on attitude in karate gradings

my sister was always the sporty one; she was an exceptionally rounded player of all the sports our school offered, captaining several of the teams and even, before she left, taking the after-school practices as an instructor. in her last year, she was the only pupil invited to the physical education staff party. for me, i was invited to the mathematics one, but that's a story for another time. my sister's love of sports started early in life and never diminished; from as soon as the question could be asked of her, "what do you want to be when you grow up?", she would reply with certainty: "a PE teacher". these days, my sister teaches PE at a secondary school on the south coast of England, and thoroughly enjoys the job. she is married to a maths teacher, equally into sports and if anything more competitive than she, so heaven help their children if they don't want to play sports...

this apparently spurious information is intended to supply the background for a discussion i once took part in regarding school grades, one that raised what i consider to be quite an interesting point. my sister was complaining (she loves her job, but also loves to complain about it) that at parent-teacher meetings, it becomes clear that PE is regarded as separate to other subjects. in maths, students are graded on whether they get the right answer and, usually, whether they get it by an appropriate method; thus it is easy to grade the student on their performance, and it can be defended quite easily. if you can't do the mathematics, your grade will reflect that. Seventy-three percent, or forty-eight percent, are clear and accurate assessments of performance, and parents as a rule do not contest it. in science too the same applies, and humanities to some extent have grading systems that are based on the merit of an answer and how it addresses the question posed. and here, my sister says, is where physical education classes are different: parents expect that effort should secure their child a good grade, rather than achievement. if one cannot score goals, or do back flips, it should not matter as long as one tries hard.

students at a dartmouth shotokan grading

the same is often repeated in reference to karate gradings, those below first dan at any rate. "attitude counts!" and of course, it does, but should it be really be the only thing that counts? have we wasted our time going up and down the dojo all these months if standing straight and shouting loud will get that first, and possibly further coloured belts?

the answer isn't entirely straightforward, but for the first few belts i'm compelled to answer that attitude pretty much is the most important thing, and for the same reason that children unable to do handstands or cartwheels should still be able to get an 'A'. in your first karate grading, you will most likely be asked to perform a series of blocks, some punches, some kicks, some form of basic kumite, and at least one kata. and this pattern will hold throughout your karate career, with your first dan grading (usually several years later) consisting of essentially the same thing: some blocks, punches, kicks, some kumite, and at least one kata. the difficulty with karate gradings is that even the most basic ones require techniques that you will never stop working on, and most likely never get totally right. it doesn't make sense to expect a student with three months experience to be able to execute a correct mae-geri, but there isn't a more basic thing to ask of them. in mathematics, the tests are tailored to expectations, and no student is asked to prove fermat's last theorem. it wouldn't be appropriate. in school sports, students are not marked down because they fall short of the world high-jump record, but that really is what they are driving towards in that event, and they will always fall short. in karate, nothing is simple, with 'basic' techniques such as oi-tsuki requiring correct stepping, weight transferrance, balance, coordination, focus, speed, power, and form. it's too much to ask.

what can be asked, though, and thus what is asked, is that the student be aware of these things and attempt them. to convince the examiners that they have the capability to return in three months, and perform the same techniques again, but with better balance, better form, with more focus, etc. and then to improve again in another three months, and so on. i have never seen anyone fail a grading below 4th kyu (sometimes 'temporary' grades are given, which are not quite passes but certainly not fails), and short of someone not turning up - a clear show of the wrong attitude - i don't ever expect to. if you train, apply yourself, and attempt to improve at every turn, you may not yet be able to land those tricky manoeuvers but you have already grasped the main point of karate, and everything else follows. through the coloured belts more techniques are added, as well as longer and more technically demanding combinations, but before 3rd kyu essentially everything you are asked to do in a grading you can expect to have come across in your first few months of training.

at some point it becomes necessary to call a halt to this idea of attitude being enough, and the run-up to black belt is an obvious but also appropriate choice. i have seen people fail brown belts, and many fail black belts. at this level, each student has been training for several (sometimes many) years and has had the opportunity to develop good technique, so it may reasonably be expected of them. there is a strong argument against the kyu belt system precisely because the belts are so freely given (and usually at profit for the club/instructor), and that each 'level' is somewhat arbitrary to judge. some, therefore, prefer the literally black-and-white view where you are deemed either 'proficient' or not. it is the luxury of dan grades to say that kyu grades don't matter, of course, the same way that only rich people say that money is not important, and the kyu grades (if handled sensibly, as they are in good organisations) can be a useful marker of progression and a good motivator, as well as useful in allowing an instructor to give a varied lesson for a mixed-standard class.

but have no illusion of what that first belt means when you put it on; certainly you have earned it, but the movement towards proficiency in karate is a slow assault on every technique simultaneously, rather than a successive mastering of each technique in turn. i had been training around seven years before i finally 'got' what karate was about (or maybe there is another epiphany awaiting me?), and there are no short cuts to that. it is not necessarily related to grade, or skill, or length of time training, but all of these. your first belt is something that you need to earn, and it should certainly not be dismissed, but it is not earned through skill but rather a combination of commitment, of tenacity, of drive. things that are more valuable than a good horse stance.

-neil jerome, 2009


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