On Grading Matters

22 November 2004

I am writing this just before our end of year grading.

Each time grading comes around I deal with a number of issues and “Hoary Old Chestnuts”. These are my thoughts on some issues for those sitting grades from ikkyu to sandan. I know that this article could possibly be a bit schoolmasterish but I’ll do my best.

#1. “I don’t want to grade – your grading is not important” [a “HOC”].

Actually this is true, your grade is not important rather it is your level of knowledge and skill that counts. But, and it is a big BUT, grading requires you to develop and demonstrate a certain body of knowledge [without gaps].

Aikido doesn’t have competition; you cannot test yourself in that way.

Instead grading, seminars and demonstrations encourage an intensity that cannot be manufactured in day to day training. That intensity is important for your development.

#2. In a related issue those people that avoid grading in my experience do not develop. I am talking here over the medium term of say 5 years. They become complacent or they quit. Developing aikido is a constant struggle to refine your knowledge. Up to sandan you need the outside impetus of a grading attempt to “push” the student along.

I liken gradings to a series of small hills that increase in size. You cannot see what is beyond the first hill until you get to the top [the particular grade]. Then your next challenge is the next hill and so on.

#3. Our grading system requires you to complete a minimum number of sessions before applying to grade [ as do most systems around the world].

Don’t apply if you do not have sufficient time. I like students to have completed many more than the bare minimum, we have plenty of opportunity to do so. Very simply, the more you practice the better you will be.

There is another aspect here that is important and that is the time it takes to complete the “minimum” sessions. For example, for yonkyu Student 1 takes 12 months to gain the minimum 60 sessions [i.e. slightly more on average than one a week] – he will probably progress only slightly and probably will not be ready to grade. Student 2 does it in 6 months [i.e. around 2 – 3 sessions a week] he is more likely to be ready. Student 3 does 60 sessions in 2 months [i.e. one session a day] will have an intense approach to training, will no doubt be ready for yonkyu and probably will go on to do another 100+ sessions over the remaining 4 months before grading day.

Student 1 will be asked to wait another 6 months and train harder. Students and 3 will grade but it is Student 3 who will really develop.

#4. Proficiency: The student cannot judge whether they are ready to grade.
That said if you believe that you have generously completed the minimum training times to qualify to sit the next grade then I anticipate that you should probably apply.

We use Proficiency Testing of your knowledge at the various grades intensively up to sandan. People who regularly attend Proficiency Tests almost always have a head start on those that do not. The Tests give you [and us] an easy way to see how you are doing vis-s-vis grading levels and how you are improving over time.

The person though that makes the final decision on whether you are proficient and ready to sit a grade is your instructor – the student is not in a position to do so.

#5. After Grading: To me this is even more important than your time before grading. I think that typically people put huge effort into achieving a certain level for a certain grade. They concentrate hard on understanding the syllabus. Sometimes they grade and then slack off. But the time to capitalise on that hard won knowledge is immediately after grading when the pressure to practice only kihon [basics] is no longer there. You have more freedom to explore your training. You will have mastered the basics for that level. Consequently this is often the time when I see people make that real advance in their understanding and proficiency.

In conclusion, I know this is not the most riveting subject but I hope that you can see where my thinking is headed in relation to grading. It is important to attempt grades for your overall development but you shouldn’t do so if you are not ready.

Andrew Williamson