Rank systems establish a structure in the gym or dojo to make it clear to everyone who the more and less experienced practitioners are. This helps tremendously in training and learning because it clarifies who the best people are to go to for information and details. It also clarifies who makes policy and standardizes technical preferences within the school.
Although a rank structure clarifies many things for students and instructors in the gym, it is common that there is an unseen element within the system. This is, included in each level, there is a range of abilities. Some students will be exemplary in the level that they’re in, while others will be on the more challenged side of that level. In between these ends there will be a variety of skill level and understanding for each student.
There are many different areas that qualify where each student measures up in their rank level. In addition to natural talent some of the areas that students should be aware of and apply themselves to are: attendance, attitude, coachability, etiquette, partnering, work-ethics, technical expertise, sparring or rolling abilities, teaching contributions, understanding of their art, personal development and overall support for the gym. Most students will find some of these areas coming easy for them while other areas require more effort. All students should strive to excel in all of these aspects of development because, in addition to determining where they land in their rank level, they also are considered for promotion to their next rank level.
One easy way to understand the ‘spectrum’ within each rank level is to use a common grading system borrowed from mainstream schooling. This employs a letter system using A, B, C, D, and F. Additionally, we can use + or - with each letter to more accurately evaluate the student. The best students who excel in all of the areas noted will fall into the A or A+ category. Students who barely make it into a rank will qualify as D or D-. Students who rate at F will not be promoted. In some cases, if a student is toxic or disruptive to the group, they may eventually be asked to leave the dojo.
Other considerations with this are the ‘Sempai/ Kohai’ effect. This basically involves the progression from someone who has just started at a rank level, and someone who has been there for a while. Naturally, when someone is promoted to a new level, or starts out as a beginner, they will not be as knowledgeable or adept in that level as they will be when they reach the end of that level, and are ready to advance to the next level. Through training and learning over time, they will progress in their art and as a person. So, ‘Kohai’ or new Black Belts will generally be less skilled and knowledgeable than ‘Sempai’ Black Belts.
Some martial artists will rise to a level of exceptional skill, notoriety or position in a certain aspect of their art. They may become a pioneer in their art, furthering the style that they learned or even creating a ’new’ art. They might become a champion in competition and make a name for themselves around the world. They might simply rise to a high level of skill and understanding in their art and gain a genuine mastery in all it’s aspects. They become AA, AAA or AAAA level figures in the martial arts.
Sometimes martial artists can excel in one or more areas of their art, but fail miserably in others. For example, if a practitioner fails to develop mentally and stay humble along the way, their accomplishments will be overshadowed by a poor attitude and weak mentality. As we advance with our accomplishments in the martial arts, we have a responsibility be ‘rounded’ and develop as a complete practitioner, treat others well, and set a strong example with our attitude and behavior.
So, as you train, strive to be the rounded A student or better. Try to excel in ALL areas of your art, including the ‘mental’ aspects. Do your best in technical drills, learn to optimize the physical aspects, follow the rules for etiquette and treatment of others, and work towards being more positive, relaxed, and calm. If you’re going to do it, do it well and go for the A!