What is a Karate Grading and  How is it Implemented at Kovsie Karate Club?
Close up of a black belt

What is a Karate Grading and How is it Implemented at Kovsie Karate Club?


Karate training and the development path of karate is very similar to school and university. It has a different training syllabus for each of the various levels (commonly known as a grade or belt level), from beginners through to advanced black belts. This implies that the students of the art of karate must also pass a practical test to progress from one grade to the next. In karate this exam is called a grading and if the student passes his/her grading he/she will progress to the next karate grade. During the grading the student’s competency level is tested in all three karate training disciplines namely kihon (basic karate techniques), kata (a prescribed sequenced form similar to gymnastic floor routines) and kumite (sparring) in order to ensure that the student has mastered the expected outcomes of his/her current syllabus and have shown the potential to advance to the next level of training.

The different grades in karate are indicated by the colour of the belt that the student wear with his/her karate suit. Starting with white it progresses through yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, red and brown to black. When a karate student is asked what grade or level he or she is, the answer will be for example “blue” which is and indication of the colour of the belt level he or she obtained.

Once again like academic education Karate requires training over an extended period of time and for the sensei’s (karate teachers) it becomes a lifetime study (like the professors of the academic world).

To ensure progressive development, to maintain interest, to encourage hard work and to facilitate progress, the pathway for younger students are broken further down into intermediate grades where the student will obtain 3 or more stripes on his colour belt before progressing to the next grade.

The karate syllabus of the South African Japanese Karate Association (SAJKA) is standardised but allows for minor variation by the chief instructor of each club up to the level of brown belt (1st Kuy) which is the final grade before attempting for black belt. For all black belt gradings a standardised national syllabus is applicable and all black belt gradings are national events.

When a karateka graduated for his/her first black belt (shodan) it is accepted that the student has mastered a high skill level of the execution of basic karate techniques within the areas of kihon, kata and kumite and the student will then continue to train and study the art of karate endeavouring to master the more advanced karate skills in order to eventually at the level of sixth or seventh dan and higher, be considered as a master in the art of karate.

In the case of Kovsie Karate Club the dojo hosts a GRADING (examination) at the end of each school/university term. All classes the student attended during the term are recorded. In order to qualify to attend the grading at the end of each term the student must have attended a predetermined minimum required number of classes for the applicable grade he/she is attempting for.

During the GRADING, the karate students are tested in groups and are exposed to a practical test on the applicable syllabus which they were trained in up to that stage. The grading is based on predetermined outcomes that are required for each level. The examiners are karate instructors and other black belts (called the grading panel). During this session, only the karate students and the grading panel are present. No spectators or parents are allowed during the grading. The reason for this is simply the same as why parents are not allowed to attend the school and university exams of their children.

Although the students are tested in groups (similar grade and age) each student is evaluated individually and given one of the symbols listed below for each of the three disciplines being kihon, kata and kumite:

B – performance is beyond the required standard

A – the required standard is achieved

P – the required standard is only partially achieved

N – the required standard is not achieved

If a student’s overall performance complies with the required standard expected for the specific syllabus, he/she then progresses to the next grade level.

To minimise and eliminate the negative effect that failing an exam have (on children and adults) a unique and effective process is followed with students that do not demonstrate the required standard during a grading. This process includes a rectification plan to ensure the required progress.

With combined karate teaching experience of more than 70 years Sensei Piet le Roux (former chief instructor for more than 40 years) and myself, with the assistance of a number of other extremely competent karate instructors at Kovsie Karate like Professor Daneel Ferreira and others, managed to developed a unique training syllabus, grading system and club management system that:

  • Ensure a high level of technical skill of all karate techniques to serve as strong foundation to develop advanced techniques/skills which results in exceptional performance and achievements.
  • Eliminates/minimise the severe negative impact that “failure” has on any student and more so on youth and children
  • Allows for the slower developer to obtain the required standards and to reach his/her optimum potential without losing interest, motivation and most importantly self-esteem.
  • To develop the natural talented athlete to be a top performer and to allow for him/her to accelerate according to their own potential
  • To ultimately ensure a near 100% pass rate at national black belt gradings (which can be compared to national matric school exams or final exams for university degrees)
  • Enhance and develop the discipline, especially self-discipline that karate requires from each student to progress
  • Ultimately create the opportunity for every single karate student that joins the club to develop in a way that he/she is proof of the motto of the club “Where ordinary people become champions”


“You must train karate until you get your black belt” is a very general motivational goal used by parents to inspire their children to continue to train karate and to ensure they learn from a young age not to give up easily on something. This is a particularly good objective and motivation, but it can be limited in its very nature if one compares it with having the objective to pass matric as the final goal for your academic studies. It may be better to set that as an intermediate goal in order to allow yourself the dream of further studies and to possibly graduate in one or other post matric academic field.

Another quite common perception is that when you have obtained your first black belt (shodan) that you now have achieved the top in Karate. There is nothing more removed from the truth than this. In the contrary your karate training and your study of the art really starts at black belt level. I want to explain this by comparing it with the difference between a painter and an artist. When you graduated for shodan you are a very well trained and  a top qualified “painter” and have very good skills to use a paint brush, a paint roller, a 20-litre drum of paint and you can paint a house or even large buildings. If you however continue to practice karate after obtaining your shodan you are studying art and will then learn the skills to use a pallet, paint brushes of various kinds and sizes, how to mix different colours of paint, how to use your own imagination and your own creative skills to enable you to create your own piece of art on canvas. Now you become and artist and that is when you really start to master the “Art of Karate”

Recognition is given to Sensei Eugene Oosthuizen (5th Dan from Pretoria) who wrote an article “Grading Karate Students”. When I read his article I was inspired to put the philosophy and approach of the grading system and procedures of Kovsie Karate Club in writing.