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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Paul Herbert


It was Albert Einstein who defined Insanity as ‘repeating the same things over and over again whilst expecting different results’. As Karate uses a progressive grading system that increases with difficulty the further a pupil progresses, it is obvious that the level of effort, commitment and attendance required must also increase in order to develop the required understanding and skill levels. Consequently, the input for 9th Kyu does not suffice for 5th Kyu as this does not then suffice for 1st Dan.

In an era where martial art grades are thrown around as freely as confetti, I believe that many Karate-Ka have lost sight and developed the wrong mental approach to grade and the colour of belt that hangs from their waist. An obsession with the attainment of grade often outweighs the individual’s desire to acquire the skills necessary for the grade itself and ironically distracts them from making further progress.

I make no apologies that as an instructor and grading examiner, I am unsympathetic to statements like ‘but I missed the last grading’ or ‘but I’ve been training twice a week’. The student must accept that although it is admirable and genuinely appreciated, regular attendance is actually necessity and the absolute minimum requirement for any development within Karate. For me, it is a matter of how the student trains and not when.

During my three decades immersed within Karate, I have experienced two key stages in the drop out of fellow Karate-Ka and students. These stages fall around the grade of 4th Kyu (Green Belt) and 1st Kyu, the penultimate level before Black Belt. At the arrival at each of these points in their Karate development, the majority of students are quick to realise that they are now required to commit more.

For many it’s more of a commitment than they are willing to give and so they simply tread water or in some cases actually regress. It’s at this stage that discontent can set in and make a student quite belligerent. The honesty to admit that something has become too hard or is asking too much of us, is as rare as a stylish mullet. Consequently it’s much easier to the self’s ego to find excuses or blame shortcomings upon others.

This is not to say that upon reaching 4th Kyu the ‘recreational’ trainer must increase their training from 2-nights a week to spending their life in the dojo, but it does require them to apply a deeper cognitive study to what they are doing and increase the intensity of their physical output. Only when a student is willing to think more and accompany this by pushing beyond the perceived physical limits of their comfort zone can the next period of development commence. 

I do believe that a Karate grading should be difficult and that consequently a true sense of achievement and satisfaction should accompany each success. I am also unashamed in my belief that when it comes to Black Belt, this grade should be borderline elitist yet realistically obtainable, but only to those who are prepared to genuinely endeavour and study in an austere environment.

I often encourage Karate-ka to look around their dojo or association and question if they have ever seen a member fail a Kyu grading. For most the answer is ‘No’, with even the most incompetent of practitioners often being accommodated with a ‘temporary’ grade. I often note the ease of which students routinely breeze through the entire grading syllabus training just once or twice a week whilst never increasing their intensity.

How can character be built without ever having overcome failure or without tests of real austerity? The groups allowing this to happen seriously need to question their integrity. Money talks and happy students with a new belt every few months certainly equates as big bucks. Yet this would seem acceptable with no obvious care or conscience that they are contributing to the further destruction of Karate’s credibility. 

For me, the student who was willing to increase their input at intermediate level and attained 1st Kyu must now evolve again. They will have developed the ability to push physically to their limits or at the very least allow themselves to reach this level through response to the motivation of a good instructor. However, the act of consistently residing at their limit and remaining in ‘the deep water’ for prolonged periods is internal and can only be developed by the individual.

In training, just as in life, it is our aspirations and desire that allow us to push beyond our limits but it is only our spirit and character that can keep us there. Consequently, this is the area that must be tested and weathered in order for a student to conclude their grading apprenticeship and deserve the revered Black Belt.

My question and message to any Karate-Ka reading this short article is simple. If we dropped the grading and belt system tomorrow would you still train? If the answer to this is ‘Yes’, then simply focus upon developing your skill and spirit because an increase in grade will become a natural consequence of this. The goal should not be to wear a black piece of cloth around your waist but alternatively to possess the set of skills that are sincerely deserving of that grade.

-  Photographs Courtesy of Mike Walcott