Let’s talk about rank in Karate
Exploring the paradox of rank and rank testing
Yes, they are related as one leads to the other. I should say one CAN lead to the other, formal testing is not the only way to achieve rank and rank does not always signify the quality of your martial arts.
This is the paradox of testing and rank for the practitioner in Karate (and most likely other martial arts styles.)
I have many thoughts and feelings on Rank Testing and this post is in no way intended to be exhaustive of all of them; but the things i’m writing about here have been on my mind lately as i’ve taken on teaching and testing students of my own and have been working as hard as I can to adhere to “the code” and lead them in the best way that I can both in and out of the Dojo.
“When am I testing?”
In an article by Joshua Page of Hickory Martial Arts entitled “When am I Testing?” he writes; The answer to the question is simple, but the concept is not always so simple. The answer to the question “Sensei……When am I testing?” is You are Testing Right Now!
Karate is first and foremost a lifestyle. It’s real life. It parallels everything you do in the Dojo. It can take years before you understand this. Most things in your life that you have done before likely do not include the level of commitment that Karate (and all quality Martial Arts) will require of you should you decide to seek some of the answers to life that it can provide.
Karate goes beyond the Dojo.
I agree with Sensei Page, you are testing when you show up to class, when you lineup and practice what can seem like the same monotonous kicks or basic Kata over and over. You are also testing when you give your best effort, when you show up not just for yourself but for the others in the class. You are also testing when you display humility, patience and kindness not only in the Dojo but everywhere else. You are always testing. Or you should at the very least work to cultivate this mindset. But do it for YOU.
Test yourself daily and when the time comes to be tested by your Sensei or by your peers, you will be more than ready. The test is won in the little details you work to perfect, in the positive habits you create for yourself — this is discipline and that is the way.
The question is what are you doing with your time, what are you doing on the mats to advance not just you, but those around you. What are you doing off the mats to be of service, to improve yourself, to be the example of why everyone should train martial arts. — Sensei Joshua Page
I was interviewing Sensei Lawrence McSwain during a podcast series for the Legends of Carolina Martial Arts and he was explaining how rank and testing worked in the early days of Karate in the US (60’s and 70’s respectively). Often times there was no rank promotions, your Sensei would simply assign you your rank when the time was right and for what you deserved in relation to how you had progressed and displayed your character and proficiency along the way. Even mentioning that he still, to this day, does not have a certificate for his first degree Blackbelt — his teacher told him to simply “go order your Blackbelt now, you did it.” I don’t think this would fly in today’s societal expectations… But what character in the person who persevered in an art that demanded such delayed gratification as this.
First know yourself, then know others.
Now I am not going to pretend that I don’t see the importance of Rank/Belts. It shows others where you are in the hierarchy, how far you have come in your training and it displays the expectations your Sensei holds for you as well as the expectations you are placing on yourself. Each level is your sign to the rest of the class and the world how far you’ve climbed and how much work you’ve put into your journey.
This is why it’s there. To give you a goal to strive for, something tangible, something others can see…
I suppose this is why it can become the focus for you instead of the training itself. The Rank or the color of your belt is only there to show the level of the training you’ve received. Testing is part of that level, but it doesn’t have to be. I have seen and I have myself assigned a new rank to a student for how hard they are working and for something, some situation, they have overcome in their life.
Take the Blackbelt for example. For most it represents the penultimate belt in the series and the highest level of proficiency you can achieve. This couldn’t be further from the truth. To non-practitioners and novices alike it certainly seems that way however as any true martial artists who has achieved this rank knows, it is only the beginning of the journey. The Blackbelt only signifies that you have shown to have the requisite Patience, Discipline and Humility in your art and in your life needed to achieve it. It is the first step in the real lifelong journey that is Karate. This subject deserves it’s own deep dive article, we’ll get to that one day.
Be constantly mindful, diligent, and resourceful in your pursuit of the way.
I love this Guiding Principle! Note how it is written; “…your pursuit of the way.” This indicates to me that you never truly “find it” you can only pursue it, getting close to it but never achieving it fully. That is the Blackbelt mentality. You don’t HAVE a Blackbelt, you ARE a Blackbelt. To understand this requires you to focus on your journey and not on the belts or ranks you achieve along the way. It is funny how getting to that “highest level” only shows you how far off the mark that statement truly is…
Calamity springs from carelessness.
Let’s take a look at what could hold you back from achieving rank or more importantly acquiring real knowledge and experience in Karate. In the very least any or all of these could be reasons why you are not invited to test during the next grading at your Dojo.
Knowledge of your material
Simply not knowing all of your required material for your next rank. This seems obvious but I’m always surprised when I hear directly or hear of someone asking about testing when it’s obvious they have not completed the requisite list of techniques nor display a useful level of knowledge of the history and technical details they’ve been given.
