Taking things to the 10th degree..

There is a lot of confusion in the martial arts over grades and rank.

In a previous blog, I looked at rainbow or Kyu grades.

In this blog I’m going to look at Dan grades.

In my opinion, there are 3 main issues which should be discussed:

– Standards
– Time in grade
– 10th Dans

Now I don’t mean to cause offence, as I said, I’m voicing my own personal opinion and sharing the solutions I have found.

I’m not pontificating and looking for everyone to adopt our working practices.

I just want you to consider possibilities.

Every art is different, as are associations, what we have in place with the SBA is functional for us but it is very much a “work in progress”

I just want you to consider the problems and find a solution that fits for you.

The first problem, as I see it, stems from the variety of styles, associations, syllabi and assessment criteria being used in the world today.

For argument sake we will dispense with style or art and concentrate only on structure.

If the world was a simple place there would be 2 types of belt.

The rainbow or colour belts, these would denote a junior or student grade who has not passed the coveted black belt.

And black belts, only worn by those that have.

Everyone would understand the difference and would know what had been studied by the belt being worn.

Unfortunately, the world is not a simple place.

So in the real world we have major discrepancies in grading criteria.

Junior black belt vs Seniors is always a bone of contention.

Should a child be awarded a black belt?

And if one is issued how does that child rate against an adult?

Leaving age aside, for the moment.

What one person does for a grade may not be the same as another, even though they train in the same style and same association.

Add to confusion, by allowing students to change grade by changing associations and we have a major mess.

The SBA looks at the arts in a different way than most, replicating itself on formal academia.

We start with the age issue by teaching kids in a slightly different technique order than adults. This is to protect them during their physical development.

We also adjust grading times so students are minimum of 15 years of age before starting the shodan syllabus.

We have 12 coloured belts, or 15 grades for kids, traditionally called Kyu grades.

Technically, it takes a minimum of 4 years 6 months for an adult, training 2 sessions of 2 hours a week, to accrue the knowledge you need for black belt.

Unfortunately, life gets in the way.

We have never had anyone pass black belt with under 6 years of training.

1st to 2nd Dan is minimum of a year (though it usually takes 2 years).

2nd to 3rd Dan is minimum 2 years.

3rd to 4th is minimum 3 years.

4th to 5th is minimum 4 years.

All these are combat grades and require physical assessments.

6th Dan and above are awarded on services to the association, with a minimum of 5 years between grades.

As I said earlier, we favour an academic based structure for our association, your belt is only recognition of your personal study.

The black belt is but an extension of your study to show your progression to higher learning but does not confir on you the abilities to teach.

Becoming an instructor, coach or teacher of any subject requires separate study.

Learning on pedagogical approaches, lesson plans and structure is just as important as strong subject knowledge.

The Martial arts should be the same.

With that in mind, the SBA requires all instructors to have a formally accredited and nationally recognised level 3 or above teaching qualification.

This gives our instructors a level of professionalism above what is usually expected for a martial art.

Each grade has a minimum standard that is formally laid out in the assessment criteria.

Only instructors with formally accredited and nationally recognised assessment qualifications can be used on our grading panels.

Thus providing every student with an unbiased bench mark of their current abilities against the recorded standard.

There is, at present, a disregard for high grades. People claiming that others haven’t earned them.

I believe that if more martial arts favoured this structure a lot of the in fighting could be resolved.

People would respect their grades and those of their peers, reducing the need for politics.

Moving on to our second problem, time in grade.

Above, I have outlined the SBA’s syllabus times.

Although we favour an academic structure, we still use the traditional time in grade as part of our criteria but as I’m about to suggest, this maybe something that we may need to reviewed in the future.

If we consider the arts as a purist form of learning, which is a point I doubt many people will argue with, then we should possibly reconsider the “times in grade” and look towards “Guided Learning Hours”

Students have different natural skills and start learning from their own unique level but let’s put that aside for the moment.

Let’s take 2 students, identical in every way.

If student A trains once a week for 2 hours, then in a 13 weeks / 3 month period you will have accrued 26 hours of practice and be eligible to grade.

No one would argue that.

If you consider it takes 6 years to earn a black belt, you have trained twice a week and completed 1248 hours of training.

Now look at Student B, who trains full time, studying 40 hrs a week.

To match the same time in grade criteria would be approximately 32 weeks.

Just let that sink in.

Not much more than than 6 months to black belt, how many would scream McDojo or rant about martial traditions.

If we hold the student back, respecting the traditional 3 months between grades, then how many would claim it’s all about the money.

Students want to progress quickly, many will pay to take private lessons or attend more than the 2 classes a week we have used in our example.

Training in smaller classes or “one to one” with the instructor, will reduce learning times.

If they fulfil the criteria should they not grade early?

