Climbing the mountain

Yesterday, I graded for my brown belt in Jiu Jitsu. What we do is technically traditional Jiu Jitsu (really meaning that it’s not Brazillian Jiu Jitsu), but what we do is, in actuality, quite far from traditional.

Myself and my grading partner have been training for this belt for quite some time (some have said a little too long), and it was important to both of us that we put in a good performance. We had grading instructors travelling from other parts of the country, and our own instructor there too, so neither of us wanted to let anyone down.

We had a number of students grading for various belts, with brown belt being the highest grade to be tested, so we stepped on at the very beginning of the day, and trained through every belt up to, and including, brown belt (yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, brown). All told, we were training for about 5 hours, with periodic 1 minute water breaks.

We grade our students on four criteria – material, flair, aggression, and heart (representing the student’s knowledge of the techniques, their skill in performing them effortlessly and gracefully, their ability to affect their attacker meaningfully with the techniques, and their general commitment to keep on going throughout the grading). I’m very happy to say that everyone from our club passed the grading, and many received distinction grades (a mark of higher than 75%). It made me really proud to be a part of our club, and especially proud of our yellow belt candidates for tackling their first grading so well.

As we were clearing away the mats at the end of the day, a fellow student (and new yellow belt) asked me if it was the hardest grade I’d ever done. It’s something I’ve thought about before, so I didn’t have to think long before answering. I told him that it was one of the longest grades I’d ever done, and that while it was by no means an easy ride, it wasn’t the hardest. I still think that the hardest grade I ever did was my yellow belt.

By the time you’ve graded a few times, you’re familiar with the protocol. You’ll still get the nerves, and you may even fumble a technique or two as a result, but overall, you’ll hopefully be able to remain cool in the face of it all. But that coolness is something that comes with experience, and when you’re going for your very first grade, it’s all still so new. I remember being so worried that I’d forget one thing and fail the whole test, that I’d forget everything and be laughed out of the dojo, or that I simply wasn’t up to scratch and would make a show of myself. I had heard tales of previous gradings, and was worried that I’d never make it through it all without injury or exhaustion. Stepping into the dojo that day was probably one of the hardest things I’ve done, because it represented that important first step on the ladder.

Grading means committing yourself to the martial art you’re doing in a special way. You’re not just showing up to train, you’re training with a purpose and a goal in mind. You’re trying to show that you understand the techniques, that you can perform them time after time, and that you can withstand whatever is thrown at you and keep going through it all. And, in theory, grading means that you want to progress along that ladder, until you eventually reach black belt, and then beyond. That’s certainly my goal.

Was my brown belt difficult? Yes. It was a very long day, and the number of techniques in our syllabus is quite large, so there was a lot to remember. As the day moved on, the junior grades were looking to us to see the techniques performed, so they could try to do them. The instructors were walking around the mats, watching every technique to make sure that we were working hard throughout the day, and any mistakes on lower grades would count against us, regardless of what belt we were being examined for. All this made it difficult. Was it my hardest? For the moment, yellow still pips it to the post for all the reasons noted above.

So, I applaud our newly graded yellow belts for their hard work and dedication over the previous months and years, and I congratulate them on taking a really important step in the martial arts careers. Long may it continue!