THE BLOG

The Transforming Power of Martial Arts For Children

05/21/2010 11:26 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

After twenty years of teaching martial arts to students from age three to eighty, I have observed that the benefits to every age has been nothing less than astonishing! Some include control of aggressive behavior and the gain of self-respect, self-control, self-defense, self esteem, focus, confidence, and courtesy. As an additional benefit, the child will also excel in other athletic endeavors. Martial arts training gives your son or daughter the chance to strengthen in mind as well as body. It encompasses not just the physical aspect of the "sport", but mental and emotional lessons as well.

Comparing that to other youth activities and sports, where fierce competitiveness and "winning at all costs" seems to be the order of the day, it's not surprising that many children grapple with issues of self-esteem and misplaced aggression.

The martial arts style that a child adopts should be influenced by the parents. It will of course be convenient if the child can practice with, or at least in the same school as, the parents. Crucial to the success of the program, is the integrity and trustworthiness of the teacher and the school. Check out their qualifications, training philosophies and watch carefully how they interact with the children. Just because someone is an accomplished martial artist, doesn't mean they have acquired the gift of teaching it to children in a healthy way. It should be a fun learning experience!

The joints and connective tissues of children are more vulnerable to injury than those of adults. Keep this in mind when selecting a style and school for a child, and discuss it with the instructor. Schools which allow aggressive joint locks to be applied to children or don't train them to refrain from snapping/hyper-extending elbows on strikes and knees on kicks should be avoided. (It is for this same reason that good baseball coaches will not allow young pitchers to throw pitches which require hard snapping of the arm - like curve balls). Throws, however, are quite different; the small size of children makes them naturals for arts which require falling down.

In truth any art can be taught in a manner which promotes any of these things.To select the appropriate styles, look at three things:

A. The basics of the style (what does it teach, what is it used for)
B. The skill and the teaching style of the teacher
C. The purpose and the logistics of the school

At the beginning of every class I always talk with my students about how Kung Fu is truly a peaceful art; whenever possible it's always best to walk or run away from a fight and go tell a teacher or parent .The rule is that it only should be applied if one is in serious danger. If they practiced it on family, friends, animals, that would result in being banned from the class. That worked wonders! Bullies learned about control/discipline and not to "act out" due to having a healthy outlet for their stress, anger and issues to be healed and released in a peaceful environment.

Children who are bullied also benefit tremendously and become empowered. One of my students was a six year old girl. Three boys came around to bully her and no adults were around to help. She surprised the boys when she used her roundhouse kick to defend herself. She then chased them away and they ran for their lives! There was a story on the news recently about an eleven year old girl who encountered a predator while walking home from school. She had been studying martial arts and automatically gave him a hard kick to the groin, which enabled her plenty of time to get to safety.

I noticed many parents would enroll their children that struggled with Attention Deficit Disorder (A.D.D.) into my class, which always proved to be more than a handful in the beginning.When they saw the other children joyfully participating, they would become inspired and start to watch closely. They learned quickly that by paying attention they would be able to participate and then would be beaming with good feelings. Add to that the positive feedback they gained, plus this new confidence and ability to focus starts to carry over into their school work, at home and with other activities.

A study written by Gregory Lichtenthal entitled "How Can Martial Arts Benefit the Disabled" confirms what I have observed for many years. "Another disability taekwondo has found to be helpful for is children diagnosed with ADHD or ADD. There has been much research over the past decade regarding ADD (Dunlap). Children stricken with this disorder may appear unorganized, and may have difficulty following instructions or directions (Dunlap). "Increasingly, more and more professionals are recommending that these children become involved in a martial arts program. For many children with Attention Deficit Disorder, the dojang provides the ideal place to increase attention span, decrease distraction, develop motor and behavioral control, improve self-esteem, and build positive peer relationships" (Dunlap).

Dr. Dunlap is a Certified School Psychologist and as a taekwondo instructor, she frequently recommends martial art for children with A.D.D. She tells parents some ways to enhance the positive benefits that taekwondo can bring. First, do not punish the child by withholding taekwondo class. Second, be consistent in making sure the child attends every class on a regular schedule. Third, have a consistent place for gear storage. "At its highest and best, taekwondo not only improves the physical skills of the practitioner but, also, elevates both the mind and the spirit" (Dunlap)."

Once you have checked out the instructor and are confident that your child is in good hands, get ready to let go! I find that for the child to make good progress, it's best when the parents do not watch the class. Usually when they observe, I would immediately feel the whole energy of the class change. The intense focus and connection I had with the children would be broken because they now felt the pressure to perform. Without the parents present, they would feel the freedom to transform into a better version of themselves. What was also interesting is that the shy ones that cried for their parents, would shine once the parent left. If the parent stayed, they would keep running over to them, which would disrupt the entire class. I would be happy to have the child demonstrate to the parents after class what they learned and they would be surprised and overjoyed with the results!