By Mark Lonsdale, Judo Training Development

The question on many minds: How do you know when you are due for promotion? Or more importantly, how do you know when you are deserving of promotion?

No, it is not when you have the required time in grade (TIG); and no, it is not when you have totaled up all your points or exaggerated the amount of time you spend teaching judo. You are deserving of promotion when other respected sensei recommend you for promotion. Note that I do not say “your peers,” because your peers may be rank chasers who only want to promote you so that you, in turn, can recommend them for further promotion.

Unfortunately, the current judo promotion process has devolved into a complicated process of calculating TIG, promotion points, percentage reductions in TIG, and the ever nebulous “service to judo.” Whatever happened to simply being recommended by your sensei and elders, and then appearing before a formal promotion panel for testing?

From personal experience, I can recall entering a National Championships as a brown belt, with no expectation of promotion, but by the end of the tournament was told that I had accrued enough competition points for Shodan. The next day, along with several others, we were formally tested on technical ability and nage-no-kata. No complicated forms, no politics, just competition points, demonstrated ability, and the required kata. This was repeated a year later when I earned Nidan, also at the Nationals.

Flash forward three years when I was training at the Racing Club de France in Paris. My team had just taken three national titles when the head sensei, Shozo Awazu, informed me that I was to begin learning katame-no-kata for Sandan. I was also to attend the pre-examination weekend-long technical training camp. Again, not forms, not politics, no currying favor with the right people; just competition points, technical demonstrations, and kata. In France, this process continues through Rokudan (6th dan), which is the last time a judoka is required to formally test.

Sensei Shozo Awazu and Mark Lonsdale, 1975

Sensei Shozo Awazu and Mark Lonsdale, 1975

Now flash forward three decades and the promotion process has been watered down and complicated by some who could probably never have passed a formal on-the-mat promotion board. Instead of a 10-page guideline we now have thick manuals that no one except the people who wrote them can decipher. Or we have governing bodies with no published guidelines at all. Promotions are decided in secret, and all too often as rewards for service to the organization, not technical judo knowledge or ability. I honestly do not understand why we are re-writing promotion requirements in 2013, when the promotion requirements 40 years ago were perfectly adequate. The technical aspects of Kodokan Judo have not changed and the level of performance as a competitor, coach, or referee is still at one of four levels: local, regional, national, or international. That level of an individual’s active participation is a good marker for terminal rank. A judoka who does judo only at the local level should never aspire to the same rank as a competitor, coach or referee that is active on the national or international stage. An individual who has written well respected books on judo is in a different boat to the judoka who has never penned a single article. The IJF-A referee who is invited to referee at the World Championships is more deserving of rank recognition than the referee who has not risen past a State championship.

In France, to this day, the public can go and watch the Rokudan testing. It is also accessible on YouTube so there is total transparency in the testing requirements and process. Candidates will devote one or two years just preparing for that on-the-mat examination. But ask yourself, when is the last time you were able to go and watch 4th, 5th and 6th dan(s) being tested for rank in the US? Or when was the last time you spent months preparing for an on-the-mat promotion test? And for high-grade, how were you able to learn all seven required kata without going to the Kodokan?

One of the beneficial side effects of formal promotion testing is that it forces the candidates to expand their knowledge of judo and hone their techniques. Without strict adherence to the technical requirements of Kodokan Judo, the quality of judo suffers. This is why I now have dan-grades turning up at my clinics who do not know a dozen judo techniques by name, or cannot maintain balance when demonstrating a basic throw. Even worse, I had two certified national rank examiners whose knowledge of Kodokan Judo was appalling. One kept calling tomoe-nage kata-guruma and could not name four ashi-waza; and the other had to look up kyu-grade techniques in a judo text book while I was lecturing.

So back to the original question – when do you know you are deserving of promotion? The simple answer is to track down the most respected sensei and judoka that you know and ask them. Or, when you are teaching a clinic and respected high-grades come and sit quietly in the back of your class, then you know you have drawn the attention of your elders. Last year I was teaching a 3-day national coach development clinic, and was honored to see two highly respected sensei sitting in on my lectures and mat sessions (one 8th dan and one 9th dan). I was even more honored to see them actually taking notes. At the end of three solid days of evaluation they put me forward for promotion. Needless to say, I was again honored to have their signatures on my application. The interesting thing was that four high-grades that had seen me teach supported the promotion, while individuals who had never seen me on the mat tried to block it. It is no surprise that I had never seen them on the mat actually doing judo either. The point is that open and transparent testing before a formal promotion panel eliminates all that angst.

So, instead of fretting over the silliness of time in grade and points, get on the mat and impress your peers and elders with your judo. Even though you may not realize it, the judo community is quite small and the respected sensei(s) know who you are and are watching you. And be assured, they know the difference between puffery and real judo. They are looking for individuals who share their love of Kodokan Judo, who will carry on their legacy, and to be the gate-keepers for the traditions and practice of good judo. Our primary goal as sensei, in addition to turning out good judoka, should be to preserve the quality of judo while passing on our knowledge to the next generation.

Finally, it is better to be seen as a judoka deserving of promotion than as a self-serving individual with unearned and over-inflated rank. You can decide which one you prefer.

French Rokudan test and jury

French Rokudan test and jury


About Mark V

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