Why Are They Important?

By Mark Lonsdale, Judo Training Development

All organizations, including sporting bodies, are defined by their standards, but more importantly, by their willingness to adhere to high standards. It is not sufficient to merely generate written standards, policies and procedures manuals. An organization must have the courage to enforce those standards. Adherence to standards equates to RESPECT in the community, and it falls to the board of directors of any organization to set and enforce those standards.  

Stepping back from the world of judo, we can look to the military to see the importance of standards. After the successful raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, everyone is familiar with the US Navy SEALs and the high standards an individual must attain and maintain to be an operator in the SEAL Teams. But the same is true in all branches of the military. Giving truly motivated individuals the opportunity to progress from Infantry to Airborne to Rangers to Special Forces has long term positive effects on the military as a whole. A Special Forces operator is a “four time volunteer” in that they must volunteer, persevere, and qualify for each step. Understand that combat infantrymen have higher standards than other non-combat roles in the military, just as Airborne paratroopers have higher standards than Infantry. Rangers set higher standards than Airborne, and Special Forces have uniquely higher standards than Rangers. Then the Tier One operators of Delta have even higher standards than Special Forces.  The same is true in the US Marine Corps if one volunteers to enter the pipeline that takes a grunt from basic infantry through to Marine Force Recon.

The long term value of this elite training, driven by standards set for each tier, is known as the “trickle-down effect.” Every so often officers and senior enlisted from Special Forces, Rangers or Force Recon return to command an infantry unit where they can have a positive impact on overall fitness, technical ability, and training standards. Or even better, they take command of a training battalion where they can have real impact on doctrine and quality assurance. From a judo perspective, this should be the effect that an elite athlete or legitimate high-grade Kodansha has on local and regional judo development.

In addition to grading criteria and promotion manuals, in judo we have many levels of certification to include teaching, coaching, refereeing, rank examination, kata, and even technical support. Unfortunately, over the past decades a number of these certifications have become little more than meaningless pieces of paper and rubber stamps, seen as mechanisms for generating revenue for the national governing bodies.

As one example, in the past in the US it has been possible to gain a National Coach certification by sitting through a few hours of lectures (often unrelated to athlete development) with no testing, no requirement to read the IJF rules manual, no mat time, and no demonstration of technical ability or competency. In other countries, including Europe and Canada, earning a National Coach certification is a long, demanding, and not inexpensive process, taking over a year to meet all the required deliverables before final examination and certification. One reason for this is that the title on the certification should match the ability of the candidate. In other words, a “certified national coach” should be qualified to train an athlete up to the standard of competing at a national level. Unfortunately all too many “certified” national judo coaches in the US have never even attended a national championship let alone competed or trained at that level. When questioned about the principles of long term athlete development (LTAD), Periodization, IJF Rule changes, sports injury prevention, mental preparation or sports psychology they are often instantly struck dumb.

The same is true with certified National Rank Examiners. This certification is often awarded automatically with rank (4th dan), without formal training, testing or evaluation of the individual’s competency. In reality, a rank examiner should possess a respectable degree of judo knowledge and experience supported by an above average degree of technical ability. Again, all too often, the national governing body (NGB) sees such certifications as revenue generators, but in the rush to increase revenue and compete with other organizations, they lower standards and requirements. But it was not always like this.

In the past, as in other countries, to become a rank examiner candidates had to sit through a multi-day review of the entire national promotion manual, followed by on the mat evaluation of their knowledge and technical ability. As with Kodansha, national rank examiners are supposed to be the “gate keepers” in judo, ensuring quality control and quality assurance of future generations of judoka.

Promotion guidelines have also been abused, particularly at the higher levels. Where once we had formal testing based on nationally approved curriculum, all too many leaders began handing out grades without any transparency or adherence to written protocols and standards. This is one of the most commonly voiced issues on US judo blogs, which have become the voice of the frustrated membership. The common complaint is that “the good old boys” have hijacked the certification and promotion process, promoting each other to levels far above their levels of experience and demonstrated ability. The other complaint is that the NGB are only interested in “collecting fees” and not in servicing the needs of the clubs or membership.

As evidence of this, competent judoka who attend clinics or training camps are often astounded by the lack of technical skills and knowledge exhibited by other senior dan-grades. When a self-professed Rokudan knows virtually no judo techniques by their Japanese terminology, or a certified National Rank Examiner does not know the difference between kata-guruma and tomoe-nage, and in 2013 a club sensei is preparing juniors for completion by teaching them leg-grabs and forbidden techniques, then judo may have hit an all time low in quality assurance.

Promotions in judo should be earned on the mat, not arbitrarily awarded, sold, or bestowed as political favors as they have been in the past. If an instructor or club is affiliated with an NGB, then they are obliged to follow the guidelines set down by that organization. Promotion testing should be a formal, scheduled event on every judo club’s calendar; conducted with transparency and equality for all, and with a documented record of the students’ test scores.

