Updated: Apr 17
Failing a grading is sometimes one of the setbacks involved in any student’s journey. Plenty of great martial artists have failed one or more gradings and have still gone on to achieve black belt and beyond.
If you’ve just failed a grading, it might seem like a major setback and be upsetting right now. However, many martial artists hold the view - myself included - that failing a grading can, if approached and dealt with in the right way, be a valuable life lesson that you wouldn’t want to take back!
So how can we best approach a failed grading result and what steps can we take to ensure we’re back training at our best again?
Know that failing a grading doesn’t make you ‘bad’ at martial arts
When we fail at something, we tend to take it to heart and can sometimes blow it out of proportion. A common thought following failure is often “I’m rubbish at this!” But failing a grading doesn’t mean that you’re absolutely terrible at your chosen martial art. You’re just not quite ready for the next level yet - and what’s so bad about that?
If you were put in for a grading, your instructor would have thought that you would likely pass. However, it may have been that you were very nervous on the day, which led to too many mistakes, didn’t practice enough, or didn’t have the right attitude during the grading.
Whatever the reason, it won’t help to degrade yourself over it. It won’t change the result so, instead of beating yourself up, try to look at it as a learning lesson. If the result was due to not having practised enough, then you know you’ll have to practise at home more in the future. If the result was due to nerves, you might have to look into ways that you can help yourself to deal with stressful situations in the future.
Try to keep in mind that this is one isolated incidence of failure over your entire martial arts journey to date. You may not have been up to scratch on this one day, but that doesn’t make all of the other days or any of your other achievements in martial arts worthless.
Failing a grading isn’t the end of your journey, just a bump in the road.
Never give up!
It’s impossible to succeed at everything in life, to win every time... job interviews, driving tests, exams - sometimes we don’t get the result we want, but that doesn’t mean that we should just give up on something we want to achieve.
Continuing to train after failing a grading and trying again at a later date can teach the value of persistence, especially in kids who may not have experienced other areas of life where you can be rejected or fail, such as job interviews or exams. Learning the lesson that persistence pays off early on will only serve you well in life.
There are some people, in all areas of life, who will appear to have been lucky every time, who have had nothing but success. The truth is that everyone has experienced setbacks of some kind, but you won’t hear about them from successful people because they find a way to overcome setbacks and move on, rather than dwelling on things they can’t change.
The most common quality among successful people is that they never gave up.
Gradings have to be a test - a test that you can actually fail - or it would be pointless. But there’s always another chance to retake that grading - rather than giving up and feeling despondent, you should be going all in to prepare for the next one, with the attitude to succeed.
Listen to feedback
Your instructors will likely offer you feedback as soon as you get the result. Always approach the conversation as an opportunity to learn, rather than an opportunity to try to change their minds - you won’t. Ask for more details or further explanation for anything that you’re unsure about, even if this occurs to you after the initial conversation. The only way that you can progress in the future is to understand exactly what went wrong.
Examine your own performance
As well as listening to the feedback from your instructors, ask yourself if there were any ways you could have prepared better.
Your instructors will probably know if you weren’t really trying in the grading, but only you know how often you actually practised at home beforehand or went through your theory.
Part of preparing for the next grading is asking yourself honestly how you could better prepare for the next one.
Other people may be able to offer advice, but only you know how much preparation you put into it and if you could have done more.
Know that the negative feelings will pass
It’s natural in the first few moments, on being told that you have failed, to feel negative emotions. It might be confusion, frustration, sadness or embarrassment. These are natural feelings on having failed something that you wanted to achieve and everyone will experience negative emotions from a setback to some degree, but try to keep a clear head. Attitude counts for just as much as skill and technique in martial arts, so try to show that you have the attitude to succeed by dealing with the situation calmly and gracefully. Negative feelings will pass with time.
Get back to class as quickly as possible
If you leave it too long, there’s a risk you might never go back. Fear of embarrassment tends to build up in your mind. The longer you avoid something, the bigger the issue becomes. Things will not be as bad as you might imagine. Of course, people will figure out that you didn’t pass that grading, but nobody will say anything. People aren’t judging you for failing that grading: they have jobs and families and lives and far better things to do. Going back to class after failing a grading can be hard, but the negative feelings will fade quickly when it becomes apparent that it’s business as usual, and nobody is talking about you failing a grading.
Getting back to class, and getting over the grading result, shows your commitment and proves strength of character to your instructors, peers and also yourself.
It takes a far bigger person to walk back through the door despite feeling embarrassed, than to shy away from it and go elsewhere. You can’t run from uncomfortable situations forever and sticking it out can make you a stronger person in the long run.
Remember that your instructors have your best interests at heart
Failing a grading is not ‘fun’, however there are plenty of problems that can come from being awarded a rank, and eventually a black belt, before you are ready. It can ultimately lead to a false sense of confidence; at worst, a false sense of confidence can get you into trouble in conflict situations and, at the very least, it can lead to embarrassment at competitions and tournaments which might shatter your self-confidence.
Both of these things are far worse than failing one colour belt grading. Instructors who have their students’ best interests at heart will be unwilling to give their students a false sense of confidence and to let them progress to the next stage before they are ready.
Yes, martial arts should be fun too, but learning self-defence is ultimately about being safe.
So if you do have a failed result, know that your instructors have your best interests and safety at heart, and that’s a good thing.
Ask yourself why you started martial arts
Ask yourself why you started martial arts in the first place and why you want a black belt, and it should give you some clarity around your feelings about your failed grading.
The path to black belt and beyond, and becoming competent in self-defence, is not quick or easy. The journey to achieve a black belt is supposed to be difficult, and it’s supposed to test you - or they would be no meaning in achieving a black belt.
If you started for the right reasons, perhaps to learn effective self-defence or because you enjoy the martial art, this little bump in the road should be easy to recover from.
However, if you started martial arts just to become a black belt and a slight delay is absolutely crushing, perhaps ask yourself if you’re in it for the right reasons.
If you have good reasons for starting martial arts, you should want to be ready for the rank before it is given to you.
The ultimate silver lining to failing a grading
If you have ever failed a grading, you’ll have no doubt that you’ve earned every belt you’ve passed a grading for in the future.
Failing a grading is the ultimate proof that you can’t ‘just pass’; therefore, when you do pass, you’ll know that you’re definitely worthy of the rank.