Black Belt Journeys

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Inside Black-belt gradings: judo

When most people first step foot in a dojo and don a white belt, they have two things in mind: they want to learn how to fend off a crazed attacker or three, and they want to know how they can lose their white belt and get a black one instead. Although widely considered by senior masters to be ‘just the beginning’ of the real martial arts journey, for the general public the Black-belt rank has long been a symbol of martial arts expertise, and thus for the beginner it is the ultimate goal. Here, we reveal how the Black-belt is achieved in the Japanese combat sport of judo.


The instructor: Frankie Serrano

Rank: 4th Dan Black-belt
Age: 36
Years training: 25 years
Year Black-belt awarded:

Frankie, what do you think a Black-belt grading should aim to achieve and instil in the student?
A Black-belt in judo instils pride, confidence and a sense of achievement in a student. It takes many years and a lot of hard work to achieve this level. From the hard work people become fit, strong and have a good sense of balance.

Although judo is considered an individual sport/martial art, it really cannot be practised without partners. Therefore one of the beauties of judo is that it really does teach mutual respect and understanding. Students learn the value of others and good ethics. The Black-belt student should have the confidence and ability to pass on their skills and knowledge to others.

What does your Black-belt grading involve, who grades the participants and how long does it go for?
Before attempting a Black-belt grading, the student must earn enough grading points for their next grade. Points can be earned by various means, such as tournament results, coaching time, refereeing time, service to judo (for example, managing the state team). However, the quickest way to earn points is to be successful at tournaments.

There is also a time requirement that needs to be fulfilled. For example you must be 1st Dan (Shodan) for a minimum of one year and earn 150 points before you can attempt a 2nd Dan (Nidan) grading. The higher the grade, the longer the minimum time is in that grade. The grading itself can run anywhere from an hour to two or three hours, depending on the level being attempted.

The actual grading test consists of two main parts: Demonstration of techniques: The student must display a wide range of techniques such as throws, hold-downs (pins), arm-locks, strangles, combination techniques, countering and escaping, among others. The higher the grade, the higher the expectations.

Kata (preset sequences of techniques): there are a number of katas students must learn. Each level of Black-belt has specific kata requirements.

The gradings are conducted by members of the Judo Victoria Inc. grades commission - five members who get elected to judge the gradings. Usually one or two of these members (depending on the rank being attempted) will oversee all of part A at either their own club or the student's club. Part B must be performed publically (also being judged by grades commission members). This can be at a tournament or a kata seminar.

The coach is responsible for helping the student train for their Black-belt grading. JVI also runs kata seminars during the year where students can go to get further kata training.

Do the grading requirements focus more on the physical, and if so, are you looking mainly for an indication of effective self-defence skills or proof of the spiritual and disciplinary outcomes of the students' training?
There is a major physical element to the gradings, as all techniques need to be performed. Being a grappling sport, there is no avoiding the fact that you need to pick up your partner and throw them, for example. Remembering also that points are required, which are generally earned through competition, it is assumed that the self-defence side of things has been catered for.

Spirituality and discipline are not specifically judged at a grading. As with any martial art, these elements are directly under the control of the club instructors.

Are injuries common in the Black-belt grading?
No. The gradings are performed under controlled situations. The student must have a cooperative partner in order to display the techniques required, so it would be very rare for an injury during a grading test.

How do you think your Black-belt level and grading compares to other schools'?
As the syllabus is set by the Judo Federation of Australia Inc, and must be adjudicated by the members of the grades commission, all students must go through the same trials, regardless of what judo school they belong to. It is a very fair system that allows students to know where they stand relative to others.

Is your school's Black-belt grading as difficult or punishing as your own was, or less so?
I would say it is not much different. The requirements have changed very little since my 1st Dan grading. The main difference now is that the kata part of the grading must be done in a public forum. Some people may find that a little more stressful.

Where does the syllabus come from and who designed it?
The judo grading syllabus has been designed and implemented by the JFA. There is a board of directors who determine the minimum requirements for each grade.

Are they looking to refine or add to the Black-belt syllabus or training?
The grading syllabus gets revisited occasionally. It is at those times that club instructors are asked for their input. At the moment I believe the syllabus is challenging, but fair.

What is the success rate among students who attempt the Black-belt grading?
The success rate is quite high. This is due to the fact the student must fulfil time requirements and earn enough grading points for their next level. Then it is up to the coach to let the student know that he or she feels the student is ready.

