Thursday, March 24, 2011

Jan de Jong Pt 15 - Grades - Attracting or Weeding Out Students

I received the following comment on my blog concerning the Jan de Jong jutsu dan grades:
Interesting, and extensive. I'm most interested in the fact that you needed to develop a deeper understanding, essentially 'on your own'. This truly separates those who just go through the motions and who practice by rote. From your experiences, do you think the extensive grading systems and curriculum attracted students to study long term or did it weed out many, like you said, "by attrition". How many long term students would normally be found training? Interesting stuff.

Firstly, thank you for reading my blogs 'Journeyman'. Secondly, this comment really got me thinking.

The previous blogs demonstrate that the Jan de Jong jujutsu grading system is indeed, extensive. Black and white belt/first kyu is base camp at Everest that is the dan grades. Did the extensiveness of the grading system attract or dissuade students from studying long term? After much thought, I honestly cannot answer that question. Maybe there were those who were put off by the length of the grading system. If there were, I didn't know them. I can only share my experience with you.

I was accused of chasing gradings and chasing belts in my first few years with the Jan de Jong Self Defence School. Why not? From the time I enrolled at the Jan de school, I graded every time gradings were held; that is, every three months. As soon as I'd successfully completed one grading, I'd go to the counter, buy my new belt, and ask for the next grading sheet. As others were leaving the school that day, I'd be sitting on a bench reading my next grading.

But my focus was never on getting a particular grade or belt. My focus was on the grading I was doing. I saw the gradings as a directed form of learning. For whatever reason, when I first enrolled at the Jan de Jong Self Defence School, I attended two lessons a day, six days a week, and then did more training outside the classes. I wanted to learn and I wanted to improve. I was a real Pavlov dog in that I could see myself improving every time I stepped onto the mats, and that was like crack cocaine to me. I vividly recall the time I suddenly realised I was going to get a black belt. It never occurred to me that I would, and it definitely was not my goal. My instructors had black belts, not me.

I have a confession to make. The only reason I completed second and third dan was because Greg Palmer (pictured above), one of my instructors who was also a mentor and eventually a good friend, had a long held dream to complete the grading system. The other instructors progressing through the second and third dan grades did not include him in their journey, so, in what I still consider to be one of the best achievements in my life, I trained with him so he could realise that dream. In the process, I became only the fifth person to complete Jan de Jong's jujutsu grading system.

Numbers can be misleading. Why were there only 21 people graded shodan by De Jong? Was this a deliberate weeding out process? I'd suggest not. Part of the answer lies with the extensiveness of the system. Life and other activities compete for the years that are required to obtain a black belt from De Jong. But another factor may have been, as I have been arguing, that he had to develop his dan grades, and given his relative isolation he didn't have too much to reference to assist him.

Numbers can be misleading. It became a bit of folklore that it takes a minimum of 10 years to get a black belt in De Jong's jujutsu. Rob Hymus did it in seven. But then he was working as an instructor at the school full-time, and, this was when the shodan gradings were first introduced. I was on track to match Hymus' achievement, even though I had to grade three more grades (mon grades) than he did. I wasn't working at the school full-time but my training schedule bordered on the fanatical. Then the Australian right of passage that is backpacking through Europe and my professional career intervened. I graded shodan in just under 10 years. But the length of time others took to achieve their black belt is distorted by the fact there were no black belt gradings at that time. Others simply trained for decades without bothering to do gradings as the training at the school was never focused solely on gradings.

'Weeding out'. It has been suggested, half-joking half-not, that De Jong scheduled the jujutsu instructors class on Friday nights to test the commitment of his instructors. Friday night is socialising/drinks night in Australian working society. Other than that, there was no attempt to weed anyone out. De Jong, I would suggest, did not include gradings to deliberately lengthen the grading process. He did not have some artificially high standard to be attained in order to weed anyone out (even though some of the senior instructors did try and impose them at times; a story for another time). It is my opinion that De Jong developed a grading system that he thought provided his students with knowledge, particularly at the mon and dan levels. The challenge for the instructors now teaching is, I'd suggest, can we modify the grading system so the same knowledge and the same standard is achieved but in less time.

Returning to the original question, I don't know what influence the extensiveness of the grading system had on the long term study by students. I suspect for those who did study long term, it had no influence one way or another. The others, if there were others, I never knew them. What I do know however, is, if you study the gradings rather than merely complete them, there is a great deal of knowledge to be gained.


  1. Hi John,

    There is so much here and I might be able to provide a student's (beginner) perspective - albeit one from quite a few years ago

    From my point of view, the syllabus seemed so comprehensive that, at times, it felt like one could spend their own training career in the kyu grades and never make it to black belt. But I wonder how much of this actually related to organisational culture whereby there was an unspoken expectation that it would take a long time (10+years) for no other reason than... just because.

    I remember passing a grading, and you, myself and Mr deJong were happy with the results. You then set a target for the next two grades which surprised me at the time. Actually, I was more inspired at the time because the time frame went against the norm at the school. Rather than chasing belts, it was a challenge to learn as much as possible and keep progressing.

    I felt like I was getting an education in martial arts rather than simply training - a sure sign of having a good instructor.

    With an extensive syllabus there is the danger than life will indeed get in the way. Add an injury or two and time just slips away. In many ways, it was harder to "chase grades" and much easier to just meander along without true technical progression taking place.

    At the risk of contradicting myself, the large syllabus also meant that it was better to focus on simply developing skills rather than focussing on the black belt as a goal. A balanced approach would have been to look to the next two or maybe three grades as goals - which is exactly what you did (clever).

    As far as weeding people out.... I don't know either. It obviously doesn't make economic sense to weed people out, but conversely it doesn't make (long term) economic sense to lower standards either. Perhaps the syllabus ended up being a good balance between challenging and inspiring.

    I do know that private training helped a lot and I can't imagine getting very far without one on one assistance - but perhaps that's yet another topic for a future posting.


  2. Thanks for responding with such an in depth look at the question. It's an interesting topic. The founder of my style only promoted a few people to black belt, including my Sensei. The progression under my Sensei is slow, especially now that he only accepts a few private students and no longer runs a commercial dojo. Our curriculum is robust, but misleading in a way. A belt ranking will ask for you to demonstrate say, 5 responses to a choke, and it will list the required ones. I learned early on that you might get asked to demonstrate 40 come test time. The curriculum is the bare minimum, maybe even less.

    At higher belts, you're expected to know the techniques and then know several counters. The pages can be deceiving.

    I imagine if you are trying to run a commercial club, you might need to consider how much is in a curriculum, but then again, good teachers are good teachers. Serious students care less about belts and more about the quality of instruction. Attracting new students can be tricky though if things look overwhelming. I'm getting off topic now, but thanks for the response, and thanks to Ash at Spirit Defence for adding to the discussion.


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.