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Martial arts promote executive functioning success

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Martial arts training may be the best kept secret in success training for kids today. When challenged to find a better way to educate our youth, speakers at a recent Independent Educational Consultant Association conference in Washington, D.C. presented interesting research focused on ”executive functioning”. Taking the concept of using executive functioning as a key to future success one step further researchers have been looking for ways to enhance this type of learning in children.

Dr. William R. Stixrud, a psychologist described as “one of the DC area’s leading experts", describes executive functioning as a set of processes that include “planning, organizational skill, maintaining a mental set, selective attention, and inhibitory control”. Dr. Martha Denckla, Director of the Developmental Cognitive Neurology Clinic at the Kennedy Kreiger Institute, a featured speaker at the IECA conference, described some key characteristics of executive functioning which include: interference control, flexible organization and strategic planning, or, anticipatory goal-directed preparedness to act. She also includes the concept of an “infrastructure” she refers to as “ISIS”: Initiate, Sustain, Inhibit, Shift. Anyone who has worked with troubled adolescents recognizes that when these skills are deficient students struggle to be successful in even the most basic of life skills.

Training in martial arts helps students understand that to be successful takes creativity, flexibility, self-control, and discipline. All of these skills rely on executive function. As a student trains in the martial arts they develop stronger executive function in areas such as developing a “response-able” thought process rather than an impulsively reacting, staying focused and organizing self-directed effort. The key to these gains is in the nature of martial arts training, the structure of the martial arts, repeated practice and constant challenging of the executive functions through skill drills.

In a pair of studies on students ranging in age from 5 years old to early teens, the study of traditional martial arts, such as Taekwondo, was shown to have significant positive impact on executive function. The studies showed that the traditional arts helped students by routinely causing them to ask three key questions,

Where am I (i.e., focus on the present moment)? What am I doing? What should I be doing? The later two questions directed children to select specific behaviors, compare their behavior to their goal, and make concrete plans for improvement. - Interventions shown to Aid Executive Function Development in Children 4–12 Years Old

These studies also showed that one should take care in the selection of a martial art, especially for children who are already struggling with executive function issues. The second study compared the effects of traditional martial arts training (i.e. Taekwondo) and modern martial arts (i.e. MMA, martial arts taught as a competitive sport). In this study significant improvements were seen in the traditional students while equally measurable negative changes were observed in the behavior of the modern students.

We all struggle to prepare our children to be successful in life. For most of us that struggle begins and ends in the classroom. Unfortunately the current academic classroom is not enough. Our children need to be introduced to martial arts training, giving them the edge they need to develop solid executive function skills and reach their full potential. Traditional martial arts training can provide the skills boost today’s youth needs to become tomorrow’s leaders.



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