the mechanics of karate gradings

for those who are still early on in their training, the looming of a first (or second or third, but mainly the first) grading is understandably a source of anxiety. often you will not have had a chance to see a grading before, and with only a few months of experience (the minimum is two months allowed before taking a first grading) techniques can still feel shaky and uncertain. knowing the format of a typical grading, as well as the expected content, will be useful in ensuring you can perform as well as possible on the day. here follows a brief guide to what a grading looks like, how it progresses, and some notes on some things you are likely to hear or be asked.

format of KUGB kyu gradings
time and place

obvious things first: the time and place of the grading should be known to you in advance; often, this will be at your home dojo in a normal time slot, but if you are travelling to somewhere unfamiliar, leave yourself extra time as well as being sure to consider traffic. get there very early, have a look around, have a drink, warm up in advance, etc. anything you can do to feel comfortable before the grading is well spent effort.

everything you need

in order to grade you must have yourself, your uniform and belt, your licence, and the associated fee. higher grades will need mitts and gumshield. if you are grading at your club, your instructor will have your grading record card. if you are somewhere else, you will need to arrange in advance to have your card from your instructor and take it with you, before returning it with the examiner's comments afterwards.

similar to time and place, the grading fee should be known to you well in advance. it is highly recommended to bring a drink and a snack, a jacket to wear over your gi to keep warm, and you may want to bring a camera, etc.

training beforehand

most commonly, before the grading there will be a lesson with the grading examiner. this is somewhat traditional, but also serves the twofold purposes of allowing the class to train under the (high-ranking) instructor to get some experience with them, but also allowing said instructor to get a feel for the students and to gauge their competency. make no mistake; though the lesson is not recognised as part of the grading, you are being watched! your attitude and ettiquette will be on show, as well as your karate, so these should be top-notch even throughout the training. often, but depending on the instructor, the pre-grading lesson bears no resemblance to the syllabus; it is a useful and valuable opportunity for the visiting instructor to teach a more creative lesson than endless up-and-down punching/blocking. hopefully your club instructor has done enough of that with you already!

the corollary to this is that when you feel out of your depth, doing weird combinations you've never heard of, don't take this as a reflection of how the grading is going to be! expect to be challenged in the pre-grading lesson, both physically and mentally, and enjoy that chance to stretch yourself by taking advantage of the instructor's experience and knowledge, but don't be put off by it.

the grading itself

the grading will follow the lesson and a short break, whereby the room will be set up for the grading. usually, a table and chairs will be set out, the instructor may get changed, etc. this is an ideal time to have a quick drink, stretch a little, and so forth. if you haven't by now handed in your licence and your fee, they will be collected now or you should make sure the instructors have yours. don't wait to be asked!

going through the motions

the KUGB grading syllabus is available to you throughout your training, and so you should have a reasonable expectation of what will be asked for on the grading. generally speaking, things come in the same order every time, so if you are familiar with the grading syllabus, you should be well prepared for which techniques and parts come when. in essence, the grading consists of the three aspects that will be familiar to you from your training, namely kihon, kata, and kumite. these will be performed in a grade-specific manner in this order. following completion of these sections, or after performing the kata for your grade, you may well be asked to perform another kata from a previous grade, with the expectation that these are not forgotten and continually being improved. more on this second kata, and its importance, later.

standing in the right place

it is critical that, when taking a grading, you are not distracted by trivial things like knowing where you need to be standing. it is sadly common to find in gradings that people don't really know where to stand, and this has two unfortunate upshots: one, time is wasted directing people to stand in the right spot, and two, it can rattle candidates by disrupting their concentration, or making them worry that they have already made a mistake or now appear foolish. avoiding this is both desirable and trivial.

being called up

normally, groups of four to six people are called up together; this may be all the same grade, or a mixture of two, etc, depending on the cohort of the candidates wishing to grade. generally, the lower belts go first, working up to higher belts, but commonly the red/orange belts gets called up first - ahead of the white belts - in order to demonstrate the general procedure (having done it once already). so a typical grading order might be:

orange belts
white belts
red belts
yellow belts
green belts etc...

or, perhaps for a smaller grading:

orange and red belts
white belts
yellow and green belts
purple belts etc...

anyway, it all begins with being called up. one of the instructors will read your name out. at this point, give an acknowledgment that lets them know you are here and you have heard and understood. this will typically be "oss, sensei!". raising your hand is also good, though since you will be the only one standing up i wouldn't worry about that per se (worry about that at the end of the grading, see later).

