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Photos: Lucy Beaugard.

Are Martial Arts the Ultimate After-School Activity?

An age-old practice offers kids (and parents) emotional support and connection.

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Last fall, Julius Shelton’s parents were worried about him. The springtime COVID-19-induced lockdowns had been very hard on his social and emotional wellbeing. Then, in May, Julius was mauled by a dog, an event that “took away some of his innocence and taught him that the world isn’t always a safe place,” his mother, Jordan, says. When school started in August, the fourth-grader stood up to a bully on behalf of a friend; he took a fist to the chin as a result. “He was sad and sullen and didn’t have that spark we knew,” Jordan says.

So Julius’ parents devised a plan: Get their 10-year-old back into martial arts, specifically Muay Thai and jiu jitsu. Julius had studied jiu jitsu on and off since he was younger. His parents thought the practices might be the help he needed to regulate his emotions and regain his confidence. They enrolled him at Easton Training Center in Arvada for one-hour classes Monday through Thursday.

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“The transformation has been incredible,” Jordan says. “He’s blossomed again; his light is back. [Martial arts] gave him the confidence of knowing he can handle a problem, whether it’s a bully or a dog or any other issue.” His instructors stress that practitioners should not go looking for a fight, Jordan adds, but they are capable of taking care of themselves if something comes up.

For millennia, martial arts have been a source of not only physical strengthening but also mental and emotional fortification. For these reasons, many parents today find martial arts—karate, judo, taekwondo—to be nearly ideal after-school activities. Kids are facing fresh challenges in the 21st century, including bullying driven by digital media, reduced playtime outside, and, of course, the social-emotional cost of a pandemic. “So much of what I teach at home, Julius also hears at Easton’s,” Jordan says. “They talk about self-control, accountability for yourself and your actions, and how to treat others with respect. There are so many benefits [to martial arts].”

The Family Practice

What’s more, martial arts provide opportunities for families to practice together and, in some cases, for parents and their children to take the same classes. (You only have to imagine trying to join a Little League practice or tiny tots ballet class to appreciate this option.)

Ross Kedl and his 11-year-old daughter, Nora, take taekwondo together at the United Martial Arts Center in Centennial. Nora started first—about a year before her dad, who joined when the center had a June promotion that allowed fathers to come for the month for free. A little more than a year later, the pair still takes classes together twice a week. They partner up on drills and prepare together for belt tests, at which they demonstrate their mastery of various skills in order to be promoted to the next level of practice.

Nora says classes make her feel “regulated and happy.” In addition, “there’s an athleticism to taekwondo that I appreciate and enjoy,” says Ross, who used to be a diver and gymnast. He points out that there are physical forms and poses in martial arts that are very dance-like, and he catches Nora wandering through the house sometimes breaking out into those forms. “I see her using those movements to calm herself, both at home and in class.”

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Both Kedls heartily endorse martial arts as a family activity. “There are very few things you can do with your kids when you have a 40-year age difference,” Ross says. “It’s really wonderful to have an activity to do together.” Nora reports that she likes having her dad in class. “We’ll probably do this for a long time,” she says. “We’re going to get to a black belt.”

Parents can also help in their children’s classes, as is the case for Krista Muddle. A program manager with the National Park Service and mom to nine-year-old Sebastian and six-year-old Ariella, Krista practices several martial arts with her children, including kung fu, bagua, tai chi, aikido, and kong soo do. “My kids have confidence that they can do hard things, not because someone told them they could but because they’ve experienced it,” she says. “They couldn’t do a cartwheel and then, one day, they could.” Plus, she says, because part of learning martial arts is learning to respect teachers and accept instruction, “doing this together makes my kids look up to me in a new way.”

Muddle says she is a clearer-minded, stronger person—she’s in better shape now than when she used to run marathons. But she’s most excited about martial arts because of what she sees happening in Sebastian and Ariella. “I know my kids are learning to be good, responsible, disciplined human beings,” Muddle says. “In a world of instant gratification, martial arts teach patience and discipline. I would have signed [my kids] up right away if I had known it would benefit them this much.”

Meet The Martial Arts

There are hundreds of martial arts practiced throughout the world, so while this list is far from exhaustive; it’s a place to start when considering which practice might be best for your children. Ask your martial arts academy about the best age to start children, or what developmental milestones they need to achieve before enrolling. Look for complimentary trial classes before making a larger commitment of time and money.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ): Predominantly focused on ground combat, BJJ focuses on teaching practitioners “submissions,” or techniques on how to leverage the body and manipulate an opponent’s joints to subdue them. It can look similar to wrestling.

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Judo: In 1964, Judo became an early modern martial art in the Olympics. Japanese in origin, its objective is to use an opponent’s force against them through quick movements and, again, leverage.

Taekwondo: With roots in Korean culture and history, taekwondo teaches physical fighting skills that rely heavily on dynamic, rapid footwork and kicks. With the practice comes a philosophy of peace-keeping among people and harmony of body and mind. Taekwondo became an official Olympic medal sport at the 2000 Sydney Games.

Karate: A Japanese martial art whose name translates to “empty hand,” karate is an art of self-defense that uses kicking, striking, and defensive blocks. Its teaching also emphasizes the development of mental and moral strength.

Muay Thai: Also known as “Thai boxing,” this practice emphasizes close-combat fighting skills, both offensive and defensive, taught in conjunction with self-control. Muay Thai has become a foundational practice for many fighters in mixed martial arts (MMA).

Tai Chi: This Chinese practice teaches slow, choreographed movements and postures, accompanied by breathing techniques. Because it requires a lot of patience, it might be best for older children and teens, and it provides a fantastic “detox” from too much screen time.

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