To achieve the rank of black belt, for example, and at a minimum, a judoka should be able to demonstrate all forty techniques of the Gokyo, demonstrate an adequate nage-no-kata, and have earned the appropriate competition points. If a judoka is relatively healthy and under the age of forty, then they should be encouraged to compete, even if it is just in Masters category. Many Masters are competing well into their 60s and 70s so there is little excuse, short of serious injury, for a judoka in his or her 30s or 40s to not be active in some form of shiai. Or, at a minimum, they should be required to demonstrate their skills in randori to the promotion committee.

The whole process of preparing for shiai, having the courage to compete, winning or losing, is an important part of the judo development process. Adults, particularly instructors, should be willing to step on the mat and set the example for their students. While they may not want to admit it, instructors and judo leaders who have no national level competition experience suffer from a loss in credibility throughout their judo careers. Better to have fought and lost than never fought at all.

Competition experience and success, however, is not a substitute for judo knowledge and technical ability. The responsibility is shared by competitors and sensei to ensure that by the time they reach the age and experience level to qualify for Shodan, they have met all the other foundational technical requirements.  Keep in mind that those same Shodan will probably be assistant instructors at the club level, so need to have demonstration quality skills with the entire kyu-grade curriculum. However, in reality, Shodan is not “having arrived” as many believe, but only the first four or five-year step in a judoka’s forty or fifty-year development.

The more important ranks in judo are Sandan through Rokudan since these are often the instructors, coaches, and sensei that are most active on the mat and in a position to have a lasting impact on the quality of judo in the club, city, or region. But once again, if Nidan are bumped up to Sandan without ever having been required to demonstrate nage-no-kata or katame-no-kata (required for Sandan by most organizations) then they will not possess the skills or inclination to teach these important kata to their students. The result being that both randori-no-kata are lost to a whole generation of judoka in that region.  Similarly, if that Sandan has never competed, he or she will have little credibility when training the club’s next generation of competitors. They may be able to talk endlessly about competition techniques, but that is not the same as enduring the months and years of competition training, struggling to make weight, feeling the nerves, and having their heart pounding in their chest before their first nationals. Or knowing how to change tactics in the middle of a match to counter a more experienced opponent. As the quote goes, “The credit belongs to the man actually in the arena…”*

Where an NGB has a written guideline or promotion manual, then that should be the basis for determining future promotions. By adhering to a published standard, the individual judoka’s rank and certifications, along with the reputation of the dojo and NGB, will be respected throughout the judo community. As an example, the French Rokudan test is one of the toughest and most respected high-grade promotion tests in the world. When one meets a French Rokudan or higher grade, one knows exactly what that individual went through to earn that rank. Since most candidates are in their late forties or early fifties, the French Judo Federation sees Rokudan as the last high-grade rank that has rigorous on the mat testing, and therefore the last opportunity to really influence the future quality of French judo.

For those interested, you can pull up examples of the French testing on YouTube. But by contrast, it is all but impossible to find anything even remotely similar in the US, even though there are many motivated US judoka who would jump at the chance to challenge themselves in such a respected testing format.

Unfortunately, in some quarters we are still working to repair the damage done in the past through abuse of power and failure to adhere to standards. Somewhere in the past 30 or 40 years high-grade promotion became a process of “time-in-grade and points,” to the point where US rank has been ridiculed by many, both nationally and internationally. Before you scream foul, this does not apply to all, but it only takes a few proverbial “rotten apples” to taint the reputation of “the whole barrel.”

While the implementation of formal testing may meet resistance from the “belt chasers” with the unearned ranks, the solution is quite simple. It begins with strict adherence to standards, use of the promotion manual, the return to formal on the mat promotion exams, robust rank examiners’ camps and clinics, and certifications that accurately reflect the individual’s ability and level of competency. However, these can only be achieved if an NGB board of directors throws their combined weight behind the process and is willing to accept a few dozen rats jumping ship in protest.

Where does the NGB benefit from all this? First, by replacing short, perfunctory clinics with comprehensive multi-day training programs, the NGB can move from charging $60 for an essentially hollow certification, to charging several hundred dollars for professionally run programs that have real value and substance. When judoka, instructors, or coaches graduate from nationally sanctioned training programs, the national membership should be assured that those newly certified individuals will have a positive and lasting effect on their local judo communities.

To conclude: Adherence to Standards and Robust Rank Testing Equates to Respect in the Judo Community


*    “It’s not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in worthy causes; who at the best, knows in the end of the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and cruel souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” Theodore Roosevelt

About Mark V

Dedicated shooter, seeker, traveler, teacher, trainer, educator
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