(Rank) Standards


Do I expect too much from my students?

Perhaps my standards are too high. I know that there are few instructors, at least in Shotokan, with higher overall standards than I have. There are some who have certain requirements for shodan in their dojo which are more rigorous than at my dojo; for example where the students must be able to do a certain number of consecutive push-ups, sit-ups, etc. And there are other places where self-defense is tested more thoroughly or multiple kata are tested. But, overall, I think that my standards are higher than the vast majority of the dojo where instructors claim to be teaching Shotokan, at least in terms of the level of proficiency of a core set of techniques, movements and basic strategy, as well as technical knowledge and overall attitude.

Far more importantly, however, than how my standards compare specifically, there seems to be a vast discrepancy in standards from dojo to dojo; often even within a given organization. I think it would be great if we could all agree on standards. But as long as this is not the case (and it most likely will never be), I definitely prefer to be known for having higher, rather than lower, standards.

Some of the best companies in the world are the best companies precisely because their standards are so high. The same can be said of individuals. In order to be the best that we can, we should set our goals high and try to achieve them. We must, however, not forget to appreciate our relative achievements and should not be too hard on ourselves (or others) if we fail to reach our very high goals. We must be realistic. My idea has always been to aim high but be prepared for low. I have since I was quite young referred to myself as a “practical perfectionist” and try to share this attitude with those who train with me. We should consider marginal return on investment. If it would take the same amount of effort, for example, to increase the speed of a given technique by 5% or to increase the form of the technique by 50%, it would probably be a much better return on investment (effort) to focus on form.

I would not want to lower my standards by much. But when I see students from other dojo (and I know that the geographical area I am in and dojo I have seen are quite high by relative standards as compared to many other parts of the world) I feel that the standards I set for my students are often vastly different from what seems to be the norm.

Let’s take as an example the time that it takes to advance a single kyu rank. The average among JKA-style dojo is typically about 50 hours of training time for someone of average athletic ability and intelligence. (*reference: Poll conducted through SRSI Yahoo Egroup (previously Shotokan Egroup), in 2002 which showed average of close to 500 hours to shodan (9 kyu ranks from pure beginner) among those who responded.) This would be approximately 6 months at 2 hours/week or 3 months at 4 hours/week. I just today read in a martial arts business magazine (the one I sometimes refer to as “How to Rip Off Your Students”) that one instructor held in high regard by that magazine’s editorial staff (related to the fact that the instructor subscribes to the primary product sold by the magazine’s parent company?) practically guarantees 6th-grade children that they will achieve their yellow belts (full kyu rank advancement from pure beginner) at the end of their set of sessions that totals 15 hours of training. Yes, that is a TOTAL of 15 hours of training. He further explains that this is the normal amount of time it takes. And don’t forget that these are kids, for whom it typically takes significantly longer for ideas and techniques to “sink in.” That I consider approximately 100 hours of training the norm for a single kyu advancement is therefore very far from the standards of some. But I don’t think that I should compare my standards to those of instructors that spend more time marketing their classes than teaching them.

For the kyu exams I administer at my dojo, the requirements are straightforward. We follow the official JKA rank advancement requirements for the physical portion of the test. I will sometimes include something slightly outside of the minimum requirements as laid out by the WTKO (basically the JKA exams with a few more combinations added). But this would be minor and would be primarily to check a certain point. The exam is videotaped. I then give each person 2 or more short questions that he/she is to answer in writing (take-home exam, can research however they desire but must cite references. I give 2 questions for the kyu rank being considered and if they are testing for multiple kyus at the same exam, 1 question for each additional kyu rank). The beginner questions are quite simple and require only a short answer. For the higher ranks, answers may be as much as one page in length. I review the video and my notes and give feedback in writing to each student on both the written and physical parts of the exam and copy the videotape for anyone who took the exam. It is clear what they did well on and what they need to work harder on for the future. Typically, my students are at least 1 – 2 kyu ranks ahead of those from average JKA-style Shotokan dojo in North America, from what I have seen. There are some that I have seen from other dojo who have been better than some of my students at the same rank. But this is not at all common.

Many senior karate practitioners around the world understand and appreciate that rank within the JKA is often lower than that of their counterparts in other organizations (a JKA 4th dan is typically around the same level as a 5th or 6th dans in other organizations). This does help to show that JKA standards are, at least in some respects, very high. But doesn’t this in some way confuse the public, at least those who do not have enough experience to know about the different rank standards? Wouldn’t it be in the JKA’s best interest to lower their standards and raise the ranks of their students and instructors more quickly? This actually did happen (for senior instructor ranks) in Shotokan in the 1950’s and 60’s, as the JKA realized that there was too much discrepancy between their ranks and those of other karate organizations. Is it time to do this again? If they “corrected” some of their ranks, what of the places where rank is highly inflated? Would they be willing to lower their ranks? I don’t think so. The problem is much more far-reaching than simply a couple of organizations disagreeing about what constitutes the skill levels of given ranks. The standards for both student grades and instructor ranks are all over the map. I suspect that this dilemma will never be resolved completely.

Now that I am with the WTKO, I am very proud to proclaim that I am in organization that has even higher standards than the JKA.  The testing requirements and level of performance and understanding required are in line with what I feel is right.  My students should have no doubt that when they attend their rank with me within the WTKO, they could have passed at least that same rank anywhere else.

As for instructor rank, I feel that one step towards clarifying credentials is to get more information out there on what skills particular people have. Most importantly, this means providing detailed descriptions of various instructors as a comparison tool. Please see my Instructor Profile Database for more on how I am trying to help accomplish this.

Although I believe that many present-day instructors can conduct better classes than many – if not most – of our predecessors, we should not lower our standards. If anything, we should raise them, for both instructors and their students. At least that is what I am trying to do…

Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published April 2003)