Dacayana UK

THE TRUE VALUE OF GRADES.       By David McGoldrick

How many times have I heard people in the Martial Arts say "Belts mean nothing"? When a colour belt says it, you can easily dismiss it as ignorance, jealousy or just regurgitation of their instructors opinions. But when a highly ranked Black belt says it, you have to ask yourself; why?

Like the answer to most differences of opinion, "context" is everything.

Common reasons why grades are often dismissed are:

  1. The 19 year old, lean, drunk Black belt who get thrown out of a night club by an unfit, but sober, 40something year old doorman with only basic levels of training.
  2. The 12th degree Black belt (yes, they do exist) in one style who has less knowledge, experience and ability than a 7th degree Black belt in another style.
  3. People with poor levels of ability who promote themselves or pay huge fees to dubious associations in order to be highly graded in their own style.
  4. People who are promoted by their minions.
  5. People in the same organisation being promoted for very different reasons.
  6. It can be harder to be a 4th degree in an organisation headed by a 5th degree than it can to be a 6th degree in an organisation headed by a 9th degree.
  7. Some people can afford the time and money to travel overseas to train with the founder and come back highly graded, others cannot. 

For these and many other reasons, people who are in the know will say "Belts mean nothing". But in other contexts belts have huge value.

   Most human beings are, by their nature, "Goal orientated". Having goals and a purpose gives great value to our lives. (If you don't believe me, just look at people who don't have goals and are not driven by a purpose). Many will gladly work very hard to achieve those goals. So, whilst the certificate and belt might not have great value in themselves, the hard work and commitment that went towards achieving them has great value and means a great deal. Most humans are also quite hierarchical. We feel comfortable when we know our position in a family, group or workplace. The grade hierarchy tells us who we can look up to and more importantly, to whom we should be an example. It shows our true character because it gives us the opportunity to deal with both power and responsibility. This can be a determining factor when you are being considered for higher rank. I know too many stories about people who treat their seniors like Gods and their juniors like dirt, because they think nobody notices.

   So, what is a grading? There are many answers to this but I will give you my opinion, based on my experience.

   A grading is an assessment of your level by a suitably qualified authority based on their syllabus. I have worded that carefully because I have known of many "gradings" that did not fall within that definition.

   Let's start with the syllabus. The syllabus is designed to teach a particular style of Martial Art. A Martial Art is an approach to combat. There may be many ways of doing a technique, but there are certain ways that fit this particular approach. Usually, as you learn more of the style, you will see why an approach is taught. It never ceases to amaze me how some people (of a wide variety of ranks) feel the need to teach their approach to a technique before they are used to the one they are learning. Seeing different approaches to a technique may be of value, but that can only be judged when you understand the context of the technique. I always say "First learn, then teach".

   If you don't follow their approach, why would their grade be of any value to you? Often, I have been asked to grade people on their syllabus, on some occasions, in completely different Martial Arts to those I practice. Japanese people don't like to say "No", so they say "That may be difficult", instead.

   It is amazing the number of people who are keen to write a syllabus based on what they are good at and then wonder why it is difficult to get a legitimate and suitably qualified person who will award them a grade based on that. 

   Then there is the question of "What qualities are looked for in a grading?" At lower levels, your ability to perform the syllabus the way you are taught (usually known as "the right way") instead of the way you want to do it (usually known as "the wrong way") is paramount. Otherwise, you are just waving sticks around in the air. However, the "right way" in one art may be the "wrong way" in another art. So, just learn what you are being taught and then try to understand it.

   At higher levels, once somebody has already proven their physical ability and understanding, then other qualities often determine somebody's readiness to be tested for advanced grades. These qualities include advanced ability and deep understanding along with loyalty, development of the art, wisdom, fighting ability, character, teaching ability, age, success at spreading the art, good judgement, the quality of your students, competitive success and time served. Usually, it will be a combination of many of these things. Some organisations favour some of these qualities over others. So grades do have true value within an association. And even if they don't mean a lot outside of your association, the attributes needed to attain these grades do. But even if you are in the same organisation, two people could achieve the same grade for different reasons. We are all unique and special snowflakes, especially me!

   As always, these are just my opinions, based on my experience. I love to hear the opinions of others, especially if the disagree with me. D