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Graduation….. What’s it all about?

You probably hear us go on about Graduation in classes all the time and think we sound like a broken record, but it turns out that the Graduations in Tang So Do are an important part of the journey that each student makes. Grading is an important way of measuring your attainment within the art, allowing you to progress to the next stage and symbolise that progress by receiving your new belt. Graduations, therefore, are a great opportunity to show off your newly learned skills to your peers, your seniors, your Instructors and, most importantly, the Masters.

Certainly, for our Beginners, Graduations are nothing to fear. It’s always great to be a little nervous (you wouldn’t be human if you weren’t), but there really is nothing to fear. Everything we teach you in class is to prepare you for going to the Graduation and if you turn up to classes and train as hard as you can, you’ll be able to get through a Graduation without any problems at all.

But what happens at a Graduation?

In this blog, we'll look at what happens to the Gups (coloured Belts) on the day, get some of your fellow students to tell you about their experiences at Graduations and give you some advice about what to expect when you get down to the ESSA academy in Bolton.

Graduations normally happen in rank order and all students on the same belt colour from all over the various Family Martial Arts Centres across the North West come together to demonstrate their skills to the Masters. When you get to the ESSA Academy, you will all gather in the waiting area which is the school canteen, where you chat with your friends, family and fellow students.

Usually the Instructors will pop in to see if anyone is nervous and to check everyone is looking forward to their Grading. Then at the start of your session, you will make your way down to the hall, where you will see the Masters (and even though they may look a bit scary, they are all very friendly really) sat in the centre ready to cast their eye over your demonstrations. You will then line up, and away we go. After the demonstration, you will get a great applause from the audience, and receive your new belt and certificate.

9.00am - Tigers

We start the morning off with the Tigers Graduation. This one is slightly different to the other gradings, as Tigers of all ranks come and do the Grading together. The Tiger Graduation is always a fun and noisy atmosphere, where anything can happen, but allows all the Tigers get up to show off their kicking, blocking and punching and we even get some special helpers up from their seats to help with the self-defence.

Willow who is a Tiger at the Prestwich Centre said: “It was fun to get to do the self-defence with my mummy, and I really enjoyed the kicks we got to do. I was super excited to get my new yellow belt”

The Tigers graduation lasts about 45 minutes. It’s a great opportunity for friends and family to come down and support their little Tiger and to give an extra loud cheer and a clap when they get presented with their new belt.

10.00am - White Belts

Straight after Tigers comes the White Belts. The White Belt Graduation is always the session where we see the most nervous faces. Katie, a White Belt from the Oldham Centre, commented: “It wasn’t anywhere as scary as I thought it was going to be, I was very nervous before I came into the Graduation, but found that the classes prepared me for it, so it wasn’t that hard”.

For the White Belts it’s often their first experience of the Graduation environment, which can be very different to classes, and it’s also a fantastic chance for family and friends to get their first real look at all the work you’ve been putting in over the previous few weeks and months. No one is expected to be an expert at this stage and turning up and doing the Graduation is something to be extremely proud of. Katie went on to say: “This is the first time that my Mum has seen me do Martial Arts, and showing everyone what you can do, really helps with your confidence”.

11.00am - Yellow Belts

The further into the day we go, the higher up the ranks we go. The next students through the door are the Yellow Belts. This was Millie and Jessie’s second grading and they had brought their mum along with them to watch. She commented: “I’ve loved getting to see them doing their Martial Arts up close, as normally I just get to watch them on a little screen in the centre, and it’s nice to see the benefits of them training”.

The further into the journey all students go, the more everyone learns and the more confident everyone becomes at demonstrating the moves to other people. Even in the few months between the White Belt and Yellow Belt Graduations, we as Instructors see a huge boost in the confidence of our Yellow Belts, who now know what to expect and can build on what they have already learnt, together with the experience of already having done a Graduation.

