Black Belt Standards – An Examiner’s Responsibility

If the grade of Black Belt in martial arts was easy to attain and gaining it was commonplace, then it must surely stand to reason that  such a Black Belt amounts to little or nothing. The wearer of such a false belt is more to be pitied than to be blamed, for he/she is really not at fault. The examiner and the nice people who decide on what constitutes a decent standard are key players here. Pointing the finger of blame in falling standards of modern day Black Belt testing is a blog that ventures into the passionate ground of every martial artist, good and bad.

Modern technology is currently used to monitor scores in professional sports like  tennis and football. I welcome the day when they invent a scanner for Black Belt testing to monitor. The vast majority of you good people reading this I am certain, wish for standards to remain high. If you hold the position of examiner, if you grade your own students, do make it hard to get through each test. If a student can’t do it on the day, get them to re-test.

You’re not a Boxer until you step into the Ring, and you will always be nervous. Even then, you will have to have, over time, earned the right to call yourself a Boxer.

As a part-time musician I get very nervous before every gig. Because if we don’t go down well, the punters start drifting, we lose money, credibility and any good reputation from the previous good gigs, where we did manage to go down well.

No matter the profession, you are only as good as your last fight as a boxer, your last gig as a performer, your last class you took as instructor and those last certificates you signed as an examiner. It is with the Examiner that most of a martial arts standard lies.

More than likely you’re either an instructor or a Black Belt reading this blog, so you’ll agree that a martial artist should physically train at least one and a half hours every day. That’s a mix of cardio, stretching, resistance training and boxing/sparring every day, yes every day without fail.

 Truth is, if we are not getting fitter, stronger or learning something, growing and improving, then we are not doing it right.

kaizendo black Belt grading 3Yesterday, I promoted two young women to second degree black belt. Six years ago they began their journey, and got used to their weekly workouts, probably felt some initial disruption to their life style and more than likely lost a few friends and gained new ones.

Where they train, they are the only two senior grades, so they are familiar sparring partners. More than likely, they see other students making some incremental signs of progress, while they hardly see any in themselves. The higher up the grades they go, the more they face tighter margins of improvement.

They fully understand distance, timing and accuracy. They can work around and overcome injuries, attend classes when they don’t feel like it, and are on good terms with boredom and all his horrible cousins of fear and frustration.

Those of us who are privileged to sit in judgement as examiners are only as good as those we promote. Growth and improvement must continue regardless of reaching examiner status. Most partner drills are done in a controlled environment, with protective gloves, gumshields and headguards, with a first-aided and qualified instructor calling time. If you are an Examiner, try and ask yourself this; How many Black Belts have ever been seriously punched in the face?

This is what happens if your punched hard or butted in the nose…Your eyes water up, it’s difficult to breathe as your nostrils jam with a mix of water and blood, your legs if you are still someway conscious, you try and get a sense of where the shot came from and do your utmost to avoid a second bang because then you’re going down and ….it may become serious perhaps fatal if this happens.

Contrast this with the thousands of “punches” thrown in a semi contact fashion during partner drills. It is plainly a different type of punch. However, if these semi-contact and pre-arranged punches are thrown in a flimsy fashion, without any sense of realism or purpose, then the standard goes out the window.

If you are an examiner it is your responsibility to ensure that partner work is done as realistic as possible. At a Black Belt grading members should fully engage with each technique, otherwise it is the examiner who has failed not the student.

kaizendo black Belt grading 2After almost three hours on the floor, I had an easy job of signing their Certificates, because they were fit, fought hard, were very humble in manner and their performance was a credit to their instructors.


Kaizen-Do is a fitness and self defence system of martial arts aimed specifically at adults. It began as a project back in 1999 and is still in development. It has the advantage for people like Patsy Flavin who training in her 50’s, never had much opportunity to do anything remotely like martial arts before. What she has lacking in kicking ability, her die-hard persevering attitude more than makes up for it. She trains every week without fail, pays up-front in advance before  everyone else, attends every summer camp, pushes herself in every lesson, every drill.

When she takes a water break it takes the minimum amount of time. Unless she is pushing herself beyond her comfort zone in every class, she’s not happy. Yesterday, I saw her  on the verge of collapsing with exhaustion towards the end of the grading.

Her Instructor, Christine Goulding told me “That’s Patsy, she had a bit of trouble with her disks, her doctor told her to stop martial arts training months ago, but she said “No” and asked me what is the best for her way to push ahead now because she wants her Black Belt and she has no intention of giving up.”

During the grading,  a partner fitness drill, just to test kicking fitness was carried out. One partner holds the focus pads at waist height with the forearms crossed, and the palms slightly tilted to accommodate a 45 degree turning kick. The opposite partner stands facing square on, legs shoulder width distance apart with both feet parallel. The goal is to try and get 90 to 100 clean 45 degree turning kicks done inside one minute, or if the pads are held 125 fronts kicks in one minute. This drill creates a great atmosphere, because as one guy is kicking his partner is counting his kicks, adding a touch of competition to the drill.

Two younger gents also on the grading floor were actually having a conversation and not counting as one coasted through the kicks, his partner was barely counting and not 100% engaged in the drill.

Patsy did not get her Black Belt yesterday, she still has a few challenges to overcome, but luckily for her they are mostly only physical ones. She epitomizes everything a good decent black belt should be willing to aspire towards. Her instructors Patrick and Christine Goulding tell me she is an inspiration to the club and even to themselves. She could handle not passing, but I doubt that she will ever tolerate giving up.

As for the two blokes, how in God’s name do these guys think the can become Black Belts with this laid back attitude not to mention technique. Such a pity as they are young men, in their late twenties. Nice guys yes, but good black belt standard….no.

kaizendo black Belt grading 1Black Belt standards surely rest with the examiners. The Herculean efforts made by previous generations to have the Black Belt, the coveted holy grail of the expert, as a significant standard will face a serious threat if modern day examiners don’t maintain some credible Status Quo. But who is anyone to judge?

Like the boxer, who is only as good as his last fight, an Examiner is very much the same, only as good as the Black Belts he or she produces.

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