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Monday, September 14, 2015

KB Sport rank equal to black belt?

It's been said that Candidate for Master of Sport (CMS) in Kettlebell Sport is equivalent to a black belt in martial arts. I find this to be a curious idea. Having achieved black belts in Ki-Aikido and Master of Sport (MS) ranks in Kettlebell Sport I see similarities between the two physical practices.

Sometimes a new athlete achieves Rank 1 at their first KB Sport competition. It is more rare that a lifter reaches CMS on his/her first KB Sport event. It is an extremely exceptional athlete who has achieved MS at his/her first ever competition. Likewise, a student new to a martial may be able to advance two beginner ranks at once by virtue of previous martial arts training, but will not be promoted directly to black belt at his/her first test. Discipline is the well-known quality of a black belt, and it is truly required to step up to the test.

The following are my thoughts and opinions on the similarities of martial arts and Kettlebell Sport in the United States.

Lineage Affiliation/Educational organization: head teacher

In martial arts and Kettlebell Sport there exist various associations that focus on teaching the same art. In both cases, these associations have a code of peaceful co-existence with each other. The associations themselves are educational organizations featuring master level teachers that may not have an actual location for on-going training, events or tests.

Dojos and KB Sport clubs usually have affiliation with one of the major associations. Advanced level teachers who represent the association will periodically offer immersion training (weekend or longer) for large groups. This is a good way to keep everyone current with changes in technique and indoctrinate new students.

World-Class Kettlebell Sport teachers tour the U.S. individually and in groups to give certification workshops and training camps. Anyone serious about the sport will take advantage of these moments regardless of association because they don't come around the same way twice. 

Dojo/Gym: training space

This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. In martial arts these are "dojos" or "training halls." In Kettlebell Sport they are "gyms." The training space is created for the purpose of practicing the physical art. It isn't always ideal. I've practiced martial arts in a church basement, on a basketball court and in public parks. Hundreds of Kettlebell Sport lifters work out in garage gyms, their living rooms or even outdoors on hand-built platforms. Most commonly we create our space in the corner of a gym whose management is not concerned with chalk dust.

High priority is put on "open mat" in dojos or KB clubs whose members are serious about the practice. This is auxiliary, unguided practice time for students to work at their own pace. As athletes begin preparation for a goal extra practice time becomes their training time. Other people in the group  join if they are also working toward a goal.

A note to KB Sport athletes: we do not have the same intrinsic code of etiquette as in the martial arts, but it is important that respect and cleanliness is part of the sporting attitude. If equipment is shared in someone else's gym, clean off the handles before putting the weights away. Not everyone likes chalk on the bells or tracked across the floor. Know where the broom and mop are kept and use them.

In most martial arts the black belt rank does not indicate mastery. The first black belt indicates that a student is proficient in the basics.

Beginner ranks/Training progression: practice and refining skills

The beginner rank is commonly referred to as "white belt." White belts are the majority of students, and represent the type of person who is attracted to that martial art. These students are new to the etiquette, physical demands and coordination requirements of the art and are not expected to get it right all the time. They have logged about one or two hundred hours on the mat by the first test.

The "brown belt" (in some arts a "red belt") is a landmark achievement indicating that the student knows the etiquette, can be expected to demonstrate most of the basics, and can guide beginner-level exercises such as the warm-up. Brown belts are assistant instructors and often behind-the-scenes support crew when guest instructors visit a dojo. These students have logged several hundred hours and about three years on the mat before the first brown belt test, are in physical condition to practice for an entire class, and are less pre-occupied with basic technique details than white belts. Most styles of martial art do not expect students to engage with full-speed sparing practice until the brown belt level.

