The next in our series of Quotes That Need to Die is an interesting one for several reasons. It would seem that no particularly famous person has said this. It’s not a quote in that sense. It is something that comes up time and again though, it’s something that everybody seems to know, or at least say. You’ll quite often encounter this whenever the subject of grading or skill level has come up. This is less of a quote and more of a phrase in common use; however, it really needs to die. Ready for it?
“You can tell someone’s skill level by looking at them.”
In some ways this saying makes sense, in most other ways though it doesn’t make any sense at all. To begin with let’s consider why it does work.
The Good Reasons
Look around your own dojo and the statement is entirely accurate. You can tell how good someone is just by looking at them. One of the reasons for this is that you can compare them to yourself and the process that you went through to get to that level. You are aware of your own ability and can rank other training partners on a mental ladder with yourself somewhere in the middle of it. This gets particularly interesting when considering your grade peers. You should know where you stand in comparison to them. Some will have issues you don’t have and vice versa. You’ll all be roughly on the same level but with slight variation between each other. From this perspective, the idea that you can judge skill level by looking is pretty accurate.
We can widen that concept to a small federation, something with about 10 dojos in it. This is small enough that the head instructor is likely to be able to keep a close eye on things and maintain a standard across the dojos. There’s a lot of wiggle room there though, it could be a lot less than that. It depends on how much time they are willing to dedicate to running things without delegating to other senior members.
Let’s be clear on that one, this is with the head instructor of a federation involving themselves in the actual assessment of students at all levels. If they aren’t doing that then 10 may be generous.
The Bad Reasons
That’s about it for the good reasons. Many students only train in a single dojo, and so these reasons are valid in that situation. The bad reasons far outweigh the good ones though.
The larger an organisation becomes, the harder it is to maintain standards. There are some very simple and obvious reasons that this is true, predominantly that grading is an opinion poll. The more people that are involved in an assessment system, the greater the variation among peers. When examinations are based on someone’s opinion, and there is more than one person, different standards are inevitable.
There will come a point beyond which the chief instructor will be unable to ensure a uniform standard across all the dojos. This doesn’t mean they aren’t doing their job, simply that the job is too big for a single individual. Consider an organisation that has dojos in several countries. It would be unreasonable to expect a single individual to govern standards across that geographical area. It would be a full-time job for them. If there isn’t a single standard then you can’t determine a person’s level by looking at them.
In larger organisations, the solution is to permit individual dojo sensei to conduct their own gradings with some attempts at oversight by the federation.
Grade Inflation is a Killer
This issue stems from the solution to the previous one. Grade inflation is an inevitable result of a federations oversight of dan grading. When conducting gradings on an organisational level, sensei tend to become more selective about who they send for grading. Nobody wants to have their students fail. Nobody wants to have their students, and therefore themselves, appear to be substandard. This means that sensei will hold back students for a bit longer before allowing them to attempt a dan grading.
The problem here is that if students are held back from grading, then they are currently of a higher level than their grade indicates. In the context we’re looking at here, that you can tell someones ability by looking at them, you would technically be wrong. They’ll be better in practice than they are on paper.
Where this gets really interesting is that they could also be worse than you think they are, particularly at kyu levels. Issuing grades in a system that individual sensei determine the standard for, means the level of grade inflation will vary between dojo. Some dojos will have easy grades, others hard ones.
Consider a 1st kyu student in a dojo with easy gradings, if they encounter a student who also has easy gradings they could assume they were 1st kyu as well. If there were no grade inflation they might actually be 2nd kyu. In a dojo with very hard gradings they might only be 4th kyu. The problem with grade inflation is that it is relative to your history with gradings. It’s also entirely possible that all of the students in this scenario have incorrect grades. If you removed grade inflation from it they might all be 2nd kyu.
Is your sensei technical, practical, spiritual, or something else?
The stylistic focus of a student’s sensei will have a heavy influence on what their aikido looks like. If the sensei is very technical then that will show through. If a student whose sensei was more practically focused were to visit there then the differences may be vast. Technical precision rarely lends itself to practical results, and vice versa.
An example of this is pinning an uke from sankyo ura. There is a moment when the correct technical application of the lock allows a struggling uke to escape. There is a very simple practical adjustment to this that will allow you to keep the uke secure, but, it is not accepted technique. Both of these methods are right, and both of them are also wrong. As ever, context is king.
How Old Are They?
As much as we don’t like to admit this, time makes a mockery of us all. It is a rare individual that increases their physical capability as they get older. Aches and pains creep in. Healing from an injury takes longer and they happen a bit more easily in the first place. Suddenly the idea of being thrown at the floor for several hours a week loses its appeal.
As we get older we get slower, the strength and power of our bodies fade. We can battle and rail against it but like tides battering a rock face the knife of time works its inevitable way in.
If you are assessing somebody’s level by looking at them and are not taking account of their physical condition then you are misjudging them. There are dan grades that are unable to perform shikko. They cannot do this without inflicting severe physical damage on themselves. Now imagine one of them had arrived at your dojo and the sensei had decided to do suwari waza techniques that night. You would assume that person’s skill level to be very low. It isn’t though, they simply have a physical limitation that precludes them from practicing.
The physical limits aren’t only an age thing though. Tall people can have difficulty performing techniques on short people, and vice versa. Heavy or light is another factor. It shouldn’t be but it is when people are starting out. Is the uke stiff or flowing? A flowing uke will always make somebody look better than a stiff one.
Can you actually make that assessment?
To judge whether or not someone is at a certain skill level, you need to have a deep fundamental knowledge of the art. The premise in the argument is that you can look at someone and determine what level they are. Is it reasonable though to expect a 4th kyu to determine the difference between a 2nd and a 3rd dan? No, it’s not. They can’t do it, particularly if they’ve never seen either of them before.
The idea that you can tell by looking at someone is only applicable if you look down the grading ladder, or perhaps one level up. Students will often have their eye on the grade above them and the skill level required to reach it.
What about your lineage?
Lineage is something that many folks generally never consider much. Beyond a basic knowledge of the other styles do you need to know much? If you’re judging someone on appearances then yes, actually. The main branches of aikido all have very different defining characteristics. If you cannot take those into account, then you cannot judge someone by looking.
It is very unlikely that a non-Shodokan dan grade (at any rank) would be able to perform, without extensive practice, the black belt katas of that style. Most non-Yosiekan aikidoka would struggle with the striking of that style. Very few would pass the ki tests required by Ki aikido. You could bet gummy bears to gold bars that no aikidoka, that has not trained in Nishio aikido, could perform the aiki toho iai – any of it.
Let This Quote Die
The concept that you can tell how good someone is just by looking at them is only true if they’re either:
- in your small federation, or
- you have an extremely wide frame of reference, an open mind, and deep knowledge of the art. The more you know, the easier it is, but only if you can accept differences in styles.
By continuing to use this quote we let people think it’s okay to make snap judgements on the skill level of other people without any knowledge of them.
This quote, needs to die.
If you can afford it, and would like to help out,
consider donating some brain fuel!
Also, if you enjoyed this post you can find further insights in this book.