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One In Ten Thousand? Maybe, Maybe Not?

I read a post on Facebook, recently and it got me thinking about how many people who join a dojo actually end up getting the coveted black belt. The post basically says that for every ten thousand people who start training in Karate, only one will make it. The post ascertains that a certain percentage will drop out after 6 months, one year, two years, etc. It is interesting, in that most Karate styles suggest that it takes on average 4 years to achieve a black belt.

This timescale is usually dictated by the regularity of the grading process which usually means that students who train an average of twice a week, will be eligible to grade every three months. If you then calculate the number of belts that the student is required to pass before achieving the first Kyu or indeed first Kyu Ho, then the four-year mark is probably about right.

However, this also makes certain assumptions. First, that you actually pass every exam taken. When I started training, there was something called a temporary grade, which meant that the examiner, having assessed the grading performance of the student, took the view that the student had not quite achieved the required standard. Therefore, they could wear the next coloured belt, but it required that a tag was stitched onto it, indicating that at the next exam, again, dependent upon performance, they could get a full pass for the next grade attempted, or if the standard was not achieved, then they could be made up to the full grade for which they had received a temporary grade previously.

When I started training, exams were held by professional Karate experts from within the KUGB and the JKA. The standard was consistently set very high and the failure rate was high. Good on the one hand, because it kept the quality of Karate at an excellent standard, which was partly why the KUGB were so successful at national and international level.

What this also meant, was that at the grassroots level, club quality overall was very good. On the other hand, the percentage of people who passed their Dan grades was low. How do I know? Because I was one of them; it took me four attempts to pass my Shodan exam with the legend that was Sensei Keinosuke Enoeda, known and feared as “the Boss”.

I was in fact a first Kyu for 12 years. From passing my first Kyu with Sensei Billy Higgins from the KUGB in 1991, and even more interesting, before that it had taken me from 1974, when I first started Karate to get to my first Kyu, so that was only 17 years to get that far. So on that basis, if we work on the four year rule, after 17 years I should have been a 4th Dan and there I was, still a kyu grade... So, you may conclude that actually, maybe I was not very good at Karate. Fair comment, may well be true, or maybe I just had not learned how to pass the exams.

However, back then, to pass the Dan grade of the KUGB and the JKA, you had to cut the mustard. The Dan gradings then were huge long affairs with hundreds attending from all over the UK and you turned up, did the grading in groups of six with probably a 20% success rate.

You did a two-hour training course then, waited around for ages before you got up to do your best, then you failed, then you went home, then you cried into your beer.

Many people like me trained every week and were earnest in our efforts, but the problem was you did not learn how to pass the exam. In some ways, a separate skill set in its own right. The only reason why I did eventually pass was because I was lucky, because my Sensei was Shihan Cyril Cummins. From 1987 onwards I started to train with him. He took me under his wing and under his tutelage along with others, like Sensei Peter Heel from Ross-On-Wye Karate Club. I started to learn how to pass the Dan grade examinations. It was Shihan who kept the faith and invested in me, and that is why I eventually passed my first Dan, and then after another four attempts with Sensei Enoeda, my second Dan. Two attempts later, I passed my Sandan or 3rd Dan. And, happy days, 1 attempt for my Yondan, 4th Dan, and then two attempts at my Godan, 5th Dan.

So, to recap, 13 Dan grades in total attempted, number of years training: 44 in total. So, if you adopt the 4 year rule, in theory, after 44 years theoretically I could be an 11th Dan, whatever one of those looks like. Mind you more likely a desperate Dan.

In truth, I never in my wildest dreams ever thought that I would make it to be a 5th Dan, and I repeat a point that I have made before, if I can do it then anyone can do it.

No one is born a 1st Dan or indeed a 5th Dan, but if you want something enough, you will persevere and keep going. Failing Dan grades 4 times for both 1st and 2nd Dan only made me appreciate the success when eventually deemed worthy by Senseis Enoeda and Cummins, two of Shotokan Karate's greatest exponents.

So, one in 10,000 - I have no idea. All I know is, whatever pain, sweat, stress, and disappointment was without doubt worth it.


Sensei Austin

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