Four things you should know before your next grading
Karate gradings are an exciting time. This is when you get rewarded for your training and progress, for learning your new kata and new techniques. In the early days, when you first start your karate journey, the gradings may be regular. But, as you get higher in the ranks, the time between gradings seems to take longer and longer.
In Chito-Ryu Karate there are set techniques and kata that need to be learnt for each level along with a physical component. While the techniques and kata may be slightly more difficult as you progress through the ranks, as a general rule they are not so complicated that it takes months or years to learn them. So, why does it take so long between gradings at the higher level?
You know the pattern of the kata and can perform the techniques so just what is it that Sensei is looking for?
How come you haven’t been selected to test for your next rank?
Here are four things you need to know to successfully challenge for your next belt:
Doing kata and bunkai isn’t the same as understanding it
For most people, learning the pattern for your kata is not that difficult. A good dancer could be taught the physical movements of a senior kata very quickly but that doesn’t make them a senior belt in karate. To know your kata, you must understand every technique, its purpose, and how to demonstrate the application for the technique.
Some techniques in a kata build up your strength and flexibility, so they take time to develop through repetition.
Some techniques in the kata need to be repeated over and over so that the correct form becomes a reflex in your body. This means it will automatically happen when you need to apply the technique with a partner, or perform it in a stressful situation (like a grading).
So, just knowing the pattern of your kata is only a small component of what you need for a senior grading. What you really need to demonstrate is a strong understanding of your kata.
What you are good at doesn’t really matter
What? Surely you need to be good at something to be eligible to grade?
To some extent this is true; you do need to be good at what you are demonstrating. However, the biggest test, especially at a senior level is not how well you do the things that you are good at but, rather, how you do the things you are not so good at. Most importantly, Sensei wants to see how you apply yourself to making them better.
Karate is a test of character. How you overcome challenges, deal with setbacks, and how you represent yourself are all parts of the senior rank tests. This is why, in a real dojo, it can take some time to get to black belt and even longer to go beyond black belt. It is only over time (years) that a Sensei can see your true character and whether this character is ready to represent the Chito-Ryu way with a black belt around their waist.
Listen carefully for the real lessons you need to learn
If you listen carefully, your Sensei will provide you with ideas on what you need to work on. Sometimes it may be a simple case of “you must do x and then you will be ready to grade”. This is great because now you know what you have to work on.
Sometimes you may think you are already doing x but, if you have still been asked to do it then you must look at whatever you are doing and do it more. For example, if you think you’re already giving 100 per cent and your Sensei asks you to work harder, then you must dig deeper and find a way to work even harder because your Sensei believes you are capable of even more than you think you are capable of.
Sometimes, the feedback from Sensei may not be so clear-cut. Sometimes, it may even be a little cryptic. Your karate journey is a journey of self-discovery so if you feel like you’re not getting clear directions, it could be because your Sensei feels the best lesson for you is to discover some answers for yourself. This is a test of self-realisation and is a very important step along the way.
This can be a frustrating period where you may feel a little bit lost and even abandoned but be assured this is never the case. Your Sensei will be watching you and providing subtle guidance. If you take responsibility for your learning and open yourself up to receiving those subtle lessons, you will be able to see them and benefit from them.
Actions speak louder than words
If you want to grade, then the best way to let Sensei know is by how you train. This sounds simple enough but, quite often in the dojo, you will see students who feel they are ready to grade but are not making the effort to stand out. In effect, their words speak louder than their actions.
If you want to be noticed to grade, then be the one in class who stands out as working hard. Become fully engaged and interactive with every class you attend. Be the first to line up, be the first to respond with “hai” to any instructions, be the one with the most spirited kiai, be the one that pushes the hardest in the class. Be the one whose actions are saying “look at me, I am working hard towards my next grading”.
Before class are you the one standing around talking, gently rolling the hips around or are you the one of to the side stretching properly or practicing? One of these actions is showing that the student is working towards their next grading.
How many classes a week do you train? If you are really serious about a senior grading, then you will take every opportunity to do every class, seminar, and event possible. Sure, you must maintain a proper balance in your life but look closely at what activities you are prioritising over your karate training. Are they important enough to delay your goal of grading?
Look at all aspects of your preparation. Are you eating right? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you recovering properly? All these things can affect how you perform. If you want your actions to speak for themselves then you want to make sure your actions are as good as they can be.
I am ticking all the boxes and really want to grade…
You have done everything asked of you, have put in the hard yards and really want that tap on the shoulder, that opportunity to be tested. Now what do you do?
You may discuss your progress with your Sensei. It’s not advisable to start that conversation by saying “I want to grade”, because that can be seen as a bit presumptuous. Instead, ask your Sensei how you are tracking and what you could work on towards your next grading. You may be surprised at the answer; make sure you listen carefully and take the feedback on board. There’s no use asking for feedback on your progress only to ignore what you’re told or say “I’m already doing that!” Feedback is a gift. If you take it on board with an open heart and open mind, you may find yourself doing things you never thought you could.
The Hare and the Tortoise
Everyone knows the story of the hare and the tortoise. The hare flies out of the gates in a great hurry only to run out of steam and drop out of the race, while the tortoise sets a consistently strong pace and keeps going all the way to the finish line.
You must approach your karate training like the tortoise, going as fast as you can but with patience and perseverance. At times, your Sensei may be testing you to see if you are a hare that will not make it to the end, or a tortoise that will keep moving forward forever.
Whether you’re a hare or a tortoise, your journey is your own. You can’t compare yourself to others because, just as every person is unique, every karate journey is unique. You may see some people moving quickly through the junior ranks while you feel stuck on a certain belt. This can feel frustrating as you wonder why they’re moving so fast while you’re moving so slowly. But, inevitably, if you continue working on the things Sensei has given you, you will make progress at the pace that is right for you.
A note on double-gradings
Sometimes you may feel like you’re progressing pretty quickly, or you may have come from another style where you held a higher rank. In some cases, you may have been training for some time but, due to work or travel or other commitments, you haven’t been able to attend a grading.
In these cases, you may feel like a double-grading would be appropriate for you. However, double-gradings are rare and are only ever awarded on absolute merit. It is never appropriate to tell your Sensei that you would like to double-grade, regardless of your reasoning behind it.
Instead, if you are invited to challenge for your next belt, simply show up on the day and do your very best. Your Sensei will be watching you closely; if he or she believes you should double-grade, then you will be asked to demonstrate the criteria for the next level on the spot. If you can do so at the required level with humility and good etiquette, then you may double-grade but there are never any guarantees.
So you still want to grade?
Awesome! Get into the dojo and start doing everything you can to be ready to grade. You want to know that, when you do get that tap on the shoulder and you do pass your grading, that you have earned it and are one of the few special people who have proven they have what it takes to be a senior student in Chito-Ryu Karate-Do.