Now this example was for two identical students.

If we drop student ability back into the mix, the chances are we are really restricting the student’s growth.

We have all heard about gifted children.

Let’s for example consider Michael Kearney.

He enrolled at the Santa Rosa Junior College, completing an Associate’s in geology at age 8 went on to finish his Bachelor’s degree by age 10, making him the world’s youngest university graduate.

Should he have been kept back?

He passed the assessments and fulfilled the criteria of the degree.

Has there been an outcry from the academic community?

No, it is only in martial arts that traditions need to be maintained.

Students have to be a certain age with many years training to hold a “legitimate” grade.

Which leads us on to our final problem, the elusive 10th Dan grade.

For traditionalists the 10th Dan is the pinnacle of martial arts achievement.

They should flow through the room, killing everyone in their way.

Pausing, only briefly, to survey the damage in their wake.

Other notable qualities should include, walking on water, being older than the mountains and able to speak only in riddles.

Ok, none of that is true.

But we do expect 10th Dan’s to be old and wise, right?

Do you really need to be old to be a great martial artist?

I don’t think so.

Bruce Lee, arguably the greatest influence the martial arts world has ever seen died when he was

Elvis, the King, died at 42.

Let’s not forget James Dean, who only made it to 24.

All proof that greatness cannot be defined by age.

Then surely we must consider the number of years training.

People will argue 30, 40 or even 50 years to become a master.

With that kind of timescale to become a “master”, how long would you need before it would be acceptable to form your own style?

Judo was established in 1882 by Jigorō Kanō.

He was born in 1860, making him only 22 when he formed his own style.

Granted he wasn’t a 10th Dan at that point but surely this nulls both the age and time in training criteria?

So where are the criteria we should use to award a 10th Dan?

Who has the grade to award it?

Every style and association will have their own thoughts, which due to human nature and politics, will be ignored by all the others.

I would suggest that we could again look to academia for a solution.

Maybe the 10th Dan should be awarded as an honorary degree.

An honorary degree, in Latin honoris causa or “for the sake of the honor” is an academic degree for which a university has waived its usual requirements and may be awarded to someone who has no prior connection with that university.

It is often conferred as a way of honouring a distinguished visitor’s contributions to a specific field or to society in general.

I feel this would bring styles and associations together, people could be promoted for their dedication, influence and success, not only in their own style but by others.

Honorary degrees are often given to famous people, actors and politicians, there is no criticism or ridicule.

It is accepted practice.

Sean Connery received one from Edinburgh University.

But that couldn’t happen in martial arts or combat sports right?

Or could it?

The boxing hall of fame, inducted Sylvester Stallone, a man who never boxed, at the same time as Mike Tyson.

No one thought it was wrong.

There were no demands for Stallone to prove himself by getting in the ring.

Only in the martial arts, where respect is supposedly taught from day one, do we have keyboard warriors trashing reputation of people they have never even met.

I want to thank you for taking the time to read such a long post.

As I said at the beginning, these are just my thoughts. They hold no more weight than anyone else’s.

But hopefully I have given you something to think about.

Stay safe, Til we speak again..




How Do You Do Yours?

In this blog post I want to talk about gradings, promotions or belt testing.

Most arts have some kind of formal rank, grade or belt system in place.

It usually follows some kind of a syllabus or curriculum of learning.

This allows students and instructors to map the progression of the student on their martial journey.

The order of the belts and syllabus will vary from style to style and maybe even across associations.

But what I want to discuss in this post, is the way rank is attained.

To avoid misunderstandings, this post is only dealing with rainbow grades or belts below the coveted black belt.

Dan grades, I will leave for another day.

So how do you conduct your gradings?

In my time in the arts, I have come across 3 types of grading.

– Assessment
– Testing
– Awards

The first type is an assessment grade, which follows a strict process where all students are assessed against a minimum standard or criteria.

This may include both written knowledge sections and physical or practical sections.

Usually set for specific dates in the year, for example every 3 months, and conducted formally.

“X” number of technically correct repetitions of the required techniques and you pass.

The students and instructors know exactly what is required to pass and what will not.

It is standardised with no hidden aspects or surprises.

The second type is a traditional test, this is when the student has learned all the required techniques and they are tested by the examiner.

As in the assessment type grading, there will be a formal testing of the student, outside of normal class times.

Again, at with assessments, these test will be held in average every 3 months.

It is the examiners prerogative for the format and they ask for what they want to see, their opinion is the only criteria of what is needed to pass.

This type of grade is more subjective and open to interpretation.

What one instructor looks for may well be completely different from another.

The final type is an award.

There are no formal tests or assessments.

There are no fixed dates and promotions take place during normal class times and are completely at the discretion of the instructor.

Now, I’m not going to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of each type or recommend which one you should use.