In Kettlebell Sport there are also lower ranks starting with 3 and progressing to 1. The rep counts to achieve these ranks are slightly different among ranking tables, but in all cases the lifter is challenged to perform these repetitions in a competitive setting. The lifter must have a clear idea of what he/she is capable of before arriving at the competition. This may sound obvious, but it does happen that lifters go to a competition with an ambiguous goal. The hard truth is that in a hyper-adrenalized setting almost never will a person's body say, "7 reps per minute is just too easy. Let's do 10." If a lifter is lucky enough to be part of a large club the lower ranks will be achieved at local, low-pressure events or informally at BOLT competitions.

Physically and mentally conditioning for success will eliminate random distractions but technique cannot be learned on the spot. An athlete's performance will reflect whether enough time (read: several hundred gym hours) was given to building maximally efficient technique. One thing is certain: the lifter will become acutely aware of exactly what he/she prepared for while on the platform. Any illusions or false structures of the ego will collapse under the load. The result will be exactly what the lifter trained to do on that day.

I've heard it said that a person can have three technical mistakes still achieve CMS. I'm not trying to diminish the difficulty and commitment needed to achieve CMS by any means, it does not happen without intense effort and resource, but I see the Candidate for Master of Sport rank very similar to the brown belt level.

To achieve MS there can only be one technical mistake, and even one is too many.

Intermediate and higher ranks/CMS and MS: hammer out the impurities

A young martial arts student (18 – 25 years old) can achieve a black belt in three years if he/she meets the following conditions: achieves brown belt, develops him/herself mentally, emotionally and physically, attends several (3 – 6) classes per week, does solo practice between group classes, can afford the dues and testing fees, participate in test preparation with all fellow students, attends all possible seminars at home and away, and voluntarily accepts the role of assistant teacher. Commitment on the part of the student is essential, but support of the dojo is indispensable. A candidate for the first black belt has thousands of mat hours under his/her belt.

This is similar to what is required to achieve the Master of Sport rank in three years. With Kettlebell Sport the athlete will need to be comfortable with competitions and have a feel for the commitment involved in achieving CMS. A programming coach becomes the main training partner, and all the foundational flexibility plus strength and conditioning training become the "early years." It's a good idea to attend advanced training seminars or get private lessons with a high level teacher to skim away all unnecessary movement in the lifts. Delegate all free time toward training and recovery, compete as often as possible and adhere to the Spartan-like lifestyle that I imagine in-season Olympic athletes live. Someone committed to achieving Master of Sport is a person living Kettlebell Sport.

A KB Sport athlete who is already a seasoned trainer/gym owner is more akin to the senior student/teacher at a dojo. This type of athlete has the additional challenge of guiding students in on-going training. Frequent visits from master-teachers are required to keep technique, the training goals, and the team in balance. A team may host regional Open Championships to spread the sport, but will certainly travel for training and competitions. One way or another, achieving Master of Sport is a team effort.

Ranking Tables, a KB Sport thing: unique to each major organization

To my knowledge there are currently two Kettlebell Sport ranking tables developed by non-IUKL (International Union of Kettlebell Lifting) affiliated organizations in the U.S.: KETAcademy and IKFF. These tables reflect what lifters want to lift at competitions.

For example, KETAcademy, whose premier club is OKC and affiliates, includes rank for 60- and 30-minute events, 7- and 3-minute Relays, 10- and 5-minute events, Women's single kettlebell ranks up to 28kg, Jerk Only, Snatch Only and CMS rank for amateur loads. Always at the leading edge, OKC announced in 2015 that moving forward Women's 10-minute events will be doubles (LC and Jerk). Women who want to lift single LC or Jerk compete in 5-minute events. The ranking table for this change has yet to come, but I expect it will live up to the Men's version in difficulty.

IKFF is the first organization to develop a ranking table for Women's 10- and 5-minute double events. On this table you find ranks for Jerk Only, Snatch Only, the 5-minute Chair Press, and a new title for 5-minute specialists (Elite Sprinter for standard lifts and Elite Presser for Chair Press). Men can achieve CMS for amateur loads and above, Women must lift 20kg to achieve CMS for Long Cycle with a single kettlebell, but in all other one arm events CMS is possible with 16kg.

