Martial Arts For Munchkins

Lessons for life beyond the dojo

Martial Arts For Munchkins

Your kids can be more fit, calm, and disciplined, and less aggressive. Impossible? It's totally possible when they practise a martial art.

Despite the modern conveniences that kids enjoy, childhood today isn’t any easier than it was for their parents. Mainstream media often paints a bleak picture of youth, with reports of childhood obesity, ADHD, and bullying. What if there was something that could change that, courtesy of your local dojo?

Although martial arts are often associated with fighting and violence, given its prominence in movies, video games, and events such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), that’s only one side of it. For kids, martial arts can fill gaps in physical activity, curtail health and behavioural problems, and even reduce the amount of violence among youth.

Strengthening the body

Inactivity is one of several contributors to childhood obesity, which often leads to many other issues, such as long-term health problems into adulthood and lowered self-esteem. Children today are considerably less active than their 1970s counterparts, who were more likely to walk to school and weren’t as absorbed in electronic entertainment.

The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend adults get 150 minutes of physical activity per week, while for children the recommended amount of exercise is almost triple—60 minutes per day (420 minutes per week). But, according to the Active Healthy Kids Canada 2013 report card, 40 percent of Canadian kids are getting 180 minutes per week or less—less than half of the recommended amount.

Regular and consistent martial arts training can go a long way toward filling the widening gap in physical activity in which active play is supplanted by time spent in front of a screen. This can apply to most extracurricular team sports, but in terms of total caloric expenditure, a student training in martial arts can burn off 10 to 20 percent more calories per hour than playing football or basketball.

Joseph Ash, tae kwon do teacher, studio owner, and author of Martial Arts Unlocked (Advantage Media Group, 2013), points out another advantage of martial arts over traditional team sports: “More often than not, traditional sport programs cater to the more elite athlete that can score more. There are no benchwarmers in martial arts.”

In addition to improved physical benefits and inclusion, martial arts are often safer than other sports. A 2009 literature review suggests that, despite the potentially dangerous skills learned in martial arts, it is safer than football and basketball, attributing this advantage to proper instruction and a controlled training environment.

Sharpening the mind

Martial arts are good for the developing mind and can be beneficial to children who have disciplinary problems at school or have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). A 2012 study evaluating a specialized 20-week martial arts program that incorporated meditation and cognitive behavioural therapy found that youth aged 12 to 18 who were diagnosed with learning disabilities (some with ADHD or anxiety problems) showed improvement in social skills, attentiveness, and decreased anxiety levels.

Other studies show more significant improvement in young boys than in girls who study martial arts, which may be notable as boys are three times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. Study authors suggest more research should be undertaken to confirm the use of martial arts as a treatment for ADHD, however.

While martial arts instill fighting and combat skills, a two-year study of 14 karate students and nine judo students (all boys aged 10) reported no increase in levels of aggression and, in the case of the nine judo students, found a decrease in anger levels. The study authors suggest this might be due to the practice of meditation and kata (choreographed movement sequences), common features of many martial arts.

Building character

In addition to encouraging movement, calming the mind, and curbing aggression, martial arts instruction can play a role in reducing bullying, which goes beyond teaching a child how to fight back.

A 2008 study evaluated a martial arts-based intervention program known as The Gentle Warrior, which not only reduced aggressive tendencies in the elementary school-aged participants but also improved the behaviour of bystanders, who were more likely to aid victims of bullying, rather than condone it through inaction.

Martial arts can be vital in shaping the leaders of tomorrow. “Martial arts programs are excellent at actually teaching life skills rather than just sport skills,” says Ash. “The ultimate goal of martial arts schools [should] not be to produce the next world champion, but to produce the best possible people who can benefit the world.”

Finding a martial arts teacher

Locating a good martial arts teacher generally isn’t as easy as checking Google or asking the Asian maintenance man if he knows kung fu. Joseph Ash has some recommendations to help find the one right for your children.

1. What is the school’s focus?

This includes what you are learning in class (such as weapons or sparring) and its applications (such as training for competition). “Your search should always start with that and how you want to benefit from your martial arts education,” says Ash.

2. When was the school established?

Schools with longer histories can indicate experience and reputation. “That doesn’t exclude newer schools,” says Ash. “Some of them can be great as well.”

3. Who’s teaching classes?

Experience levels can vary from being one who primarily teaches to the highest ranked student, but this isn’t the only indicator of quality instruction. “A teacher’s rank has some value, but just because they are a champion or a 10th degree black belt doesn’t mean they can teach,” says Ash.

4. What about cleanliness and safety?

“These are big indicators,” says Ash. “All my staff are first aid-certified, all my training rooms are professionally matted, and our training equipment is well kept and current.”

5. How much will it cost?

Apart from regular class fees, a martial arts school can charge for uniforms, testing, and equipment, and more things that may not be optional. “These are not always presented up front, and when they come up people oftentimes feel they are being nickel and dimed,” says Ash. “Some schools use a fee sheet that covers investment points throughout a period of time.”

The world of martial arts

Martial arts come from all around the world, mostly from Asia, although forms from other areas are becoming popular. Finding one for your children largely depends on their interests. This is a short list, as there are many distinct forms and variants. Do your research: observe a class, ask parents about their children’s experiences, and take a free trial lesson if it is offered by your prospective teacher.

Martial art Place of origin Overview
capoeira Brazil Originally developed by slaves during the 1700s as a means of survival and rebellion, capoeira incorporates music, acrobatics, dance, and combat techniques, emphasizing the “art” in martial arts.
jiu-jitsu Japan Jiu-jitsu focuses on immobilizing opponents and redirecting attacks, allowing a smaller person to defend against a larger opponent.
karate Japan Due to its popularity, the word “karate” is largely synonymous with martial arts practice in general, although it has its own unique traditions.
kung fu China Kung fu is synonymous with Chinese martial arts, although there are dozens of distinct forms, such as tai chi chuan, wing chun, and hung gar.
tae kwon do Korea Practised for self-defence and competitive sport, tae kwon do is distinctive for its emphasis on kicks.

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