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I recently had a conversation with my Sifu, Master Scotty, about the merits of testing.

He doesn’t see the merit of traditional testing (complete X endurance tests, demonstrate Y forms, etc) in his clubs because he’s been our teacher for many years and is very familiar with our skill levels.

He prefers tests of character, and being personally familiar with his students.

Reasons to test:

  1. Competition, and hence fitness, are important parts of your art/sport. So fitness tests are important to move up the belt ranks and thus competition classes.
  2. Your school employs apprentices as teachers. If your students are trained by apprentice instructors, the head master would want to test students against some standards.
  3. Your school charges extra for grading, and so it is an important revenue stream. I’m not sure about this one. Most schools charge a healthy amount for classes. I realize it’s difficult to make a decent living as a martial arts instructor. But in my opinion the arts are about charging a fair sum for access to your knowledge, not about squeezing your students for money.

Reasons to consider not using formal testing:

  1. Regular training, not testing, is what will save your life in a self-defence cenario. If your students only train to reach the next belt, will they stick around after they’ve attained their black belt (or equivalent)?
  2. If you are engaged with your club’s students on a regular basis, you should be aware of their skill and fitness levels. Is it necessary to make them jump through hoops to demonstrate it under formal conditions?
  3. If your student fails, it simply means they are not ready to advance. It also means you engaged them in the grading process too soon. Especially if they’re paying extra for the grading. But, if you recognize they’re ready to grade, then what is there to gain from the grading process itself?

Traditionally, gradings in my club have been gruelling sparring sessions, where the student being graded spars the rest of the class continuously for a predetermined period of time. It’s a test of character, more than fitness. The student’s skill is also demonstrated, but no more than they demonstrate on a daily basis while training.

Again, these approaches work for Master Scotty’s club and his art because we are not a competitive style. There is merit for a competitor to be tested against a set of criteria for matching with a certain level of competitors.

What do you think? Is formal grading a necessary component to all martial arts?

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On Wednesday, March 31, 2010, the McMaster Kung Fu club (at McMaster University in Hamilton, ON) welcomed five skilled, young martial artists to the rank of black belt. McMaster is where I began my training while I was in university. An experience that changed my life for the better.

Different styles and different clubs all have their own view of what makes someone ready to be granted the rank of black belt, and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the subject.

My Sifu, and I hope he’ll correct me if I’m off the mark, focuses on dedication, skill and strength of character over fitness. Our gradings are basically physical and mental stress tests. They are 30 minutes of straight, hard sparring, while opponents cycle through the ring based on points scored or time spent. To put it simply, we gently beat the crap out of the student in the ring for a half-hour at 1st degree, and an hour at subsequent degrees.

The student shows their mettle by not quitting and not flying off the handle and hurting someone.

Other demonstrations of skill and dedication are required for higher ranks – these are largely made over time. To achieve 3rd degree with our club, you need to have been training for at least 10-12 years and 4th degree takes 15-17 years. Sifu has a pretty good idea of who you are as a martial artist after that length of time, and you’ve proven your dedication to the art by sticking around.

As for fitness? Thirty minutes of hard sparring requires a pretty good fitness level. By the end, it’s hard enough to hold your arms up to block, let-alone throw punches. Push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups, jogging, almost seem unnecessary.

What do you think about grading processes? How do you think they should be done?

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