfilling peoples demands for a quick route to black belt. However, it is my view that when we start travelling on the path called Karate our focus should be on training and improving, not on grading. In my opinion obtaining a black belt should be a “side effect” of training and not the target of training.
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