Thursday, January 20, 2011

Promotion Thoughts

I've had a couple of posts about rank and promotions in karate rattling around my head.  A good friend of mine just earned her promotion (congrats Kathy!) and I thought I'd start writing a little about how I feel about tests.

I am a student of Seido Karate, and have been for quite a while.  I want to describe some things about promotions in my style.  I expect that promotions in other karate styles are very similar, at least in some respects, though feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

First one caveat: everything I'm going to write is applicable to ranks from 10th kyu (white belt) through third or fourth dan.  There are other issues involved with the higher dan rankings, and to be honest I don't really know how they work - I'm a nidan (2nd degree), and I'm not privy to the details of higher ranks.  This is not unusual - in many styles I believe that higher dan rankings involve considerations such as a person's contribution to the style (who and how much they've taught, things they've done for the organization, etc.)

In my style there is a typical timeframe for promotions, though it does vary by circumstance (layoff from training, progress, etc.)  You aren't guaranteed a chance to promote - you come to class and work away, and every so often your instructor tells you it's time.  Kyu ranks are usually tested by their instructor while all dan grades are tested at our headquarters in New York.  I believe there are some other accommodations made for people who train in other countries (we have dojos all over the world), but don't hold me to that.

It is taboo to bring up your promotion with your instructor.  That is, you never go to your instructor and ask if it's time to be promoted or hint that it's time.  I'm pretty sure this is a very Japanese kind of thing.  There may be instructors who would be more comfortable with that question, but the general rule is to keep your mouth shut and keep training. 

For the most part promotions are kind of strange.  The failure rate is very low - when I went for nidan (2nd degree black belt) there were more than 30 of us from all over the country and everyone passed.  In a sense you pass when your instructor recommends you for promotion.  It isn't actually automatic, you could screw up enough to fail, but generally speaking unless something odd happens your chances of coming out of testing with a new rank are very high.  You've proven yourself by coming to class, learning, and growing as a karateka. 

The strange part is that one might think that, knowing you're almost guaranteed to pass, there would be very little pressure on the testee.  In fact, I find the opposite to be true.  If I was sent in when I chose to go and asked to perform against some objective standard then failing might be easier.  But when I go for promotion my instructor has put herself out on a limb and told the leaders of our style that I'm ready for the next rank.  If I go into testing and screw up - perform badly - it's tantamount to telling the world that she's wrong.  I'd be breaking her word, so to speak, reflecting badly on her as an instructor.  The pressure not to do that - to do your teacher proud, I guess you could say - is absolutely tremendous.  It's very much the way a kid feels when a parent shows them off - you're happy and proud, but if you screw it up you're embarrassing your parents.

The promotion itself is quite physically (and mentally) rigorous.  Not the most rigorous I've ever heard of - in our parent style, kyokushin, the promotions were far more brutal.  But unless you're a spectacular athlete the promotions are very hard, much harder than normal training.  What's the point of making a grading so hard when everyone (or almost everyone) will pass the test?  That's the interesting part.

By making the promotions both very difficult and relatively infrequent they are made into instances of mental training, or spiritual training.  The test - including the weeks or months of extra training you do leading up to them - pushes you close to your physical limits.  Enduring the test, and especially making a good showing of yourself during the test, is an accomplishment like climbing a mountain or running a marathon.  Forever after, during difficult times in life (and I don't just mean grueling training sessions), you have the ability to look back on that day and remember that you had what it took to make it through.

Is this something you should do often?  I don't think so.  Our bodies aren't meant for regular eight hour training sessions.  It's not even healthy.  But sporadically - and we're really talking about once ever few years, or less - training that hard and long can provide a psychological boost that is hard to explain to people who have never done anything that difficult.

In some ways I think these promotions are more valuable for the marginally gifted karateka.  I imagine that a very physically talented person might have a relatively easy time of the test - all testees go through roughly the same stuff during the day, and since that group can include sixty year olds alongside teenagers, the pace isn't enough to really blast someone in great shape.  So I should feel lucky that I'm not physically talented, so my next promotion will give me a better chance to develop my spirit!

I have a promotion coming up this summer.  I'll write intermittently between now and then how I'm altering my training to make sure I'm ready - though to be honest I won't do things much differently than I have been the past year or so, just perhaps more of it.  I will change things over the last few weeks to peak for the test, and that I will describe in more detail.

In the meantime, train hard and let me know how promotions in your style differ from mine!



  1. I think it is definitely a Japanese thing about it being taboo to discuss promotions with your instructor. I see that in Shotokan too, even if the instructor is from the US or another country. It has always bothered me. If you cannot have a conversation as an adult to another adult, then it does not make sense to me. For kyu exams, we typically have 3 per year and no one will deny you from signing up, but they will not hesitate to give you half a kyu. When you sign up for a test and if the instructor does not think you are ready, I would rather him or her tell you that. For dan grades, it is almost worse because there are times required in a rank but you could wait a long time before an instructor actually tells you that you should test. Personally, I got my shodan and do not have any desire to get further ranks because of all that bs. I know a few other people who have done the same.

  2. I'm sure it is a Japanese thing. I didn't mean to endorse the practice - I'm not saying it's good (or bad), just a fact of life for many of us. If I was in charge (which will never happen) I might do things differently. I partially meant for this post to explain some of this stuff to non-karateka - a surprising number of my readers are not martial artists. Thanks for the comment!