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How to rank kids in judo

Photo courtesy of Vanou
I've written a goodly number of articles about children in martial arts - mostly about how to teach children judo - and a healthy dose of bragging about my kids' performance in judo. But I haven't much mentioned the elephant in the room - Children's ranks.
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I was talking to a martial artist friend of mine a few days ago and I asked him if his son, who has been doing BJJ for a couple of years, had ranked yet and he replied, "Oh, no. They don't rank anyone younger than 16... And I respect that." And I respect that too. We've all seen the so-called 6 year-old black belts with black belt egos but not enough physical maturity to actually do any of the skills. You don't want that sort of situation diluting the value of your ranks.
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But also consider, kids are externally motivated and not getting promotions at least every so often can be very demotivating. We walk a thin line when we try to figure out how to set up a ranking system for kids. Here's a handful of hints on how I did it.
  • I start kids as young as 6 or 7 depending on their physical maturity. If they are coordinated enough to play tee-ball or soccer then they are coordinated and large enough to do judo. I start the adult classes at around age 13, again depending on both physical and emotional maturity. So I have potentially a 6-7 year range of ages in the class.
  • If a kid starts at age 6 I want to have sufficient ranks for them to get regular promotions until they are old enough to get into the adult class at age 13. I do at most one rank per year - that's the time in grade. So, I have to have about 5-6 ranks for kids.
  • I recommend using colors for kids that are not used in the adult classes. My adult classes use green, brown, and black (yellow is a club rank for adults halfway to green belt). My kids do white, yellow, orange, blue, and purple. By having the kids never get an "adult" color, it effectively makes the kids automatically lower ranked than the adults. This prevents kids from diluting the value of the adult ranks.
  • The majority of the ranking requirement for kids is participation. If a white belt kid participates regularly for a year, enjoys it, and learns a lot, he gets a yellow belt. If the participation, enjoyment, or learning are marginal for a year, they get a striped belt of the next color. The stripe indicates "almost" the next rank.
  • The benefits of this sort of rank structure for children are 1) simplicity of one ranking per year and few ranks, and 2) subjectivity and flexibility of the 'requirements'. There is so much variability in physical, mental, and emotional maturity in kids ranging from 6 to 12, that it is impossible to create fair and objective requirements and tests. The requirements of participation, enjoyment, and learning for a year solves this problem.
How are your kids classes different from mine? What unique challenges do you face in ranking kids? How have you worked your kids' ranks to fix these problems?
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Patrick Parker, is a Christian, husband, father, judo and aikido teacher, Program Director for a Cardiac Rehab, and a Ph.D. Contact: mokurendojo@gmail.com or phone 601.248.7282
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