On receiving her Orange Belt, Millie told us: “Graduation is actually a fun thing to do, and because we have already learnt our moves, it is easier than in class”. Jessie added: “Each grading lets me get a better belt and helps me achieve my goals”.

12.00pm – Orange & Blue Belts

It's now noon and after the Yellow Belt Graduation comes the only double rank grading of the day, where the Orange and Blue belts go into the session together, as they are the more experienced students of the beginner’s class. This is also the Graduation where the Blue Belts demonstrate the new Form (Hyung) that they have been learning – Cho Bo Ja Hyung. The students go through all the basic moves together, demonstrating to the Masters the blocks, strikes kicks and the self-defences they have been working on in class.

When we spoke to Orange Belt Connor - he said: “Each Graduation gets a bit easier to do than the previous one even though we have to learn new stuff, and it's easier than class as it’s not as long”. When we asked Connor what he would say if he was sat with a nervous White Belt, he commented “Don’t worry about the Graduation, as you just have to do the same things that you have been practising in class”.

After everyone has done their basics, there’s a chance for the Orange Belts to sit down and watch the Blue Belts demonstrate their Form (Hyung). Going through this process were Mrs Kinga Wrobel and Szymon Wrobel, who are Blue Belts at the Prestwich Centre. Mrs Wrobel told us that: “Graduation is a good thing as it allows you to realise how far you have gone already, see what you have already achieved and is confirmation that you are improving yourself”. Szymon added, that “It was nice to see other people from other Centres all doing the same thing, and it’s an amazing experience getting your new belt”.

For those students that have graduated from Blue to Green Belt today, it’s the new Advanced Class from next week and a chance to build on the hard work they have already completed over the past few months.

1.00pm – Green Belts

Following the Orange and Blue Belts comes the first Advanced team to Graduate with the Green Belts arriving at the ESSA Academy. The Advanced Graduations are usually more complex than those of the junior Gups, as they

have to not only show the basic moves and self-defence that they have learnt, but they also need to demonstrate their ‘Form’ (which this time was Pyung Ahn Oh Dan Hyung) and show how they handle themselves sparring against an opponent.

While the Green Belt Graduation is more complex, it's again important to say that you will not be asked to demonstrate anything that you have not learnt at some point along your Tang Soo Do journey and if you train hard in class, your confidence will only go from strength to strength. Oscar from the Prestwich Centre completed the Green Belt Graduation and said: “It is great to see everyone you know all doing the gradings together, and it helps me gain confidence by getting a new belt every two months”. Fellow Prestwich Green Belt Junres, added: “I really enjoy the fun of sparring against other people and seeing how you compare against other students from other centres”.

2:00pm – Red Belts

Finally the last of the Gup Gradings takes place with the Red Belts all coming together to demonstrate their knowledge in the art. You are a Red Belt for a minimum of 18 months and you progress through several ranks during that time - it is at this level that we look at the detail and refinements of all the techniques, self-defences and Hyungs that you have learnt up to that point.

Like the Green Belts, they are asked to demonstrate the current Hyung they have been working on, and the 1st Gups are also asked to demonstrate the previous Hyung as well. The Red Belts will also demonstrate their sparring prowess to the Masters.

Current Red Belt Miss Nadia Plummer, who has been through quite a few Graduations by now, summed up her thoughts on the Gradings by saying: “I think Graduation is something that is built up to be scary, but when you actually get here, everyone is lovely, and we’re all doing the same thing together, so you're not alone”.

So, as you can see from what your fellow students have said, Graduation, is a fun and challenging experience that is very much a part of your Tang Soo Do journey and while as Instructors we may make it sound scary and something you may not like the sound of doing, there really is nothing to be scared about! If you train hard and come to class, we will get you prepared for each graduation without any problems.

We’ll leave it to Red Belt Hardy to sum up his thoughts on the whole graduation day experience: “Never give up, try your best, and enjoy it!”

