Though geared towards BJJ, Cane Prevost's latest entry on his blog is an excellent post, and one that all of us deal with at some point in our careers on the mat... measuring progress.
In the Chinese Martial Arts (CMA) their is traditionally no rank structure set up. Some schools have borrowed from Judo's lead with colored belts, or sashes. Some teachers used the disciple method to offer rank, or announce a certain students level. Basically a teacher asks you to become a disciple of his. Some teachers have dozens of disciples whose responsibilities and roles change teacher to teacher. Other instructors such as my Mantis teacher Hu Xi Lin only takes on a few disciples, and is very selective about whom he lets that close.
Tournaments are certainly another method in which to measure progress, but like Cane states... not always the most accurate method. Though I think competition at some level is crucial for promotion, as it forces one to face certain fears and facts, and I truly believe one has not clue how he will react until put under at least that minimal amount of pressure!
For me, I try to look and see if I am improving from the last time I was on the mat. Ultimately this forces me to be honest with myself (sometimes too honest), and to face the issues I need to face in order to patch the holes I need to, to improve my game. Are you better than last night? 6 months ago?
Though we train in groups of various sizes, the martial arts are ultimately a very personal journey with each one of us bringing our baggage (good & bad) on the mat with us each night. The ego is a funny, very powerful energy that is ever present in our lives and it can have amazing influence on our very core primal being!
For some of us training represents a method, a natural forging process where we put our ego to the flame and pound it, reshape it, crack it, pressure it, punish it until it screams, to the point where we collapse our ego and simply accept the realities of the mat! Like Cane states in his article "The mat doesn't lie." We can fool ourselves all we want, but in the end resistance is futile. We are our own worst enemy and our ego is the sword in which we impale ourselves!
Train Hard. Train Smart.