I’ve been doing Taekwondo since 1986 and over the years I watched gradings done in different ways, by different teachers. Some I agreed with, some I didn’t. In the end I came back to how my first instructor Grandmaster Pan Sim Woon did promotion tests and I found that it is the way I feel most comfortable. It’s easy to write this off as just copying the first example, but I feel that I have reasons for doing things that way and can therefore justify why I do it that way.
When I first started as a child training once per week, gradings were approximately every 5–6 months. This equated to approximately 20–25 lessons. Later when I was a black belt I noticed that my second instructor (the late Master Carl Lees) only tested children about once per year, even those training twice per week. I felt this was too infrequent. Given that children require more frequent motivation than adults, it felt wrong that children were grading so rarely.
I considered Korean child Taekwondo students as an example of what my seniors and the Kukkiwon considers an appropriate period. In Korea they grade for coloured belt grades about once per month, but they also train 5x per week. This still equates to about 20 sessions per grading.
When it came time to set how frequently my club should hold gradings, the answer came very easily to every 3 months. Adults and children have the potential to each attend two sessions per week. Assuming an excellent level of attendance at both sessions per week, then 20 sessions is 10 weeks or just under 3 months. If a student attends only once per week then they are eligible to grade every 6 months.
Particularly when the student is a coloured belt, we want them to have the continuing motivation. Martial arts belts are inherently a motivational tool and as you get “older” in martial arts terms (more senior in rank) they get further apart as they become less important (but still present).
We now know how frequently a student should be able to grade. Does that mean that they always will? This depends on the student.
I only remember ever seeing one person fail a grading under my instructor Grandmaster Pan. The student came along, clearly demonstrating an attitude of “look how sloppily I can perform and still pass, the grading is a given, no one ever fails”. He performed way below the level that he usually performed at each training session.
So, if generally everyone that attends the required number of sessions and tries as hard as they can, then they automatically keep going up through the ranks, right? Unfortunately not. There are still requirements for each grade in terms of the skill level demonstrable (which shows underlying knowledge of the principles of Taekwondo). Before each grading each student will be assessed by the instructors and will only be able to test if they are technically ready. Those that aren’t, will be told to wait until the next grading and what they specifically need to work on.
Student X has been attending all the required sessions and is ready to test, does it mean they have to?
There are a number of valid reasons for not wanting to test — finances (black belt tests can be expensive, particularly when compared to coloured belt tests), work pressures or just generally not feeling ready. So, we never force someone to test that doesn’t want to.
However, a long time ago I learnt that it’s rude to ask to test (particularly if your instructor has already indicated that you aren’t ready) and it’s rude to turn down a promotion. Either way gives the impression that you know more than the instructor (you’re saying that they’re wrong in their assessment of your readiness and that regardless of their years/decades of experience, that you know more than they do).
The other thing to bear in mind is that without promotion tests, competitions and other events it’s too easy to coast at a slower pace than you would be if you were polishing up for an event. Any physical endeavour involves peaks and troughs in performance, and it’s only the preparation for major events that gives the biggest “bang for buck” in terms of skill improvement.
One of the things that students tend to think is that the instructor is sitting at the desk ahead of them, judging them, looking to take marks away. I can tell you, that’s not the case!
When I test my students, I feel like I’m up there with them, in spirit. I’m willing them to do well, to demonstrate their techniques and perform as well as they do in class. If they get nervous or make a mistake, I give them every opportunity I can to get them past it.
Gradings are a sobering time — it’s a chance to show, often in front of an audience, your improvement and skill level. This can be nerve-racking, but dealing with the nerves and adrenalin and performing to the best of your ability is an important part of life, and what better place to do it than with your martial arts family.
The student passes, gets their belt. Their family celebrates with them. Their friends congratulate them. The instructor’s involvement ended when they gave them the certificate, surely? That may be the case for some people, but in our case it feels like every higher belt the student gets, they get closer to the black belts (not their black belt, that much is obvious, but the senior members of the class).
We’ve put many hours in to helping the students overcome difficulty, helping them up after they fall and explaining things. The relationship between student and martial arts instructor is a strange one for non-martial arts people to grasp. It’s kind of like family, and indeed often we refer to people as part of the global Taekwondo family. We do favours for each other, we love each other.
One of the best parts of my role as a Taekwondo instructor (and this happens every single week), is during sparring when people are trying to kick and punch each other is the laughs and smiles as little things happen. Sure, sometimes there are tears, sometimes maybe even blood, but I can guarantee every session there is happiness.
So, this bond is built up through the years, the hard work, the despair as things don’t work, the knocks and all that goes with it. When an instructor gives a student a belt, it’s not just a piece of cotton — it’s an acknowldgement that part of their knowledge is now part of the student, that the student represents the club and the instructor during their martial arts and outside. It reflects the love felt between members of the Taekwondo family and how the student is becoming a closer member of that family.
So remember next time you grade, it’s not a solo journey, no-one’s out to enjoy watching you fail — we’re all with you, supporting and helping you, celebrating with you and laughing with you…