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The Benefits of Martial Arts for Kids

Experts weigh in on the physical and metal benefits of the sport.

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Suzanne Kocaj, the mother of two, enrolled her kids in martial arts classes after witnessing how her 9-year-old son’s energy level was affecting his performance in school. “We wanted both our boys to learn something useful, something that would last a lifetime,” she says. “To some, martial arts might equal fighting and an inability to control oneself, but you”ll find that it’s quite the opposite.”

The practice of martial arts reaches far beyond methods of self-defense and fitness. Kocaj came to realize that martial arts could teach self-control, discipline, respect for oneself and all living things. “It is a practice of meditation, implementing healthy eating and sleeping habits, being one with nature, mentally and physically pushing oneself and realizing that growth and potential are endless,” she says. For kids, it’s an excellent activity to grow both the body and the mind.

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More Active and Physically Fit

Grand Master Tiger Kim, the owner of Tiger Kim’s Academy in Denver, says martial arts builds strength, flexibility and stamina, and also trains your body to defend and protect itself. “Taekwondo in particular is a high impact workout with a lot of emphasis on the use of legs and kicking,” he says. “It also provides beneficial cardio exercises that help keep children physically fit.”

Cynthia LaBella, M.D., chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness says that “in this day and age, there is so much time spent sitting and using electronic devices, and martial arts is a good way to get kids more physically active and fit, and help them develop healthy exercise habits that will last a lifetime.”

Greater Self-Confidence

Many martial arts programs have multiple belts that students must earn, and “earning these belts requires hard work,” says Kenny Overby, co-founder of ATA Family Martial Arts (ATAFMA). He says that often times new students focus on earning belts as a visual sign of their success, but as they move through the ranks the expectations slowly increase at a rate that naturally teaches patience and confidence. “It’s wonderful to watch students self esteem sky rocket when they work hard for a goal and accomplish it.”

Everyone starts with a white belt and progresses to different colors throughout their training, ultimately ending with a black belt. In order to reach a new belt level, they have to stand in front of their instructors, peers and parents, and show everyone what they”ve learned.

Kim says the belt ranking system gives children both short and long term goals to strive for in their training and skill building. “Having growth interval and recognition of accomplishments at each rank level can help keep an individual motivated and focused,” he says. “It creates a foundation for self-confidence that spills over into other areas of their lives.”

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Increased Self-Discipline and Respect

Ask any martial artist and he”ll tell you that body, mind and spirit are all equally important in the practice. Kim says taekwondo can be mentally challenging and demanding to learn and develop the skills and techniques, yet “having a positive attitude and willingness to work hard takes belief in oneself and dedication found through one’s emotional and spiritual self.”

For 21-year-old Madeline Spencer, a black belt and devotee to martial arts since the age of 4, martial arts has been an integral part of her development as a human being. “From a very young age I was taught discipline and respect. I developed a sense of self-worth and self-esteem that many of my peers did not have,” she says.

At Tiger Kim’s Academy, children learn the capabilities of their bodies and how to be in control of their actions, including listening to and respecting others. “Children are taught to show respect from the minute they walk in the door by bowing to their Grand Master, Master, black belts and each other,” says Kim. “They are also taught the importance of other good manners for use both inside and outside the dojang (martial arts studio).”

Increased Ability to Focus

There’s a structure to each martial arts class—usually beginning with a warm-up and then practicing basic fundamentals, skills and techniques—and it’s one that can be highly beneficial for children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

“In individuals with attention disorders, regulating their reactions and/or impulses can be difficult,” according to Judith Adamo, Ph.D. “Some parents have found it extremely helpful to enroll their children in disciplined activities such as the martial arts. These activities incorporate both mental and physical discipline. It is through this type of experience that, over time, the children may learn to internalize the control that is necessary to carry out life’s activities.”

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In martial arts, you have to memorize a lot of steps and forms, and you can’t do that if you aren’t focused. It’s this repetition and consistency that can help children with ADHD. “It’s a very physical activity that helps them burn that extra energy and release tension in their bodies and minds,” says Kim. “Following a structured regimen can help them focus and gain self- control because they learn what is expected of them and embrace a consistent routine.”

What’s a Good Age to Start?

Starting ages vary, depending on the school, but many kids begin practicing martial arts as early as age 4 or 5. Overby suggests that parents and instructors carefully evaluate a student’s ability to focus and enjoy class, and if a student is too young, try again later. “There’s no point in turning a child off of martial arts because they were not quite ready,” he says.

The early stages of training are very basic and fundamental, and as LaBella says, ‘the focus is on self-discipline and building self-esteem, as well as developing basic coordination. The instructors generally make it fun at this age—using games to keep the kids interested.”

Families Practicing Together

Some parents are so inspired by their children’s progress and growth through martial arts, that they themselves begin to practice. “It’s one of the few sports where parents can train right alongside their children,” says Kim, who often sees families taking classes together.

As the saying goes, ‘the family who kicks together, sticks together,” and many parents agree. Cathy LoDuca began practicing Taekwondo with her 9-year-old son three years ago after witnessing his mental and physical success. They often take class together or find themselves working together on skills at home. “For me, I’m grateful for this opportunity to connect with my son in a different way, and for him to observe my own challenges,” she says. “I enjoy the fact that my son is higher in rank than I am, because he often helps me with what I’m learning and feels a great sense of accomplishment from showing mom something.”

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TYPES OF CLASSES

Your child can study a wide variety of martial arts classes. Here is a brief description of each style.

TAEKWONDO a Korean martial art known for its emphasis on sophisticated kicking techniques. It’s one of the more popular forms of martial arts in the U.S. and is also a full medal Olympic sport.

KARATE a Japanese martial art that stresses striking techniques such as punching and kicking.

KUNG FU a Chinese martial art, similar to Karate, which uses strength, low stances and powerful blocks.

JUDO a Japanese form of martial arts that’s taught as a competitive sport, in which one learns to throw opponents to the ground, similar to wrestling.

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JUJITSU a Japanese form of self-defense in which one learns to use their opponent’s weight and strength as a weapon against them.

AIKIDO a Japanese martial art, similar to Jujitsu, which uses the opponent’s movements and force against them.

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