Monday, 3 September 2012

Martial Arts Ranking Systems

After many years of not quite getting around to it, I've signed up to take my coaching qualifications in fencing (specifically in sabre). The way they're structured made me think for a moment about the differences between the way the oriental martial arts and those related to them handle concepts of ranking and ability, and the way western ones do. I'm going to suggest that perhaps there is a case to be made for avoiding the approach favoured by many martial arts.

The main difference comes down to what appears to be a conflation of coaching ability and personal technical ability in the eastern martial arts. The widespread adoption of the Japanese system of belt ranks has contributed to that, and makes sure that it survives as an attitude even in a world featuring blended together martial arts systems, thanks to the influence of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

What I mean by the conflation of coaching and personal ability is that in some martial arts at least, it is assumed that you are in a position to coach once you get your black belt (or a particular lower rank generally accepted in the art). Yet you don't get a black belt for being able to coach people. You get it for being good at kicking people in the head, or strangling them, or doing the forms of your syllabus dominated system perfectly. You get it for being a good martial artist, however your art chooses to define that. In many arts these days, you get it after a great many incremental steps towards it.

Contrast that with arts/sports such as fencing (or boxing, wrestling, some forms of historical martial arts, etc). In theory, there is a system of numbered grades for personal ability in fencing. The majority of fencers I have met regard it as a useful tool for initial teaching, but essentially something for beginners or children. If you want to know how good I am as a fencer, I will not quote the bronze award I picked up as a child, or the level two I acquired for being able to perform components of the AFA sabre syllabus. It's about my national ranking in relation to other fencers, or a general self assessment, which doesn't matter much, because it has nothing to do with whether I can potentially coach.

Instead, these arts focus on specifically coaching awards. These days, they have been brought into line with Sport England's overall approach to coaching in regard to the number of levels of coach they have and some of the requirements, but the focus on training for coaching as something separate has been there for many years.

It is one that I believe to be a good thing. The ability to do something and the ability to teach it are two separate things. A good friend of mine who will readily admit to being completely uncoordinated as a fencer is nevertheless a good foil coach. If fencing used a Japanese style system, he would never be a coach. On the other side of the divide, other people I know, who have tremendous levels of personal ability in martial arts, nevertheless struggle to explain them or replicate them in other people.

In this, I feel that the spread of the Japanese approach in particular has done a certain amount of damage. Prior to its spread to other areas of the martial arts, I know that Chinese systems favoured a system of almost letters of recommendation, saying 'you're an advanced student' and 'you're ready to teach' as seperate things. It might have seemed a little ad hoc, but it seems to avoid a major danger with the belt system. Even leaving aside the issues it raises regarding fixed syllabi and the pressure for regular grading among students, the emphasis it brings with it on a level of personal ability as an indicator of coaching effectiveness is simply not a valid one.

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