when you are called up, you will be forming a line across the dojo something like this:

where the numbers indicate where the first person called stands, second person, etc. the exact positioning will depend on the room you are in, and the number of people being called up in the group. so there may be a slight variation, but the idea is the same. note that the line could easily be reversed right-for-left, where you would stand at the other side of the dojo; different clubs and examiners can work either way, and you will directed to sit at the appropriate place at the beginning.

in each case, you need to stand in the right order and in the line. the purpose of standing in order is so that the examiner can put your grading record cards on the desk in front of them to match you, and thus make comments on the right card. remember that though the examiner may have been to your club many times, and graded you before, they see literally hundreds of people in a similar setting and you want to make it as easy for them as possible. the purpose of standing in a line, as with your training, is the convenience of regularity and not running into anyone. the position of the line, which is often what people get wrong, has a purpose too. remember, everything in karate has a purpose! the examiner wants to be able to watch you, and watch you all, easily. if you consider the three following possibilities, hopefully you will see which is the best suited:



in the first picture, everyone is too far away. in the third, the angle to see those furthest down the line isn't very favourable. if you can understand this principle, from the point of the examiner whose aim is to get a decent look at the candidates as they do their techniques, you will easily go to approximately the right place without thinking. it is the crucial difference, that pervades all karate training, between following an instruction and understanding what that instruction hopes to achieve, what its goal is.

more simple, though, is to pay attention to the groups that have gone before you. normally, the first group will be directed to the correct position. if you are in the second group, you know with certainty where you need to go, because you have already seen it. the principles from your training that are active here are to always be aware, and to be gathering the information offered to you, watching your opponent (in this case the 'opponent' is the grading itself). watching the previous group for how they perform, including where they stand, allows you to be that little bit better prepared.

moving round for kata

from long experience, it can be confidently said that nothing causes such unnecessary trouble as 'moving round for kata'. this is trivial at best, but seems to be a stumbling block (from white to black belts alike) to the point where drilling on this one not-actually-karate movement might be advisable in the run-up to a grading. but again, the secret to a seamless transition is to understand the purpose of commands in the context of what you are there to do. you have just completed the kihon section; you are now going to do your kata. move to the position where the you, as a group of candidates, can be best viewed doing your kata. that's it! simple. the person furthest away in the kihon line leads the way, everyone follows, and you are aiming to end up in a straight line, facing the examiner, equally and centrally spaced. in diagram form:


there is no reason to get this wrong! you know how many of you there are, and you know where you are in that line. go and stand in the place that allows the kata to be viewed. so not off to one side, and not too far apart from each other that the examiner will struggle to see everyone:


it is customary in karate, particularly in formal settings (gradings, competitions, and in some dojos all the time), to not walk across 'the mat', or the active ares, so when moving round for kata, follow the line round and turn a right angle, rather than going directly. done! it is also a good idea not to dawdle; some prefer alwyas running rather than walking, but you may be limited by the other people in your line. in which case, you need to appear as if you are ready and as if you care (which hopefully you are, and you do), so don't be the one dragging the atmosphere down.

please, never get this wrong. there's just no need.

kumite placement

where placement for kihon and kata are simple, there is a subtlety when moving to kumite that depends on your grade; if you are performing gohon kumite, this closely resembles the format of kihon (up and down the dojo, techniques five times, etc) and so your positioning will be appropriately similar. thus, move back round from your kata position as a simple reversal of moving round to kata, and come back into line. from there, you will either directed to pair up, or receive volunteers from senior grades to line up against. in any case, this sort of arrangement will ensue:

it is common to then be adjusted such that each pair, as they advance, will be visible:

again, understanding the purpose of why you are moving will help you to get to the correct position without fuss. can the examiner see you? where is the most sensible place to stand so they can? and even though none of this 'moving round' is assessed as part of the grading, a smooth and confident performance will contribute to your overall presentation and 'presence' (and not interrupt or interfere your focus). an examiner that continually has to tell you where to stand is likely to keep their eye on you that little bit more.

from yellow belt, your kumite does not require the same back-and-forth space that the gohon kumite does, and so it is possible that while you maybe instructed to go back round in the same manner, you may also be asked to simply turn where you are to face the person next to you, thus:

again, here you are all visible to the examiner, which is the goal of the instruction.

