The Grading Game

Sunday was a big day for the club. Apart from having a full day (9am til 11am then 1pm til 4pm) on the mat – for some of us at least – with the afternoon session being the third and final seminar with John Waite at the club, there was also some surreptitious grading going on.

John Waite is known for his no nonsense approach to aikido, both in practice, teaching and the backroom politics. This weekend was no different. The aikido taught was straightforward and fundamental. After a vigorous warm-up, John began with a simple wrist turn from a grasp. He then built in the principles of moving off the line (away from the attackers weapons), breaking balance (kuzushi) and keeping centre. This is all important stuff and the opportunity to practice it in detail was helpful to the higher grades while not overwhelming the less experienced. The teaching and training was done in a fun and enjoyable atmosphere. John can be very severe in his criticism of poor technique but is also very positive and friendly to everyone who is trying. From this wrist turn we worked it into a number of techniques of varying complexity.

After a quick water break the session changed tack. Pepi took the lower grades, through some of the randori no kata I believe. John took the higher grades and went through some more advanced stuff. I didn’t get to see much of this as I was collared to become uke for the rest of the day.

First, I was uke for Terry Mason, who went through various parts of the dai ichi, dai ni (sort of), dai san and dai yon. This included the weapons section of the dai san except for the sword to sword. Terry performed well and while there is always room for improvement there were no serious issues with his performance, notwithstanding that we have not trained together for months and had only had a brief chance to go through his katas that morning.

Not content with the beating I got from Terry, I was then plunged into the abyss that is being uke for Tony. It is rare to see Tony get put through his paces, as he is usually busy teaching and doesn’t get much opportunity to let rip. Well he certainly had his bite of the cherry this time. We did parts from the dai yon, the 4th dan kata, which is a mix of shichi no hon variations and bit from the goshin ho.

In addition to this, Tony had to perform the full weapons section of the dai san as a demonstration in front of the whole group. I must admit that I was somewhat worried about this as I had not spent long practicing the uke side recently and I was not convinced I would provide good fodder for Tony. In the end it went smoothly and Tony performed excellently. The techniques flowed but we very effective. [There is video footage of us doing the dai yon on YouTube and various people have commented that I “gave” him too much. The truth is that I rarely over-extend on purpose, although I am usually quite relaxed] When Tony draws you in it works really well. What with his tremendous strength, too, I was given a fine and intimate introduction to most of the mats in the dojo.

I believe there may be some video footage of that kata section. May be it might get posted on YouTube or somewhere else soon??

At the end of the day, Tony and Terry were fairly awarded their 4th and 2nd dan respectively and also Audrey was given her 1st kyu. Again, deservedly so, although I didn’t watch her during the session.

The day was an enjoyable workout for all and there seemed to be a very positive atmosphere being generated. I hope we can get more of these long days going in the future.

This kind of brings me to the crux of this post.

What is the point of grading? I suppose there are many reasons with perhaps the least important being personal achievement.

These grades are important for the club.

As more people start breaking into the dan grades, it is helpful for Tony to be ahead of the pack as it were. It also provides the club a level of autonomy for the majority of its activities. We are a large club with a healthy income and it makes sense that we should not be unnecessarily shackled by administrative issues.

In order that the club is able to continue to grow without putting undue strain and pressure on Tony, we need to be able to provide more teaching options and only by getting people trained up as coaches and breaking into the black belts can we provide a broad and deep provision of teachers and teaching.

These grades are important for individuals

You do you measure your progress in the activity of aikido? I have written about this before and there is an argument that says it can all be internal, like in yoga, where you just “know” who good you are. This works fine for some people, but not everyone has this level of sensitivity to their ability. Also, this is probably only possible once you have more experience. For the lower grades at least it is essential that they are able to have concrete feedback on their progress.

This feedback is also a good motivator. In an ideal world, everyone would be completely motivated all the time, no matter what was happening on the mat or in the lives at home, we would all work hard every time we train and always maintain focus on our development. Unfortunately this is rarely the case, often at any time let alone all the time. People are definitely more motivated to train hard and in a focused and specific way when gradings are around the corner. This also means that people can have a bit of a break from this level of focus away from gradings and is likely to prevent people from burning out.

Finally there is the egotistic nature of grading. “I want to be a black belt,” is often a phrase you here from people taking up martial arts. This is an understandable aim but as you begin your journey in martial arts, and aikido in particular, I hope it becomes apparent that this kind of attitude is actually fairly immature and misses a fundamental aspect of budo. Martial arts, or at least budo derived ones, have an element that is about personal development or growth on top of the purely technical development. What this means differs from art to art and club to club but for me it is about learning humility, hard work, self control and respect for others. It seems perverse to be developing this on one hand and at the same time striving for a fairly arbitrary measure of your technical ability.

As far as this last point goes, if anyone needs a role model for these high moral characteristics, it is Tony. Never do you see him showing disrespect for anyone (he may not like someone or disagree but he still maintains a level of respect). He is one of the most humble people on the mat at the club. This is particularly notable, since he is the most experienced and accomplished aikido student on the mat, he is responsible for the creation and on-going success of the club and he puts more time and effort into the club than the rest of the members put together.

As John said on Sunday, we are indebted to Tony for the club that we have, we are incredibly lucky to have such a good teacher and we need to make sure that he is appreciated.

Finally and interestingly, John said that we need to keep pushing Tony. I think this may be the closest that he came to a criticism during the time he has spent with us.