Marshal the martial: Martial arts for kids

From ancient arts to new hybrids, find the style right for your kid

"There's no such thing as a bad martial art," says Jeff Christensen of Karate America in Verona. "They're all different." And all of them, devotees agree, can change young lives for the better. The trick is matching a school, a style and a discipline to your child.

A variety of martial arts instruction for kids is available in the Madison area, from more traditional karate and tae kwon do to more recently established, hard-fighting martial arts styles "as seen on TV," as well as less commonly practiced arts like fencing and capoeira.

The unique features of martial arts training offer benefits that extend beyond the physical fitness and coordination common to all sports. The highly structured, somewhat formal nature of many martial arts classes - often stemming from long-developed traditions in Asian countries whose cultures place a high value on order, discipline, and respect for seniority - can help kids learn to focus, be patient, and control impulsivity.

"The rules of the dojo [school] are intended to help students develop a polite, respectful attitude, self-restraint, and perseverance," says Kurt Christensen, founder of the Dane County YMCA shorin ryu karate program.

Many parents agree. Often cited is the respect for others - both elders and peers - emphasized in martial arts classes. Anne Strauss, whose son studies at the Y, says he's learned from studying karate that "if he wants something good, he has to do the work to get it." Kim Schoenhaar notes that since her teenage daughter began studying fencing at Cracovia Foil Fencing, she's better able to stick with challenges without becoming discouraged.

Martial arts may have particular benefits for children with special needs. Shannon Graves of Karate America-Stoughton, a mother of two special-needs children who study karate, describes how the "heavy work" of joint compression that is common in martial arts training is especially valuable in helping "build a mind-body connection" and training the brain to stay focused and calm. Some area teachers recommend martial arts as a way of coping with ADHD, saying it gives practice in focusing, listening, and breaking tasks down into smaller pieces.

Paradoxically, martial arts are often credited with helping children learn to avoid violence. Madison social worker Brett Brasher says that when he worked at a school for delinquent youth in the 1970s, he noticed that boys who started studying tae kwon do became less aggressive. He believes that martial arts helps kids learn to understand and have respect for the power they have and to channel it productively. This is also true for girls - instead of channeling aggressive feelings into "mean girl" behavior, they can channel it into the martial art.

Although students learn in classes with others and may spar together, martial arts are essentially an individual, not a team effort. This appeals to kids who may not be good at or interested in team sports and aids in self-discovery. The belt system common to many martial arts, where students are promoted to a new color belt after mastering certain skills, also helps kids foster a sense of personal achievement and self-confidence.

The practical self-defense potential of martial arts is also important to many parents. Ron Van Browning of Trainers Elite says his "accelerated fighting system" of mixed martial arts is intended to "make kids street-smart" and "save them from being attacked or abducted," a theme echoed by several other instructors and by parents who were concerned that girls, especially, be able to defend themselves in a dangerous world.

Many instructors draw a contrast between arts that are practiced primarily for self-defense (often more modern arts) and those that may be practiced in a more ritual manner with series of prescribed moves. The latter approach is defended by Peter Paik of Paik's Traditional Martial Arts, who insists that "We need to teach the mistakes our ancestors made! With the traditional arts, what has survived is the idea of peaceful training without combat."

Martial arts also widen a child's cultural horizons. Some classes include cultural instruction, such as those at Zhong Yi Kung Fu School, whose owner Nelson Ferreira explains, "The Chinese view is that you need to understand both the civil and martial aspects of society." Similarly, the study of Brazilian capoeira involves learning not only self-defense moves but dance, music, rhythm, and some Portuguese language.

When choosing a martial arts program for your child, the style is much less important than the atmosphere of the school and the skill of the instructor. If the child is attracted to some particular art, perhaps after seeing it on TV or knowing friends who study it, that may be a place to start.

But it's also important to decide what both child and parent expect to get out of martial arts study. Are they interested in self-defense, in competition, in the mental or spiritual benefits of the sport? Finding out the focus of the schools you want to try - whether it's competition, self-defense, self-improvement or some combination of the three - is vital to deciding whether they are right for you.

Once you've narrowed down your list, most instructors caution, don't settle on the first school you try: Visits to a number of schools and interviews with the instructor are vital to determining whether your child - and you - will be comfortable with the instruction. Watch how the instructors interact with the children. Do the kids in the class seem happy? Most schools will let children take a free trial class to see whether they feel at home.

Do beware of high-pressure sales tactics, hidden fees and extra charges, or contracts that require children commit to several years of lessons. Also look to see that schools do not promote children based more on how often they go to class than on their mastery of the art.

Once your child is happily settled into martial arts training, you may find yourself tempted to take it up yourself. It's good fitness and many schools encourage family involvement, with multigenerational classes.

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