Belt tests and gradings are a source of much fear and anxiety, as they are for anticipation, excitement and joy.
Having to perform in front of a panel of experts can be daunting. Having people watch you and scrutinise your performance is intimidating and can be frustrating, as is not getting the results you want.
At the same time, passing a grading successfully is an incredibly rewarding and empowering experience. Personally, my black belt grading in Krav Maga is by far the most powerful, positive, empowering and memorable experience in my life so far.
Gradings also build a strong team bond. Having to go through something tough (and a grading should be tough!) together with others builds a strong and lasting connection, and memories that will be shared for a lifetime.
If you are anything like me, then chances are you stress over these for months, and I wouldn't stretch to say 'year's in my case, in advance. So how do you prepare for a grading? What do you need to work on? What should you remember while you are doing the grading?
Before we go on, there are a couple of important things to mention.
Every school, system and instructor grades differently. Martial Arts are not a regulated industry and as such there isn’t one standard that can be aimed at.
Also, as different systems focus on different things, gradings will be vastly different from one system to another. Some might focus on kata and demonstrations. Some might focus on sparring. Some look at application while others focus on technical proficiency.
And they are all right. It depends purely on what your system and school is like. So please keep in mind, what I’m about to discuss comes from my experiences grading (as a student and treacher) at CAIA, MWA and Gendai Ryu Krav Maga.
What are you looking at?!
Here are some of the things I think one should be assessed on in a Krav Maga environment:
- Self defence first: If you are training in Krav Maga, you should be learning how to defend yourself (I say ‘should be’ because unfortunately that’s not always the case… more on this here). That being the case, the most important thing to assess is one’s ability to defend against common attacks at varying levels of resistance. The types of attacks and level of resistance change based on experience, but to me this is the key. The thing I always tell students is this:
Show me that if something happens, you won’t die.
If you can do that, you’re doing ok. As you get better you have to also look good while you are busy not dying, and also have a variety of options of how to not die. But at its core, self-defence is about pure application above all else.
What does this mean?
I don’t care if you can do a beautiful arm-bar from the bottom if you have 3 guys standing around booting you in the noggin. Substance above style! This is more about whether you can do it than how you do it.
Side note: This is a great example of the opposite, from a friend’s experience.
- Attributes: If we go by the two-pillar approach of attributes and skills, we want to work on both simultaneously. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you can read more about this here, here and here. To quickly summarise, developing technique is important. But along with technique you must also develop fitness, strength, speed, timing, control of range, etc. These are the physical benefits of training, and they are important to your ability to defend yourself. Again, please note that this is an individual thing. Improvement in attributes is more important than being able to do X push-ups, as attributes vary from person to person based on circumstance – age, injury, free time to train, etc. But developing attributes should be part of your ongoing training, and a grading is a good time to push and show them.
- Mental Fortitude: Self-defence doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and life isn’t fair. You are more likely to get attacked when you are sick, injured, tired or distracted. The grading is designed to bring you to that point. ‘Bruised, but not broken’ is what we always say. No one cares about how you perform in optimal conditions. Your attackers don’t, and here’s a nasty fact of life – neither does your boss, or your hungry, screaming baby, etc. Being able to push through when things are hard is one of the most important lessons to be learned in any martial art. Show us that you won’t give up!
- Your COC: You read that right. Your COC is super important. Here is an example of a COC. By COC (Code of Conduct) we refer to your behaviour in class, and to some degree, outside of it. With great power comes great responsibility, and so on and so forth. We need to see that you treat your partners, your instructors, the dojo and your community with respect. Being tired and beat up and still helping your mates tells a lot about you. In much the same way, receiving criticism or not getting the result that you want and dealing with it in a respectful and mature way is also important (and here is a great lesson about this). If you act like an entitled little shit, maybe you are simply not confident in your COC and ready to progress. Either get with the program, or go buy yourself a sports car. Hold on... I drive a sports car. Errrr go buy yourself something else. Expensive, red, fast, shaped like a... Never mind. You know what I mean. Next point.
- Consistency: The hard work is done before you come in. We are not a school or a system where you can rock up on the day, do some pads and a little bit of a demonstration and get a belt. Chances are your instructors already know where you are sitting. They’ve seen you train (or not train) for the last few months. This doesn’t mean you need to train 10 times per week. If you can only do one or two, that’s fine. Just do it consistently.
I'll show you how great I am!
From that, we can extrapolate how to get ready and how to get over the nerves before a grading:
- Jack-of-all-trades: From an application-viewpoint, it’s much better to have a small number of things you can do well than a lot of things you can’t. Stick to what you know! The grading is not generally a time to try out the cool new takedown you learned last month, which you’ve only practised 5 times. In the immortal words of Bruce Lee, “I fear the man who practiced 1 kick 10,000 times, not the man who practiced 10,000 kicks once”. Obviously as you move up the ranks you need to have more options available, but never substitute quantity for quality.
- Jerry Springer: Remember the COC? Don’t be the one to break the COC. Know those scenes in literally every Jerry Springer episode ever where the guests start fighting and security jumps in and people's mothers get insulted and it all gets messy? You don't want your grading to look like that. Listen to instructions carefully and look after each other. Trust me when I tell you, from experience, that you don’t want to be the one who breaks someone in a grading because you were careless. Also trust me when I tell you, and also from experience, that you don’t want to be the one who gets broken because someone else was careless. To quote Jerry Springer, perhaps the least martial-arts-wisdom-worthy person ever, "take care of yourself... and each other". Shows us that you have a great COC and you know how to use it. Inside and outside of the dojo.
- Stay positive: when you stuff something up (not ‘if’), accept it and move on. Just like outside of the dojo, if you obsess over a mistake instead of letting it go and moving forward, you’ll only hinder your progress.
- The tortoise and the hare: Slow and steady wins the race… except here you can’t go slow. Remember that we want to see yoru attributes, and also are trying to push you physically and mentally. One of the sayings I like by Sensei Dave Hughes is that during a grading you should be working at 70% while looking you are working at 100% the whole time. But working at 70% for 3 or 4 hours is still hard work. So maybe not a tortoise. More like a hare and a slower hare. Or a tiger and a cheetah. Or something.
- Mushin: Do whatever it is you do before the grading to get yourself in a positive headspace. For example, I listen to this over and over again before I go through any grading, competition, hard session. etc. Do whatever you do to get in that state of flow, of mushin, where you are relaxed, free of thought and focused.
- Never give up – above everything else (cue John Cena music… WWE fans will know what I mean).
You’ve already done the hard work. You are graded every time you step on the mat. This is the time to have fun, work hard and enjoy celebrating your growth.
But one more important thing… what are gradings for, anyways?
Well, I’m glad you asked (let’s pretend you asked).
The belt around your waste counts for nothing in the real world. You may get attacked after your first lesson, or you may train for 30 years and never get attacked. The main thing the grading is designed to do is to help you understand what you need to work on (and here is a good tip to figure that out regardless).
That being said, being a martial artist is not something that you put on when you walk on the mat and stop doing when you go home. It’s something that becomes part of who you are, and these events are a great way of learning more about yourself. How you deal with pressure, exhaustion, fear, and nerves. It’s also a great way to learn how you respond to criticism, as well as to success and failure.
Especially when someone criticises your CO... hey look, sports car!
Stay safe, stay tuned