Grading in Martial Arts

MonstarZen Dojo had our first official grading two weeks ago and it was a success on many levels. The students all showed spirit, focus and commitment alongside good technique which is more important than how much natural physical ability you have or how good you are at beating people up. The improvement from each student was amazing and it was all down to dedication in their training.

The fact is nobody likes the Grading process. Being judged by someone else on how well we do somehow relates in our heads to “Am I a worthy human being?!” in a weird egotistical way. The truth is the real grading has already taken place over the months before. Your instructor already knows what you are capable of. The Grading day is a test of Spirit and pressure and how you cope. The sense of achievement in attaining something only comes if you believe that you earned the grade and the students all earned their belts in the year since we opened.

Gradings always remind me of a seminar I once attended. About 15 years ago I went to a Karate seminar hosted by a Japanese Karate instructor with many, many years of experience. He was a 10th Dan in his own style and although the seminar itself was interesting there was not much in it that I retained except for one point.

The Instructor brought up the subject of how he had obtained his 10th Dan considering he had created his own style of Karate. I agree the questions had popped up in my mind. Who had graded him? What did he have to do to achieve that last level? Questions not asked out of disrespect as he was a formidable Budoka but from pure interest.

The answer was surprising. He said he had ridden a horse at speed whilst shooting a bow and arrow. On completing that task he had felt that he had achieved his 10th dan within himself. The seminar attendees listened intently but the Instructor was quick to say, “This was not from Ego! From Truth!”

Admittedly at that time I was a little bit sceptical of the whole thing. It smelt a little bit of ‘He doth protest too much” especially considering he brought the subject up himself.

Over the years I have had a slight change of opinion on the point of this particular instance.

I have realised that Truth and Honesty in Martial Arts comes down to being true to yourself more than anything or anyone else. Acknowledging your weaknesses and strengths without tainted psychological bias is a very difficult thing to master due to Ego. Mastering ego is much harder than mastering a punch or a kick. Once that truth is engrained in your Spirit it should transfer to everyday life. The Japanese instructor was a true Budo Karate man. His truth was a pure and honest self-judgement on his abilities without fake modesty or false sense of achievement. For us everyday beginners in the scheme of things it seemed kind of ego driven but in fact it was not. There are heaps of stories of dodgy Instructors awarding themselves or being awarded in dubious circumstances but I don’t believe this was the case here.

At the beginning levels of training everything is fed to us via our instructor. We are told how to stand, how to punch and how to kick. Our achievements are measured by approval or disapproval through instructions, gradings or results yet always from a Senior or Teacher. There is a format or system to follow because that is what makes up a particular style of fighting otherwise we might as well just teach ourselves.

In the early days of training there is an influx of new information that we lap up eagerly, keen to learn as much as possible from those that have trained before us.

As we progress through the grades we start to find our own flavour within the system. We start to know what works for us, what improves us and what we need to do to achieve our next levels in the system. We might even start looking outside the system in interest or because the current system doesn’t suit us. It doesn’t matter because a Martial Arts journey doesn’t necessarily mean wearing the same shoes for the whole road. What matters is that we stay open to learning. Coincidently egos can sometimes escalate at this level. A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Hopefully at some point in your Martial Arts career everything comes back into perspective and you realise that you don’t really know nearly as much as you believe and the real learning starts.

My point for this blog however is all about those beginning stages of training or more accurately the beginner level’s mind. As beginners on a surface level we aren’t aware of what truly is required of us for a step up in grade beyond the style’s technical syllabus. Our instructor however, knows what we need to train and study to achieve our next level but will also have an idea what is aiding or debilitating us Spiritually and Mentally. That is the instructors most important role. A guide. The instructor will know when you are ready to grade (or not) better than you yourself as it is an objective viewpoint without the barrier of your mind.

For me it’s just another by product of following a true martial arts path. Being true to yourself without being overly self-critical or ego driven means you are understanding yourself that much better and better yet taking a more objective view of yourself.

To improve faster trust your instructor in his assessment of your Martial Arts but most importantly learn to take that birds eye view of yourself and look down on you without a filter.

At the end of the day grades mean nothing if you don’t feel you deserve it and you will know if you deserve it if you are true and honest to yourself. Only you know if you are doing that.

Christian Ch’ng

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