Martial arts can help your children become physically fit, while also helping kids to focus mentally.
Published: January 31, 2019
By: Bart A. Stump
Are you looking for a great way for your children to gain strength, increase flexibility, improve endurance, sharpen concentration, acquire self-confidence, learn discipline, and make new friends? If you answered yes, you should do what we did with our daughters, enroll them in a martial arts program. Are the Martial Arts Right for Your Child?
When we first considered starting the girls our big question was, why should children practice the martial arts? Master Lili Rehak, an instructor with the Pan-Am Tang Soo Do Federation, explains. “Confidence. Many children are shy, awkward and the like. When they have to put themselves out there in martial arts, being out on the floor, learning and performing, going to tournaments and competing, going through the testing process, this all serves to make a child much more confident in themselves. If they can accomplish all of the above, there is no limit to what they can do in other aspects of their lives.”
Brock Kollars of Greystone Tiger-Rock Martial Arts says martial arts benefits children by developing them physically, mentally and emotionally. “By providing them with a structured and disciplined outlet for their energy, martial arts shapes the way kids see themselves and the world around them.”
Googling “martial arts” will result in dozens of primarily Asian forms such as Aikido, Ju-Jitsu, Judo, Kung Fu, Tae Kwon Do, Tai Chi, and Tang Soo Do. These styles originated in China, Japan, and Korea. One of the most popular martial arts is karate, which originated on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Karate means “empty hand” because the practitioner primarily uses his or her bare hands and feet and the name has become synonymous with many similar styles of martial arts.
So, how do you get started? First, find a style and school that interests your family and shop around, asking questions about pricing, contracts, commitment of time and money, etc. Kollars’ martial arts program has a $38 introductory course that provides three Tiger-Rock lessons, an “on-the-mat” training uniform and a performance evaluation that maps out the individual goals for your child. “After this intro course, our memberships are month-to-month transactions (no year-long contracts),” Kollars adds.
“Finding the quality of facility, quantity and skill sets of instructors and progression of curriculum for students is so important,” says Master Justin Scarsella of World Class Tae Kwon Do in Birmingham. “Students can gain both tangible and intangible skills from martial arts like focus, confidence, fitness, self-defense skills and belts. When students find the right school, they also gain from finding a community for them to grow in with role models for them, and for them to be future role models.” Many schools will allow you to watch a class to see if you’re interested and offer introductory classes to try it out.
Are the Martial Arts Right for Your Child?
Our family was nervous but excited when the girls slipped into their white uniforms and tied on their belts for the first time. Our parental anxiety was lessened knowing that classes were broken down by age groups: younger children, older children, and teens/adults.
Typical classes consist of stretching, learning terminology in the native language of the style, studying the history of that particular style, and practicing a variety of hand and kick techniques. Different punches, kicks, and blocks are incorporated to create various combinations and forms. Advanced forms are very fluid and graceful, taking on the appearance of choreographed dance.
Melissa Whelan, whose son Jonathan, 13, has been practicing the martial arts for six years, says he has benefitted in multiple ways. “It has built his self-esteem and patience. It’s good exercise. Jonathan’s balance, flexibility and muscle tone have all improved. It’s also good for his brain. Memorizing the combinations and forms gives him confidence and practice which helps him with his school work.
“Additionally he has made a lot of friends and relationships he may not have otherwise,” Whelan adds. “As he reaches the higher belts he has a sense of achievement and accomplishment. He has also been helping some of the lower belts during class. Teaching is one of the best ways to learn.”
One of the more dynamic aspects of the martial arts is practice fighting called sparring. Depending on the style practiced, points are scored for light punches to the torso and controlled kicks to the head and torso or the ability to throw or take your opponent to the ground. “Sparring is not about teaching your child to beat someone up,” says Master Dan Hyson, owner of Maryland Tang Soo Do. “It’s about the practical application of learned techniques and improving hand/eye coordination.”
Watching the girls spar for the first time was a bit nerve wracking but sparring can be compared to playing chess; one needs to know the proper time to attack or retreat and which attack or defense to use for maximum effect. Protective equipment including a mouth guard, dipped foam helmet, gloves, and boots, a groin cup for males, and possibly a padded chest protector are worn due to the physical contact involved.
Another exciting skill that might be practiced is breaking. Typically pine boards are broken using a variety of hand and kick techniques. Advanced students might do multiple board breaks or break pieces of cement or bricks. Breaking is not just about brute force; it’s about speed, focus, technique, and confidence.
In addition, certain schools may offer training in different weapons, where beginners often start out with plastic, wooden or padded practice weapons before advancing to the real items.
More advanced students might also practice self-defense techniques where they learn to avoid or block attacks and have an effective counterattack. They may also learn to escape grabs and chokeholds and put the attacker on the defensive. Advanced students may learn how to disarm or subdue weapon-wielding opponents.
To demonstrate one’s progress, a student must pass periodic tests. Many schools show advancement with progressively darker colored belts ranging from a beginner’s white belt up through an advanced student’s black belt. Higher ranked students often help instruct lower ranked students. Another way to test one’s skills is to compete in tournaments.
While the martial arts will get your children physically fit, they also help kids focus mentally. One needs to concentrate on remembering the correct terminology and sequence of moves as well as applying the proper techniques in the appropriate situation. The martial arts are also about the proper outlook. It’s not about learning how to fight. It’s about having the confidence not to fight but knowing how to defend oneself if need be. It is also about learning discipline and showing respect.
Regardless of the style of martial arts your children practice, they will gain a better understanding of a different culture and its history. They will also strengthen their bodies and minds, gain confidence, learn new skills, acquire discipline, make new friends, and have fun. When asked to sum up the benefits of the martial arts, George Wehby II, an instructor at Lion Heart Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Birmingham replied, “learning how to set goals, focus on a growth process, delay gratifications and strive toward a vision.”
But the martial arts aren’t just for the kids. Parents can enjoy all of the above benefits too. The martial arts are a great family activity that you can learn together.
Bart Stump of York, PA is a middle school history teacher. He has been practicing Tang Soo Do for seven years and is a 2nd Dan black belt. His daughters Beth and Janel have also earned their black belts.