How many students (of those who join) make it to Black-belt, and how long does it usually take them?
Most people that start to learn judo do not make it to Black-belt, for a variety of reasons. However, it's interesting to note that of those who do get to Black-belt, most stay with the sport for a major part of their lifetime. A committed judoka who practices regularly and performs well at competition can expect to go through the ranks and achieve 1st Dan within three-to-four years.

How many students do you promote to Black-belt each year?
Our club (Western Judo Academy) is relatively small so we don't get a lot of students making it to Black-belt. However, among our senior members we have people attempting (and passing) higher level Black-belt gradings most years.

How many other ranks/belts must be earned before reaching Black-belt and how many more can be earned afterward?
Prior to earning a Black-belt there are five other belts. Judoka start off as a White-belt then they go through Yellow, Orange, Green, Blue, Brown then Black. There are 10 levels of Black-belt in judo, however, very few people in the world achieve 10th Dan.

Can your students become instructors on completion of the Black-belt, or before they get it?
Students can coach prior to being a Black-belt, but they do need to gain an NCAS (National Coaching Accreditation Scheme) certification. However, it is not very common for an instructor to be below Black-belt. Aspiring instructors may act as assistant coaches as they progress to Black-belt.

So, what level of achievement does the Black-belt represent? Does instructor-student contact and further learning slow down thereafter?
I always liken the first level of Black-belt (Shodan) to a university bachelor degree. To attain Black-belt, the student must have a good grasp of many of the techniques in judo, must have enough experience to have gained grading points and should be able to teach competently. As the student progresses further through their judo career they become ‘professors' of judo. The bond between an instructor and student is always strong. It is every instructor's hope that their Black-belt students will go on to give back to the judo community by means of becoming instructors themselves, or becoming referees, team managers, etc. As the student reaches higher levels of Black-belt, the learning does not slow down, it merely changes. The student becomes an instructor in their own right. Judo is always evolving and changing so the two instructors now compare techniques and continue to develop judo together.

So is Black-belt as important a milestone as it is generally seen to be? Yes it is! Anything that requires years of commitment to achieve is certainly an important milestone.

Finally, what should a Black-belt mean to those who wear it?
A Black-belt is not easy to achieve so it should have significant meaning to a student. It demonstrates to others all around the world that the student has a good knowledge and ability in judo. Students should also understand that with the Black-belt comes responsibility. Young judokas will look up to them and be influenced by them.

The instructor: Ivo Dos Santos

Rank: 2nd Dan
Age: 24
Years training: 19 years
Year Black-belt achieved: 2004

Ivo, what do you think a Black-belt test should look for in the student?
The assessment for a Black-belt should have the student display their mastery of their art. The assessment should push the student to display their ability to perfectly execute the techniques of their art, as well as showing an in-depth knowledge of its history.

How do you think your Black-belt rates against those of other schools in terms of the skills required and level of difficulty?
Many Dan-grading assessors gloss over the smaller technical aspects of their art. However, my grading involved hours and hours of me displaying every single technique in judo, as well as perfect execution of my kata.

How does it rate among the hardest things you’ve ever done?
The process was very difficult. I was also told by my grading assessor that I was going to be held to a higher standard than most, which meant I had no margin for error. Aside from the months of preparation, the two 3-hour sessions involved in the assessment tested my physical and mental stamina, as well as my concentration and focus.

How long had you been training before you got your Black-belt?
For 13 years.

So you feel you earned your Black-belt?
Yes, I do.

In your opinion, could the Black-belt syllabus or the method by which the belt is achieved be altered or improved in any way?
I believe the grading syllabus in judo is very fair and reflects a person’s true knowledge of judo. However, there are some gradings where students are clearly not made to execute the full syllabus and/or execute it perfectly.

Is Black-belt as important a milestone as it is generally seen to be?
In judo a Black-belt can be seen by some as less important than someone’s competition results. However, to most, the 1st Dan grading is a sign of someone’s completion of their learning journey in the art.

Did earning your Black-belt change you?
The only thing my Black-belt changed in me was my confidence. There is always times when a martial artist doubts their own skills or knowledge, but remembering the work that went into achieving the belt around my waist reassures me that I am capable of doing or explaining whatever it is I am working on.

What, essentially, does the Black-belt represent to you?
The Black-belt represents an acknowledgement of status. It reflects that the person wearing the belt has trained, learned, competed, coached or served the art well enough and for long enough to be given the status of a Black-belt.