Martial Arts for Kids
This is a subject that I feel quite comfortable talking about. I am a second degree black belt and, for a short time, I owned my own academy where I taught 130 students 6 days a week. We offered Karate and Muay Thai. I taught Karate to kids and to adults. I was proud of what we accomplished, from a small business perspective, but I was more proud of what we were doing for the kids. I saw all sorts of kids come in, and they almost all had the same goals, or their parents did. They wanted a constructive, educational, athletic, confidence building after school activity. That’s what I gave them. My main goal as a teacher was to develop their bodies and minds and to make them into people who had the self confidence to defend themselves when needed. Adults who took my classes did it for two reasons. They either wanted to get fit or they wanted to learn how to fight. Kids took the class because their parents wanted them to learn discipline and have self confidence. Fighting, confidence, fitness and discipline are the four goals anybody should have when studying a martial art, child or adult.
What Martial Art is Right?
There is no martial art that is inherently better than another. If we remember our goals, fighting, confidence, fitness and discipline, we’ll see that any martial art will do the trick. It is more a matter of where to start rather than which one is best. I started with karate, and I enjoyed it. Then I learned about Muay Thai, and I studied that, and I added knowledge to what I already knew. Then I discovered Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and I practiced at that for a while, and I became even more knowledgeable. It really isn’t about which art kicks more ass; that will come in time. It’s about starting a learning process. There is a running debate over which arts are the best. The art that is most en vogue right now is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I agree that it is an excellent martial art. Karate and other stand up martial arts are excellent fighting styles, in their own right, that take many years to master. By tradition most of them emphasize extreme discipline and concentration; and although it’s an overlooked trait, that is the core of what makes a great fighter, discipline and attention to detail. Every movement needs to be perfect, and our muscles need to work in exactly the way we want them to work. Bruce Lee was probably the most complete martial artist ever. He started with Wing Chun Kung Fu and progressed through just about every martial art known at the time. He even studied western style Boxing. That’s how our kids need to be too. They need to explore and to always learn. We should not think about martial arts being better or worse than one another because in the end we should all end up with the similar levels of understanding. Some kids will start with Wrestling because that’s what works for them. Other kids will start with Karate, and that will work fine too.
What Age to Start?
4 and 5 years old is too young in most cases. 7 to 8 years old is usually just right. Little kids do not have the ability to concentrate for long enough periods of time to make studying a martial art effective. Kids who are a little older might still have concentration issues, but their brains are wired better to take instruction. 7 year olds are at a perfect age where they can take discipline and learn concentration. Their bodies are also more coordinated, which makes repetition less frustrating for them; usually the younger kids get discouraged because their bodies will not do what is demanded of them. For a younger kid I would recommend gymnastics because it will teach them body control and discipline without the extra burden of a strict learning environment. As an instructor, if I had decided to teach 4 and 5 year olds, I would have had to have a separate class where the demands were less. It would have been more fun than a regular class, and much less intense. Some schools offer that. I did not. It’s something to look into when searching for a school. Integrated classes don’t work.
Karate and Tae Kwon Do (referring to a variety of kicking and punching arts from Japan and Korea respectively) are the two most common styles studied by kids in the United States. They are of great benefit, especially to kids, because of their focus on discipline and concentration. Parents who have difficulty controlling their children will probably want to start them with a traditional martial art that has a strong master/student emphasis. Focus and concentration are the building blocks for all martial arts. Martial arts in general are exercises in strategy. The stand up traditional arts teach strategy and focus by means of rote memorization and repetition. There is value in that approach for kids who don’t concentrate well or need an extra push for motivation. A good master will force his students to succeed because he knows that success breeds confidence. It’s much like boot camp. Recruits go into it with little discipline, get abused for 12 weeks and leave with huge smiles on their faces thanking their drill instructors – the ones who abused them. That’s how the traditional arts work too. They break students down to build them up stronger. Some examples of Traditional Stand up Arts are Aikido, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu (about 25 different kinds), and Muay Thai.
The Ground based martial arts focus on technique in much the same way as the more traditional arts except that there are no forms (pre-planned training steps) and there is less emphasis on a master/student relationship. They are better arts for the self motivated types as they rely on students supporting each other to achieve mutual growth. I took only a few months of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but what I found was that the relationship between student and instructor is much less rigid. While there is still deference paid to the master, students do not see him as a disciplinarian. Students are expected to perform on their own accord. The master is simply there for guidance and tuning. I don’t know much about Greco-Roman Wrestling, Judo and Japanese Jiu-Jitsu so I might be wrong. My impression, though, through my limited experience, is that the ground arts require a great deal of internal drive. The goal with both ground based and stand-up arts is the same. They build self confidence and teach an art that has practical application in fighting.
Let’s face it, martial arts are primarily intended to teach people how to fight. Many parents want to take their kids to martial arts as something to do after school without thinking through what martial arts are actually intended for. Kids walking into my class can expect a few things. I expect them to work hard by practicing to perfection. The whole reason parents want their kids to take a martial art is because they want their kids to gain a skill that is worth knowing and that they can be proud of. That pride, in turn, breeds the self confidence to be able to face daily problems. The strength, coordination, and strategy involved with martial arts are perfect vehicles for accomplishing that end. If I were to be easy on the kids by accepting less than perfect outcome then I would not be a good teacher.
Knowing which martial art to start with is important. If a child needs a more rigid class environment then I would suggest any of the traditional stand up arts. Muay Thai and Karate are equally acceptable options. If a kid is already self motivated and a good listener then I might suggest one of the more recently developed ground based martial arts. The work involved in mastery is just as challenging. The approach is different, that’s all. As kids grow and learn they will be attracted to other arts and disciplines. Any complete martial artist does not limit him/her self to a single art. In the end our goal is the same. We want kids who are fit, disciplined, self confident, and who are able to solve their problems – hopefully without the use of force.