Many myths abound when it comes to martial arts training for kids. First among them might be that martial arts is simply “fight training,” and many parents are reluctant to encourage fighting. Others might believe that disciplines like karate, judo, jiujitsu, or tae kwon do (the world’s most popular) are too strict for kids to enjoy. Surprise – all false!
While it may not be for everyone, the fact is that martial arts training offers a host of benefits beyond just the physical activity (which is no small payoff itself!). Do you recognize something in the list below that could help your child in his or her personal development? How about your own?
1. Self-control. Students in a martial arts class practice waiting their turn, staying still, moving when instructed, listening and following directions.
2. Discipline, perseverance, goal attainment and patience. In a good school, students attend many classes and learn a series of moves in order to advance to the next level in tapes or belts. Typically, the advancements are small steps at a time. There is no “trophy just for showing up,” as they say – the reward comes only after legitimate work. Students are encouraged to set a goal (such as achieving the next belt rank) and to understand the steps necessary to reach the goal. Then, it’s a matter of staying patient and sticking with it long enough to succeed. Kids tend to prefer immediate payoff, but as Master Curtis Mast offers, “The next belt comes when you are ready.”
3. Mentoring and socialization. In many martial arts traditions, more experienced students (even if younger) are expected and encouraged to help the less knowledgeable kids. This is a boost both ways: the mentor practices teaching and nurturing; the mentee learns humility and recognizes a new goal potential.
4. Responsibility for things and actions. Good martial arts teachers believe that it is the student’s responsibility (even the youngest students) to care for the uniform, tie the belt, and take care of other equipment. Pupils are expected to take personal responsibility for their actions as well – both in and out of the dojo. “With great power comes great responsibility” is an attitude common to high-quality martial arts studios.
5. Balance, coordination, proprioception, and posture. Children’s neural pathways are very flexible, and the practices of balancing, transferring weight, engaging core muscles, and fine-tuning the positioning of limbs in space are crucial skills for a lifetime of good physical condition. Contrary to the popular belief that people are born either with natural coordination or not, these are all skills that improve quickly with practice (true for adults, too!).
6. Breathing. Coordinating gross motor movements with the breath is an essential skill – and one that can increase the efficacy of nearly any exercise. Martial arts teach deep breathing in various techniques, plus the coordination of breath and movement. In addition, breath control can be useful during times of stress or anxiety, such as test-taking, public speaking, conflict resolution or other emotionally-charged times (parents of ‘tweens and teens, take note!).
7. Focus, attention, and mind control. Going along with the breathwork, martial arts study requires serious concentration and focus. Narrowing the focus to precise movement is great practice for any task requiring sustained attention, and studies have shown that martial arts can be especially helpful to children with attention disorders (ADD/ADHD).
8. Self-esteem, confidence and self-respect. Working toward a goal and achieving it, teaching others, learning difficult skills and being recognized for hard work all build a child’s sense of competence in the world. The ability of a strong martial arts instructor to instill this sense shouldn’t be underestimated, and neither should the importance of these qualities in a growing one’s life.
9. Physical safety and empowerment against bullies. For any child unsure of his or her physical prowess, martial arts can be a game-changer. Learning to harness muscular strength and control gives anyone an advantage in uncomfortable situations, whether real or perceived. Certain martial disciplines also teach peaceful conflict resolution (sounds contradictory, but it’s a deep part of the tradition!), which can bolster a kid’s confidence around bullies. It can also give a child the power he or she needs to avoid becoming the bully, since there’s little left to prove.
10. Mind-body link, mindful action, eating and more. Just like dance, yoga, and other physical disciplines, martial arts enhances the mind-body connection. It benefits both body and mind to stay connected, in ways that science doesn’t fully understand even today. The practice of calming and focusing the mind can pay off in the kitchen, helping kids stop the blind foraging or sugar bingeing to think carefully about why and what they’re eating. It can help him or her get to the root of moods and emotions, by zeroing in on the mind’s path. Mindful action also helps us enjoy life’s little pleasures a bit more, and even find new ones.
11. Memory and retention. Students of martial arts memorize complex sequences of movement and must prepare to perform them for promotion tests. They also memorize accompanying words in both English and the language of the art form (Korean, Japanese, Chinese, etc.). Together, this learning activates and coordinates various parts of the brain, which make it stronger and faster for all kinds of learning.
12. Teamwork and sportsmanship. While it may look like students on the mat are practicing and performing alone, a closer look shows you that a quality master teaches students to encourage one another and direct positive energy to students being tested. In-class sparring requires the cooperation of two students to perform pretty complicated drills – and without such cooperation, people could get hurt or miss out on rank advancement. In competition, group scores hinge on the performance of a team, not just individuals.
When considering lessons, check that your dojo is led by a certified instructor. Avoid places that boast many young black-belts, since they may forgo quality instruction for belt advancement. Likewise, the number and size of tournaments the school attends are less important than the teacher-student ratio, teaching style, and your comfort level with the studio. Finally, look for a dojo that offers at least one observation or trial class – a few, such as Atlanta’s United Tae Kwon Do, will even offer several trial classes to ensure a good fit – and a payment option/contract period that works for you.