If you’ve had any length of a journey at all in ITF Taekwon-Do, or in most Martial Arts for that matter, you’ve probably come across the concept of grade progression or belts. The idea is simple, you train and get better and the colour of your belt changes to reflect your progress with Black Belt typically the measure of some degree of competence or expertise. I want to take a moment to look at the good the bad and the ugly of the belt system, not as a judge critiquing the tradition but as an open minded educator, coach and sport scientist. 

The Good:

Regular structured goals help to give training focus it might otherwise lack

Effort and reward can be linked through recognition of progress

Belts can provide a scaffold for more equitable competition, matching for skill level

The Bad:

It can be hard to relate to the different rates of progress as effort doesn’t always match outcome

The goal can be too big and too far away for some

Achieving a goal is a strong motivator, falling short can be demoralising

Moving up a grade can move you out of your skill level in competition

The Ugly:

Grade can become linked to accomplishment in more than just the syllabus

Interpretations around the meaning of the Black Belt are as numerous as the stars

Grades create artificial striations in clubs, potentially breaking up peer groups

For very young children (4-8 years maybe) typical grading syllabi in Taekwon-Do are too challenging in areas not suited to the development of the child. This is well recognised and a host of programmes aim to address that by dividing the first 1-3 grades into numerous smaller achievements with goals that are more suited to the stage of learning the child is moving through. 

This is true as well for; older children, teens, older adults, special populations etc but thus far, organisations and individual examiners have struggled to find flexibility in the syllabus to best facilitate the individual learner. To give a few examples:

  • Theory and terminology for those with learning difficulties, language issues or simply age appropriate language
  • Selection of techniques, materials, and quantities for different age groups, female students, older adults, students with disability
  • Sparring, prearranged sparring and self defence for those with learning difficulties or behavioural issues that make the abstraction hard to understand
  • Pattern for those with motor control issues, or attention/focusing difficulties

If we want to make grades work for us we need to ensure they allow for structured and appropriate goal setting, reward for effort and stand as a mark of accomplishment. We need to make sure that grades aren’t hurting the development of our students and look at what elements of the structure work for the students and what works against them. What imaginative solutions can we reach to help us preserve the tradition and positive aspects of grade progression while minimising the negative and un-constructive elements. 

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