Friday, 13 April 2012

Grading Season

"Why do we grade?"

A question that always seems to crop up around this time. Some people enjoy challenging themselves. Other's feel it's unnecessary in a martial art. So let's check out some of the reasons I've encountered.

1. You test for the sake of testing
In the spirit of the martial way, one must continuously challenge one's own physical and mental abilities, as well as one's perceptions of the way things are, and should be.

I like this one, but with one caveat: While the experience of testing is the reason for testing itself, one should not forget that the goal of testing is to pass. One should strive for and want this outcome. For if there was no desire for a final result, then the test itself is meaningless.

2. You test to get instruction at the next level
When attending large seminars, or even being in a large class, the ratio of instructors to students makes personalized attention near impossible. To allow the appropriate knowledge to be passed on, the students are grouped by skill and understanding = rank.

I used to subscribe soley to this point of view, but from experience, have realized that it's really not a necessity. If one is dedicated and committed to progress, the instruction will come. For example, the best time for learning at the annual Guelph Iaido Seminar is on Monday. All participants are given free practice, while the visiting Sensei look on.

Sometimes they may practice on their own, and when they do, watch them! There's so much to learn from watching the elite do their thing. 

When they're not busy, go up to them and ask them to watch you (that's what they're here for)!

You don't need to know Japanese, just do this:

3. You test because Sensei tells you to

When we were children, we did stuff our parents told us to do without question. We trusted that they knew what was in our best interests. Your Sensei's role in your martial arts development is extremely comparable. Both groups guide through experience. They understand what got them to where they are and are here to guide you to the same result.

So do what Sensei tells you and grade. Not, because they hold authority over you, but because you trust that they have your best interests in mind.

4. You test because you deserve the rank

This is a very touchy subject, so let me try to clarify the point. In my opinion, it is not one's place to claim they deserve anything. Martial arts should be mirrored in your life, and vice versa. You go about your training and your daily duties trying to improve yourself, help out others, and chip away at all the various weaknesses in your body and character. The judging panel and your Sensei will determine whether or not you deserve the next rank.

Try this primer:
If your Sensei asks you to test, do not argue your worthiness. To do so would show arroganc (assuming you know better), or a lack of trust. The Sensei-Student relationship works both ways. By showing their trust in your ability to test, and pass, you should reciprocate. Showing trust in other people and your own abilities. That's how you build character.
If your Sensei asks you not to test, do not argue. Like any challenges in life, there is a right time and place. Perhaps the focus on grading points will interrupt your existing progress. Perhaps they feel a lack of success may affect your confidence. Understanding your own weaknesses and accepting them. That's how you build character.
So what are other reasons for grading the martial arts? I'd like to hear them.


  1. Allow me to add a couple more reasons, both having to do with the traditional social structure of a dojo.

    1. The martial arts -- in particular, Japanese martial arts -- grew out of a very hierarchical social structure. If you started learning with a group of peers, it's important that you "keep pace" with your peers in terms of grading, otherwise you can create awkward situations when former kohai become your sempai. Now, you can mitigate some of these awkward topsey turvey situations with grace and humility, but it's easier if the peer groups advance relatively together.

    2. As you progress in grade, your responsibilities increase in the dojo. Avoiding gradings is in some ways shirking this responsibility. (The kind of thinking that goes: "Oh, I'm not interested in grading. I just want to practice," is ultimately, in this context, a very selfish approach.) A corollary to this is that as you progress in grade, you start to take on more teaching responsibilities -- and when you teach, you begin to understand things about your own practice that you hadn't thought about before. And the higher the rank of the student you have to teach, the deeper you have to go into your own practice.

    For me at my current stage of development in kendo and iaido, 5 dan and 4 dan respectively, reason No. 2 is the dominant motivation for testing.

    1. Excellent points, Paul!

      I hope we can discuss the second point further in Tacoma. I have much to learn as 4th dan comes up this December.

  2. Very very nice points, I agree completely with all of them (not that that's got any goddam bearing on matters).

    I also find that in my teaching/coaching I have an, albeit slightly blurry, image of what each person should be at each grade which should reflect their growth and maturity in their art. For example, at 2nd dan I expect people to be "drawing" the kata's out nicely with their hands, feet, sword, hips and metsuke as the pencils. At 3rd dan I expect to see the katas done with a bit of athleticism and spirit. At 4th dan I expect to see them calming down slightly and showing contrast in their speed and power. At 5th dan I hope to see some confidence and quietness in their iai and the notion of the exponent selecting their own timing. For 6th working on this now.

    Therefore if I have an image of what each grade looks like then it is so much easier to direct a student's learning to achieve those objectives rather than just a wooley "can you do it any better than that?".

    1. Excellent point. In fact, my brother recently brought up something similar, so I'm going to borrow this idea for the follow-up post =)