3:00pm - Black Belts

The day isn't finished there. The last group of the day is the Black Belts. To be a Black Belt, you have spent a minimum of 3-4 years training, so you will have been 25+ Graduations. The process is much the same for them, so you can see that the higher you go, the more detailed the demonstrations will be, but the process remains the same all the way through.

[Kyo Sa Nim Mr Ogden]

Graduation Day from the perspective of an Instructor

The day starts pretty early. Up at 7am (on a Saturday! I know right!) for a quick shower & some breakfast. My uniform is already washed & ironed ready to go - the Instructors also need to look neat, tidy & squared away, plus I have my Grading later on today.

I grab my stuff - sparring gear, any sticks or bats (for my own Grading, not for beating students!), my admin sheets (so I know who's Graduating, etc), my glasses, plus some lunch & drinks. We head off to pick up another Instructor along the way & we aim to get to the Essa Academy just after 8.15ish.

We spend the time prior to the first set of Tiger Graduations at 9am setting the hall up, getting chairs out for parents, getting the certificates & Belts all organised for the various sessions & sometimes there’s even time for a quick brew before Master V Smythe presses the ‘Go’ button & we start bringing in the Tigers for the first session.

The jobs on the day tend to be rotated around the Instructors so they all get a chance to learn the ropes of every role. Some are easy - standing in the corridor to direct students/parents - and some are really complex & critical to the day’s success - ensuring the certificates are sorted & in the correct order. I find managing the belts quite stressful - other love that job - and I tend to look after the White Belts as it’s their first Graduation & we want it to be a smooth and positive experience for them all. When you do this job, you’re at the front demonstrating to the students & instructing them on what to demonstrate & how. It can be quite daunting standing in front of 200+ students the first time you do it, but you soon get used to it. It’s just like a HUGE class!

That said, I’m on calling out certificates this time around. It’s another job I love but one that many of the Instructors would rather not do. I say I end up doing it because I’ve got a big mouth & a loud voice, rather than being able to read out the names. It’s brilliant that we have an incredibly diverse student base but some of the names can be a challenge if you’re not used to them.

Once each of the Graduations is over, there’s usually a mad rush to get photos done with students who want them, say hi to anyone you can find & make sure the nervous students are OK before the next one starts. It's like a constantly rotating treadmill which you cannot get off. Lunch needs to be snatched in between the sessions during a ‘quiet’ five minutes. With seven Graduations on the day, it’s hard work on your feet & back.

Even though I’m on reading out certificates, I still need to help out with the smooth running of the sessions, particularly the early ones. That’s why you see us prowling around at the sidelines watching what’s going on. You’re never off duty.

Final graduation of the day is the Black Belt one and this is the one that’s different for me - I actually take part in this one. I’m a firm believer that your Instructor should still be training & learning, just as you are. As a senior 3rd Dan I can get called upon to demonstrate anything from Cho Bo Ja Hyung (which you learn at Blue Belt) through to the current Hyung I’ve been learning - Kong Sang Koon. This one is my last Form at 3rd Dan so that could be any of the 22 I’ve had to learn. We also get called upon to demonstrate our weapons self-defence (long sticks this time), plus some freestyle 1, 2 or 3 step sparring combinations that we have had to make up to combat a series of attacks. We also demonstrate some of the junior Dan syllabus - knife defence, uniform grips and the formal one step sparring. After a quick spar, it’s all over for the day.

Or so it looks…

The Instructors then stay behind to break down the hall, putting everything away for next time. Then we spend some time, as a group, going over the syllabus for the next rotation. This ensures that we are all consistent in our teaching & it helps the junior Instructors to know which areas to stress & to work on with students.

Then we can grab our stuff, jump in the car & head home for a well-deserved take away tea & a beer.

Monday & the new syllabus awaits… but we’re all ready & prepped for it!

[Kyo Sa Nim Mr Nelson]

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