AKA is the one organization in the United States that selects athletes to compete at the IUKL World Competition. The ranking table used by AKA is shared with IKSFA, ICKB and other affiliated organizations. This updated table, effective in 2014, includes the standard 10-minute lifts for both genders (Long Cycle, Biathlon and Snatch Only). Men lift double and women lift a single kettlebell. This table includes 28kg for Women's Long Cycle and 28kg for all Men's events. AKA also recognizes Junior Ranks.

Not to be overlooked is the BOLT network and affiliate gyms. In my opinion the most powerful things about BOLT are that both genders have always lifted double and single kettlebell loads, and kids are highly encouraged for their participation. This organization has its own list of events: Double Half-Snatch, Double Long Cycle, Double Jerk, Single Snatch, Single Long Cycle and Single Jerk. One thing to notice about BOLT is that the affiliate gyms play however they want. Some competitions are specific for ranking, while another feature 5-minute sprints. They also have an "Iron Man" focus, meaning lifters compete in all 6 lifts for a total volume score. Scoring is volume based, as the competitors are not organized in weight classes but rather age categories. For more details about BOLT scoring see the official rules.

If someone really wants to do something there is no obstacle that will stop that person from doing it.

Test/Competition: the results of training

All previous tests are the basis for the mental preparation on the day of a big test or competition. Some strategy for handling nerves must be in effect. Even the weigh-in for Kettlebell Sport has a parallel with black belt testing, in that all test candidates will meet with the examiners ahead of time to confirm their intention.

To maintain the integrity of a rank, a dojo's supervising teacher does not conduct tests for his/her own students. The appropriate testing panel is comprised of that teacher's peers and master-teachers. It is likely that a student must travel to a workshop for the test, or help host a seminar for teachers qualified to grant rank.

This is the same with Kettlebell Sport. It is far more legitimate when someone from a different team or organization judges a high-ranking set. Ideally that judge is a higher-level lifter and has a good grasp on the rules being applied at the competition.

One comment for lifters striving for the CMS or MS rank: pick your competition wisely. 
AKA only grants CMS for above Amateur weight loads (28kg for Men and 20kg for Women) while KETAcademy gives CMS rank for Amateur loads at rep counts that will take the entire 10 minutes to achieve. IKFF awards CMS for all Amateur loads except Women's LC.

Women's double events go up to Rank 1 on the IKFF table. KETAcademy is still gathering data from this group. They currently awards 1st, 2nd and 3rd place based on co-efficient to Women lifting the same kettlebell load in open weight class (total volume divided by lifter's body weight).

A further factor in choosing a competition for a high rank attempt is that AKA does not award CMS or MS at local events, only at Regional competitions where there is an accredited judge at your platform (your video is submitted for review), and the National competition.

Teaching/Adjustment of Goals: follow-up

In all martial arts the attitude of respect and humility is a universal black belt expectation. This is so because there is great responsibility in the knowledge entrusted to these people.  Depending on the art, black belts are potentially capable of ending a life. Most of the time I see black belts taking on the role of teacher in a life-long effort to pay back the generosity given by their teachers in the early years. Many become so identified with a martial art that they open a dojo or acquire on-going classes to keep the practice flourishing in their lives. And let's not overlook the reality that some martial arts have black belt levels up to 10th Dan, so there is no end of learning for a martial artist.

I see this as a similar path for Master of Sport Kettlebell lifters. It's not the highest rank. And even if it is achieved once all lifters are aware that there are three lifts, each with their own learning curves. Because the sport has no end of challenges, many MS lifters attend events with amateur or transition loads and take Rank 1 or CMS rather than attempt an MS weight load. I see this as evidence that these lifters are refining their practice and achieving personal records. Like martial artists, high level lifters influence people with their presence and etiquette at an event, and place focus on technique over the rank that may be achieved at any one competition.

Best wishes for all your lifting goals,

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