It’s that simple. There is a time requirement for your training. I get it, some people are able to learn their material faster than others, some people are gifted athletes. I can tell you with 100% certainty neither of these apply to me, I learn very slowly and I am not a natural athlete. If you want to master something you need to do it over and over and over and over again. Injuries can also play a part in your training time. Just because you’ve picked everything up in record time does not mean you deserve to test and move ahead faster than normal.
If you only come to class once or twice a week and that’s the only time you are practicing, you are not going to advance as fast as someone who comes to every class, takes advantage of extra training time, practices at home, attends seminars and tournaments.
Sometimes we aren’t capable of doing all the extra ‘stuff’, we have busy lives and our time can be limited, of course. That’s okay, truly it is. Just be cautious of comparing yourself to the person who does extra and goes all-in. You are both just as important to your teacher. Remember that Karate/Martial Arts is a lifestyle and not something extra for you to add to your calendar or just a series of to-do’s for you to check off the list. There are more ways than one to practice Karate, just practicing on the mats is not the only path — any good Sensei will see this in you.
Karate is a Martial Art. It is first and foremost there to teach you self defense and how to fight. You must display proper character and behave as such in and out of the Dojo before you can expect to learn more material.
There are many small and large details to learn in Karate. I’ve often thought it wasn’t really the right Martial Art for me because i’m not so much a ‘details person’, however putting them into perspective within Karate makes sense to me. Simple rules such as; being late, not bowing (Rei), sitting respectfully (Anza/Seiza), asking a higher rank to ‘perform’ for you, asking to learn (or when you’ll learn) new material, disrupting class by talking out of turn, not paying attention, etc… these seem simple and not that big of a deal at first look but you would be surprised how much some of these can not only steal the wind out of a class but your Sensei as well. Not to mention coming off as rude.
You should come to the Dojo just as much for others as for yourself. While Karate is an internally focused journey it is just as much reliant on the participation of others walking the same path as you. You have to learn to give as much as receive and that takes teamwork and as big of an external focus as you are putting into your internal focus.
I think it is important for students to attend other’s rank tests, when and where it’s applicable. I totally get that some schools can be too large to accommodate this. Not only does it develop your ability to support others but there is a lot to learn for your own journey just by being present. Show up for others, not only will it be your turn soon but you will need their effort to make you better along the way too.
It’s easy to say but you should NOT compare yours to another person’s journey. We’ve already touched on the fact that we are not all the same and have different strengths and weaknesses than others in the Dojo. I know it’s easier said that done most of the time and I think a little competition is okay and can even be healthy. But it can also become toxic to you if you dwell on it or let it work against your own focus.
Instead of being jealous or worse indifferent to others, learn to be happy for their success and progress. If you expect them to do the same when it’s your turn, it needs to start with you. Learning to become an effective leader starts with this lesson.
I’m sure there are more and more seasoned instructors that probably have many stories they could share, these are just top-of-mind as i’m writing this.
The Testing Process
Most of the time a Rank Test or Grading is pretty straight forward, it is there for your instructor to see how well you have studied and practiced your assigned material.
I’ve even heard of a test for beginner students to be able to earn the right to wear a White Belt to class…
Part of it is to test you on your material and part of it is to provide for a forum where you must overcome some of your insecurities and practice having courage. That said the Rank Test is the simplest most straight forward way to see where you are and how you handle some adversity. However it is not the only way an instructor may test you.
The Japanese concept of Kokoro is not something we have an analog for in English or the US. It is the uniting equally of Heart, Mind and Spirit. It is this very concept that inspired Navy Seal Commander and Blackbelt Mark Divine to name his 50 hour pre-Seal training camp after. It is Kokoro that we are working on and testing for along with our physical abilities in Karate as we achieve each rank and successfully pass the grading process.
Karate is like boiling water; Without heat it returns to its tepid state.
Diamonds are formed deep within the Earth’s crust under conditions of intense heat and pressure that cause carbon atoms to crystallize thus forming diamonds.
Like diamonds a Karate practitioner should understand that they must be tested in much the same way as a diamond is formed. It is through a careful application of pressure and heat that your teacher applies in a single setting or over a series of events or classes that helps you realize what you are capable of and over time you will come to realize just how resilient and courageous you really are.
It’s for these reasons I believe in formal Rank Testing and the power behind them for the practitioner. It is also for these reasons that I believe there are more than one way to see the qualities you seek in your students as their Sensei/teacher.
If you are a Sensei/Instructor, take the testing process seriously. It is in the seriousness that you will find that you can create the forum you need for your students to thrive and excel before your very eyes.
If you are a student, take the testing process seriously. You are not only being tested the day of your test, you are being tested every day both in and out of the Dojo. Approach every day of your practice just as seriously as you would when you’re on the floor in front of a panel of Blackbelts grading your performance.