Martial Arts: Benefits Beyond Exercise

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Rambunctious kids need an outlet for all of that energy! Whether you choose tae kwon do, Brazilian jiu-jitsu or any other form of martial arts, kids stand to gain a lot from area programs.

Six-year-olds can leap into the air without a moment’s warning sending moms into a panic not only for their child’s safety but also for their living room lamps. In order to spare your household treasures, why not channel all of your child’s energy into a martial arts class?

Martial arts provide an excellent way for kids to achieve fitness and focus, self-discipline and socialization skills. Plenty of parents with kids who are overly physical have reported great success with programs that involve self-control and concentration.

While all types of martial arts are not the same, a typical hour-long class begins and ends with discipline: a bow to the teacher, or master. After a warm-up, students practice the art’s particular skills, which may include kicks, punches and blocks. Each requires strict concentration and attention for accuracy.

Progress in martial arts is often marked by the belt system which takes the beginner from a white belt through a variety of colors until black. Testing for each new level — generally every two or three months — is a good exercise in setting and achieving goals.

So when is a good time to start a program that yields all of this healthy self-discipline for your child?

“Six is the age I highly recommend,” says Jack Stevens Jr., owner and master instructor of Stevens Family Tae Kwon Do in Murfreesboro. “There are a great deal of schools that will start them as young as 2 or 3, but the problem is that a lot of those programs are game oriented. When you try to move from that type of program to one that is much more structured, kids do not transition well.”

At David Deaton Karate Studios (with locations in Hendersonville, Mt. Juliet and Brentwood), the Little Dragons program begins accepting children at age 4. Deaton, who has taught in the area since 1970, has honed his curriculum to reach children with both the physical, mental and attitudinal aspects of martial arts. Kids in Deaton’s programs acquire focus, self-discipline, a respect for authority, confidence and self-control. His aim is for parents to partner with instructors in teaching students self-discipline by example. The three potent parent tips rigorously enforced at David Deaton are:

• Always, always do what you say you are going to do.
• Show your children the effects of self-discipline and the effect of lack of self-discipline: Be on the lookout for the way people live their lives. Look for people who are successful as a result of self-discipline  — and those who are not.
• Paint an exciting future for your children. Encourage your kids to dream big.

Martial arts instruction can be a powerful, positive force in the lives of children because it helps them develop physical strength, coordination and overall fitness; and enhances their self-esteem and social skills.

But that’s not all.

“The benefits are much greater than just exercise,” says Stevens. “Unfortunately, our society is flooded with followers, a learned characteristic usually picked up during the school age years. Children that do not possess a strong sense of self-confidence will often allow others to dictate what they think, say, wear and all too often, what their futures will eventually become,” Stevens adds. “My goal is to use the training to help children obtain the confidence and skills to overcome peer pressure, ultimately helping them to become future leaders.”

Plenty of times when parents are deciding about a sport for their child they lean toward the obvious, like soccer or t-ball, steering away from martial arts thinking it may promote violence.

“This is a common misconception,” says Jose Luis Salazar, owner and instructor at Legacy Kickboxing & Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Old Hickory. “In fact, martial arts teaches the complete opposite. A teacher shares his knowledge with his students in hopes that they’ll never have to use it. Martial arts is taught for self-defense purposes, to keep you from being a victim to a bully, attacker, mugger, etc. What surprises people most is that the core teaching of martial arts is to resolve conflicts in a non-violent manner.”

“Martial arts are an extremely safe activity,” says Larry Schutz, director of Wado Karate Centers in Goodlettsville. “Violence is never tolerated. We teach our students to only use karate for self-defense and to find other appropriate methods to defuse conflicts,” he adds.

So how does a parent choose which form of martial arts to pursue for a child? Here’s a basic overview of options:

Tae Kwon Do (Korean)

This ancient Korean martial art and Olympic sport (also spelled “taekwondo”) is wildly popular worldwide — especially in America — since eighth-degree black belt Chuck Norris popularized it in movies. Kicking dominates in tae kwon do, but jumps, spins, punches, blocks and parries (deflecting a move) add to the fun. Kids will first learn to kick from standing positions; “flying” kicks come later. Classes will challenge stamina, strength (kids may be asked to break some boards) and flexibility — as well as mental strength and balance. Instructors impart the Five Tenets: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit, during every class. Tae Kwon Do may have an easier learning curve than most martial arts, some say.

Karate (Japanese)

Karate has become so well known in recent years that it’s almost synonymous with martial arts. But this import from the Japanese island of Okinawa is distinct from other styles because of its emphasis on strength and power, characterized by self-defense tactics like “knife hands,” elbow strikes and heel strikes. There’s enough variety in classes that kids can also improve cardio fitness, balance and flexibility. Some instructors spend a lot of time on the spiritual aspects of traditional karate, but in most classes they’ll focus on the mental skills of concentration and self-discipline.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Brazilian jiu-jitsu mixes techniques from a variety of styles, which gives participants a better chance at self-defense whether in a real-world situation or in a competitive match. This is why Brazilian jiu-jitsu is the favored style of mixed martial arts fighters and military hand-to-hand combat training. You’ll learn striking and kicking skills, but the main emphasis of this style is on grappling (similar to wrestling). You’re ultimately trained to take your opponent down to the floor with striking and kicking techniques, and then to prevail with grappling or “ground fighting” skills.

Tai Chi (Chinese)

There is a high-speed, self-defense version of the Chinese martial art of tai chi, but the vast majority of the hundreds of millions of people who practice it worldwide do it in super-slow-mo. The hypnotic circular movements involve little or no impact on the joints or the rest of the body, making it an excellent choice for people of all ages and abilities. Besides being offered at martial arts schools, it’s taught at many community centers and health clubs. Classes are more likely to involve mind-body training — especially meditation and relaxed breathing — than other disciplines.

Kung Fu (Chinese)

The ancient Chinese martial art popularized by Bruce Lee, kung fu  emphasizes a variety of stances, footwork, kicking, blocking, evading and hand and elbow strikes. “Kung fu” means “human effort” for a reason: Its demands of balance, speed and overall fitness are substantial, so it’s a good workout. When you contact schools, ask which styles of kung fu they teach. The Northern style emphasizes kicking and footwork — best for tall, long-legged students — while the Southern style emphasizes punching — better for shorter students. Besides Northern or Southern, kung fu styles are classified as either “external” (focused on strength and offense) or “internal” (focused on concentration and defense).

Aikido (Japanese)

Uses similar movements as jiu-jitsu but is gentler and noncompetitive. It provides an excellent way for teaching kids how to work with a partner.

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