Kyu grades – nuisance or necessity........

This is a great article by Sensei Dave (IJKA 4th Dan), which is probably a subject close to the heart of many clubs practising the disciplined art of Karate do.

Sensei Dave

When asked to write an article for our new web page I gave it some careful thought before deciding to concentrate on a long standing issue; that being the composition of some karate classes or indeed clubs. The particular issue in question being the role, if any, of kyu grades in a karate club. Clubs have differing approaches and attitudes towards this matter. Some clubs appear to be made up of a few seniors and “hundreds” of kids while others follow the opposite path of being exclusively made up of black belts. Each has it advocates and can offer justifications for how they operate. However I believe that the ideal is a “middle road” where you can hopefully have the best of both worlds. So how do kyu grades fit into the modern karate club? Bear in mind that the term kyu grade itself covers a very broad spectrum and will encompass small children, teenagers, males, females, beginners of all ages from 6 to 60, with their accompanying physical strengths and weaknesses, and will also cover a huge range of karate ability from 12th kyu to 1st kyu. 
In the majority of clubs this group tends to make up a significant portion of the membership. 
So what part do these students play in a karate club? Sweep the dojo floor, putting out mats, providing a source of much needed income, on thankfully rare occasions acting to appease the egos of those above them? Of course some of these apply and equally some should form no part of the philosophy of any decent club. So what is the perceived problem with these students, why do some people occasionally see them as a hindrance? Well in the first instance they are not as competent as Dan grades and  sometimes they don’t train as often as they should, they tend to make mistakes and the worst offence in many peoples eyes - they start training and then after a short period of time give up thus wasting the valuable time seniors have spent on them. 

Annie Wills making very good progress
Now let’s address these issues one at a time. The first point should be obvious – everyone has to start somewhere. We have all heard the famous aphorism “The longest journey starts with the first step”. Of course Dan grades are more technically advanced, as we should be, with years of training behind us. It’s also worth remembering at this point, difficult as it is that Mr. Kato, Mr. Kagawa and Mr. Asai must all have been beginners at one time so I rest my case on that particular point. 
The second observation about the frequency of their training, certainly as far as children go, is one that will almost certainly be out of their control. The decision as to how often they train will be made for them by their parents, older brothers, sisters, uncles etc. who bring them along or don’t as the case may be. We in turn have a duty to ensure our lessons are interesting, appropriate and have sufficient differentiation to engage all abilities. If we can achieve this there will be a high proportion who will want to come back week after week to continue their training.
The third point is merely a matter of perspective in that their errors are more obvious that ours. Black belts make mistakes as well, honestly they do, we are just more adept at disguising them! Remember “The man who never made a mistake, never made anything.” Tolerance and encouragement on our part, perseverance and effort on theirs, are key ingredients here to a successful outcome.

Sensei Dave teaching a Ist Kyu
 It is surely our role as instructors to develop and nurture the lower grades, to improve their standard, which bizarrely may in turn improve our own. Yes it is true that we all know people who have joined a club, trained for a couple of months and then disappeared never to be seen again. Come to that how many brown belts do you know who have vanished within sight of their Dan grade examination – I can think of four or five off the top of my head and that is probably the subject of another article in its own right. So when we lose students have we really “wasted” our time with them? I suppose to a small degree we have but if you look at it in a more positive light I would like to think not. For a start you need to remember that in any form of sporting activity, hobby, art form or recreational pass time some form of natural wastage is bound to occur. Think of all the children sent along to piano lessons, drama school or football training. How many go on to become concert pianists, film stars or professional football players, not many! There will always be those who for whatever reason do not stick at what they have started and in today’s world that seems to be an ever increasing predilection.
So to my fourth and final point. Following on from what I have just written how you may ask can teaching those of an inferior standard improve the quality of the black belts at any given club? Here I speak from experience. In order to teach or instruct competently you must first of all be secure in your own knowledge of whatever skill or technique it is that you are trying to pass on. You must be able to explain clearly, to amend or alter your explanation if your point is not being absorbed first time. You have to lead by example, to demonstrate, to be able to break a movement, or series of movements down into their component parts. To change tack midstream if necessary, to think on your feet, to persuade, cajole, encourage and finally praise. Putting into practice all these qualities has to be beneficial to your own karate. I mean how can you possibly stand in front of a class and teach mawashi geri unless you yourself can produce a quality demonstration of that same kick? You cannot, so you in turn have to think through your own technique – the standing leg, the position of the standing foot, the correct knee pick up, the body position, the angle of your foot at the point of impact, the snap back and so on. The very fact that you are teaching forces you to address any weaknesses or faults in your own performance and to correct or improve them.

L/R- Jade, Erin and Annie

Here lies one of the fundamental advantages of having kyu grades at a club, they constantly rely upon us to stay one or more steps ahead of them, they rule out complacency (which Dan grade wants to perform an inferior kata than a purple belt?)There are still other valid reasons for welcoming beginners to your club, one of them being the very survival of our art. Eighteen years ago I was a beginner and I plan to train for many more years yet to come but eventually as with all things my time will pass, if we do not teach others who will carry on? One of the great strengths of the I.J.K.A is its direct lineage, the passing down from one generation to the next the fundamentals of karate do.
I believe the strength of any club lies within the quality of its teaching and instruction. The ability everyone has to pass on something of value to those below them. Every black belt that ever was started out as a beginner and upon attaining that rank surely is duty bound to repay the debt he or she owes for the hundreds if not thousands of hours of instruction that has been selflessly given by their seniors for them to reach this goal.
Finally remember, no matter what your present grade, in the eyes of the Japanese masters we are all still very much beginners and still have much to learn ourselves. So are kyu grades a nuisance or a necessity? I’ll leave you to make up your own mind. For my part I don’t know what we would do without them!

Sensei Dave.


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