That is down to the instructor or the association you train with.

In the SBA, we use the assessment method.

All students have access to the syllabus from white belt to Shodan and understand the criteria they will be graded under.

This removes the subjective or personal opinion of the examiners.

The students are fairly assessed and, in my opinion, our grades stand up to external scrutiny.

As the chief instructor of the SBA, I took the decision to move our clubs from traditional style testing to assessments.

I was sick and tired of politics and looked at the ways I could change things for the better.

We started by looking at the way our classes were being run and insisted that all instructors hold formally accredited teaching qualifications, first aid qualifications, a qualification in safeguarding of children youths and vulnerable adults and an up to date criminal record check.

This put our teaching practices above the level of most associations, as all instructors have been externally assessed on their teaching abilities and backgrounds.

The next logical step was to look at the syllabus and the way rank promotions were taking place.

We put all our instructors through a formally recognised assessment qualification, the same qualification used by industry and trade sectors to assess vocational qualifications.

Each grade has a specifically written criteria and minimum pass marks.

This has lengthened the process for the examiners but gives the students a fairer representation of their abilities.

Are we finished?

No, we are now looking towards the future, with a full review of the syllabus.

But that is also for another day..

If you would like information on what we have put in place or on any of the qualifications mentioned drop an email to


Speak to you soon



I came to learn Fighting not Kata..

Most martial arts focus on 3 main areas:

– Basics
– Kata/Patterns
– Fighting

As martial artist’s we all want to fight, right?

If we are honest, we go through the motions of the first two, basics and Kata, to get to the good bit..


Sure some instructors may dish out the old cliches and tell there students “I train so I don’t have to fight”.

That’s not a bad thing.

It has its place, especially for those that teach kids.

But when push comes to shove, we teach fighting.

At some point, no matter the style or art you train in, there will come a time when you doubt your techniques and feel the need to test what you have learned.

Whether you try semi-contact or full, you will pit yourself against the techniques and strategies of your peers.

It’s easy, at this point, to forget your roots and change the focus of your training.

Often I have heard of students being attracted to the bright lights of competition and looking to another art or instructor to provide what they think is missing from their training.

Leaving the solid base they had, to chase their elusive dreams.

Many end up just hitting pads or worse, being used as cannon fodder for senior students who already compete..

But remember a successful fighters shelf life is pretty short, you may have already missed the bus.

Not everyone will be a champion and injuries happen.

No matter how great you think you are, the reality is that for most people, you’ll never make the UFC and will still have to be at work on Monday morning.

Unlike competition careers, martial arts is a life long journey. With over 30 years of training in several arts.

I still consider myself a beginner who has only started to scratch the surface.

So let’s look again at the main areas of training:

– Basics
– Kata/Patterns
– Fighting

Basics is where you learn your art.

It’s your introduction to training, where the foundation to your art is taught.

You learn the concepts and principles of striking, kicking, blocking, locking and throws.

It is taught carefully, with your instructor making corrections to your body position.

Practice is long and repetitive, committing techniques to muscle memory.

If learned properly, techniques will come on their own in reaction to the situation or attack.

This is put into action and tested when we spar or fight.

We apply our techniques in a dynamic way against a resistant partner.

But there is a massive leap from basics to sparring.

Care needs to be taken or injuries can occur, even if we do try and break it down into 3 step , 5 step or 1 step first.

This is where Kata comes in.

Kata is the means by which fighting theory becomes fighting practice.

It takes the individual technique taught during basics and combines the concepts of timing and distance.

Kata also allows you the chance to work on your own, outside of class.

It is the foundation for all sparing and opens your mind to the idea of multiple attackers and practical self-defence technique.

Now before I get called out on social media, I didn’t say Kata was for Self-Defence.

I said it can open your mind to multiple attackers and practical self-defence.

In my opinion, Kata practice will change the practitioner’s perception of their basics.

Beginners might not understand the nuances of Kata or see the benefits, so let’s change our discussion to something most people understand.

Weight loss.

In weight-loss and fitness circles, there are daily arguments about the use of fad diets and specific fitness regimes.

Fashions change, things come and go but no one would argue against the long term benefits of healthy eating and exercise.

The scientific results are well documented and have stood the test of time.

But what has that to do with Kata?

In society, things that work are kept and things that don’t are thrown away.

There’s a reason traditional arts use Kata.

Because it works.

Kata holds the secrets to your art, kept in plain sight and passed down through the generations to you.

Hopefully you’ll remember this post if your training becomes boring, allowing you to see things from a different perspective.

A wise student never forgets the importance of their Kata.

And if you are learning a style or art that doesn’t have Kata, maybe you should be asking the question why not?

Fighting is a young students game, Kata will be with you for life.

Speak to you again soon..