following completion of the kumite, you are done! unless, that is, the examiner asks you to preform another, lower kata. this is sometimes called for, though may depend on how much time is available, and so forth. it can also be that sometimes the examiner asks whether you know a certain kata, and when hearing a (suitably confident) 'yes', will not require it to actually be performed. attitude counts! in the grading for shodan, the meaning of this second kata is amplified: every candidate will go up for their grading, and then those that have been satisfactory until then are called up for the lower kata. if you get called, you have passed everything so far, and so the final kata is literally pass or fail for the whole thing. this is why drilling the heian kata in the run-up to the grading is equally as important as the shodan syllabus itself. the shodan grading has a couple of extra differences to the kyu gradings, not discussed here.

having now completed everything, there is no need to return to a particular position. after bowing to your opponent, you will be asked to turn and bow to the examiner, before sitting down.

following the grading

again, there may be some variation, but after everyone has performed their grading, you will be asked to gather round the table so the examiner can feed back to you and give you the result. here, your name will be read out and you need to let them know where to look. this is just being polite. say "oss, sensei!" and raise your hand, clearly and sharply, with confidence and clarity. keep it raised while the examiner is giving you your feedback. after everyone has been given their feedback and (hopefully) new rank, there will be a short gap where the licence books are signed.

interpreting verbal commands

throughout the pre-grading training, and in the grading itself, it is likely that you'll be asked to do things and you're not quite sure what is being asked for. being familiar with the style and voices of individual examiners (there aren't that many, and often you'll have the same one for gradings) will help, but if you are unsure, again the secret is to consider the context of the instruction. for example: if you have just performed three rising blocks, stepping forwards, the instruction 'go back' can either mean to continue, with the same block but stepping backwards, or it can mean that you are being asked to return and do the sequence again. tone of voice may indicate the difference in this case, or you yourself knowing whether your techniques was good or bad (which you should know!). and for example if you have been kicking or punching, we don't step backwards for these techniques in the syllabus, so you can be clear that a repeat is being asked for. context will guide you.

for technical questions asked either in the training or grading, you simply may not know the answer (if your instructor hasn't told you what the japanese for 'heel of the foot' is, don't panic!), but if you get asked something along the lines of 'what part of your foot are you kicking with?', then this will usually be to check that you are aware of the correct technique, and usually also indicates that your technique doesn't appear right. answer as best you can, and pay attention to that thing when continuing/repeating!

repeating techniques

any time you are asked to repeat a technique, you are being given another chance to show a good technique; don't waste it! you won't be told what was lacking, so you may have to figure that out on the fly. if your instructor is making any subtle (or not-so-subtle) gestures, this is meant to be a clue. it could be something like more speed, or attitude, or a missed kiai, not snapping or straightening fully, or anything else. what you can be sure of is that there was something lacking, so up your game and don't just repeat the technique the same way! if the examiner has said anything or asked anything, this is a clue! consider things like the following questions and what they might mean:

where's your target? (your techniques are not on target)
is this a snapping kick? (your thrusting kick looks like it is not thrusting)
how fast should you do this kick? (your kick needs to be faster; move faster)
which way are you facing in this move? (you are facing the wrong way)
and so on...

general attitude

it has been said before, but bears repeating, that attitude will get you a long way in your karate career. a simple way of looking as this is that when you start out, you haven't had that much practice at these techniques. later on, you will have had much more practice, and a higher standard of technique will be expected. the dan grading is the natural and suitable extension of this idea, where skill as well as execution must be of a superior standard. but the ability to apply oneself fully exists from day one, and should be present from day one. the deeper way of considering the same point is to note that while in the dojo we work on developing 'correct' techniques, which is an arbitrary criterion that is related to efficiency and applicability of the technique, since we refrain from fully engaging (with intent to damage) in regular training. the more important overarching criterion is whether a technique would work, because aesthetic and style criteria do not apply when you are actually needing to defend yourself. the former should, of course, be driving towards and informed by the latter, but they are not quite the same (hence why 'training in karate' and 'having lots of fights' are not synonymous). developing technique develops understanding of distance, target, opportunity, power, and so forth, in great depth. but it is full commitment that makes them work, and where that attitude is present, style is allowed to take a back seat. efficiency, speed, trajectory, all those things that get hammered into you in the dojo, are to serve the goal of effectiveness, not appearance. work your grading towards that same goal and you'll be fine.

- neil jerome, 2014

article on attitude in karate gradings
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