In my last blog I briefly mentioned a person who wanted to criticise grades that had been given to young people that he felt were not worthy of the belts they wore. Such criticisms are rife in martial arts, but they show a lack of understanding of exactly what grades and the grading structure is about and what it achieves.
The individual I alluded to seemed to think that everywhere, across all grades, there should be a standard and that standard should, inevitably be established by the organisation that he was a member of: it should be rigidly observed. It’s a strange concept, one that on examination is not plausible.
Judo is, of course, an activity that means different things to different people. it is an activity that serves many purposes. However whether you consider it a combat sport, a martial art or a life-learning pedagogy, it is not possible to have a single, over-arching view of what it takes to be, say, a nikkyu, blue belt, or even a shodan, Indeed such a concept is not desirable because each and every grade is about an individual’s journey.
That is not to say there are no standards to be met, there most assuredly are. But let’s stick, for now, with the example of a coach moaning about grades handed out within a school setting and then having young people joining his club with relative high grades in comparison with the physical skills he thinks should go with that grade. What that coach fails to see or understand is the individual journey the youngster is embarked on. If a young person with autism spends 12 weeks assiduously practicing judo and is, as a result, a happier, more confident person who can now do breakfalls and has moderate success with some throws and hold downs, then I would suggest they have earned a judo promotion, however badly their ogoshi is, or even if they cannot name the throw.
The reason I think that is because through Judo they are making a journey of self-progression. This isn’t some wishy-washing liberalism that I am talking about here, it is an understanding of the pedagogic nature of Judo. Further, if parallel to that I am teaching in a club where I give a child a similar promotion, by the time to two start training together I would expect, or eventually get my club-based student to understand that whilst the grades are the same, they should not be going hammer and tong to prove they are ‘better’ at judo than the other, rather they would be helping the ‘inferior’ pupil to develop even further.
I don’t think thus far I have been very provocative. I do know that some would disagree, but by-and-large, I would like to think that most Judo coaches, instructors and sensei would concur. So let’s move on.
There is a tendency of those who are part of bigger judo organisations to decry the grades of those from smaller outfits. There are varying reasons for this, but most do not stack up. Take the ‘social club’ gradings argument. It goes something like this. So-and-so has a brown belt, but if he came here, my green belts or even my orange belts can beat him. The correct answer to this is ‘so what.’ As an ironic aside, perhaps those that come out with such statements should wonder why they are wearing the same grade as Olympic Champions when they themselves have only ever got a bronze at regional club level.
But the real reason why the answer is ‘so what’ is because you will not know what the individual from the other club has done to get their grade, you will not know their start point, you will not know the personal journey of that individual. Some of these smaller organisations run clubs that are based on getting timid people to lighten up, socially interact, develop their communication skills and generally improve their quality of life through self-development. That is judo as a pedagogy.
There are other factors that need to be taken into account before you start trying to judge somebody else’s grade. There is, obviously, physical impairments that grades need to be adjusted for, but age is also important, as if mental health.
When those that are quick to judge another person’s grade do so, they should stop and think of their own position and how their grade sits with their current state. It is all well-and-good saying that you beat Big John in contest so you got your black belt fair and square, but could you beat Big John’s smaller, less adept brother now? Grades in martial arts, you must remember, are records of achievement, they are not statements of current ability. I have an O level in maths and a degree in psychology. As far as maths go, I struggle with the basics: I would not be able to pass an O level paper now, but that does not mean that my O level should be taken off of me. Equally, I did what was necessary to gain a degree in psychology at a respected University, but I am not going to compare my achievement favourably or otherwise with somebody who gained theirs at a different establishment. A degree is a degree. Full stop.
This point needs to be made to those that carp on about contest and non-contest grades. I have heard it said that to be, say, a fifth dan, you should have competed at the highest level. Why? The argument goes that if you haven’t been there, then you can’t teach at that level, can’t demonstrate, get your ideas across, or whatever excuse people want to give as if contest success is the defining aspect of a judoka’s career. Perhaps people that take that point of view should have quick look at what goes on in football. Jose Mourinho, as a manager has won the Champions League twice and the national leagues in four different countries. Yet as a player he failed to make it as a professional even at the lowest level. Alex Ferguson as a player can claim just two second division medals in Scotland, yet as a manager took Manchester United to 13 domestic titles and two Champions League victories.
Contest is an important part of judo, for sure. But, again it is worth remember what the founder thought about that aspect of judo. Kano, in fact, thought contest was important – but he did not like the idea of champions and championships. The egocentric aspect of labeling oneself a ‘champion’ doesn’t fit with the self-development that Kano had in mind. Remember, the whole point of Judo, as far as he was concerned was the development of better citizens.
Dr Kano knew what he was doing when he established the kyu/dan grade system for Kodokan Judo. Equally he knew what he wasn’t doing. What he was not establishing was a system whereby anybody should be ashamed of a grade in relation to somebody else’s grade; he did not want the grade to equate to a position of bullying, decrying of others as set in stone supremacy.
I achieved my latest grade just this year. It indicates that I have improved my understanding of judo since my last grading, that I have worked to get it and my work has been rewarded. It means no more, or no less than that. It is the business of the person/body that graded me, rather like my degree.