Children and Martial Arts

I thought I had seen it all, but I was genuinely shocked the other day to see an item in a national daily U.K. newspaper celebrating the ‘youngest-ever child’ to obtain a black belt in karate – if I remember correctly she was just 4!  Over the last twenty to thirty years this phenomenon seems to have developed from a situation where it was remarkable when a teenager between 14 and 16 years of age obtained this much coveted rank, to a point where it is now a relative commonplace to see 12, 8 or even 6 year olds wearing a dan grade belt!

Now there are many issues involved in the training of children in the martial arts, and as someone who began training very young, I thought I might offer a few thoughts on the subject.

Which Art?

The most common question I have to field from both students and non-students is ‘Which art is best for children?’  As always, best is a relative term, and I always find myself asking my questioner to elaborate on the purpose of sending a child to a martial art class first, though the motivation generally falls broadly into one or two categories: self-defence training and fitness/development.

My stock answer is that the ideal art for children to begin studying is Judo.  There are a number of reasons for this:

  • The first, and most important, is that because Judo is probably the world’s largest martial art (in terms of membership) and is almost certainly the oldest of publicly accessible arts, it has the longest history and therefore, experience of teaching children.
  • Further, Judo classes tend to be highly physical – helping children to ‘burn off’ some of that natural aggressive energy they have in abundance, and making them fitter and stronger in the process.
  • They are also fun, partly because they are so physical, and there is no ambiguity about when you are succeeding – more on this point later!
  • From the point of view of building confidence and learning to stand up for themselves, Judo has few equals.  From the self-defence point of view, this is because:
    • Most real self-defence situations occur ‘up close and personal’, so they are in the natural range of the art, and
    • Most scenarios involve being grabbed, or if struck, quickly develop into a chaotic, tussling, rolling around on the ground situation – Judo excels at just this, both in its standing and groundwork phases!
    • Lastly, ukemi, or break-falling is a life-skill – I know for myself, that I have been saved from serious injury on several occasions simply by years of break-falling experience making it instinctive to protect myself when I have lost my balance for whatever reason!

Other arts that share many of the qualities of Judo are Ju-jitsu, from which Judo was derived, Aikido (though this is more cerebral in approach, and results are less obviously tangible, but it does stress co-operative training) and Hapkido, which is essentially the same as Aikido, but has twice as many kicks as Tae Kwon Do and also incorporates weapons training at a more advanced stage.

Karate was the first art which I taught, becoming an assistant instructor at my local club when in my mid-teens as a green belt, teaching both beginning seniors and the beginners and early grades in the Junior section. 

Karate – like the other arts – offers real development of self-discipline, but there are some drawbacks when teaching children, particularly the very young (my instructor did accept children of 4 and 5 years of age routinely, and I was even required to teach a couple of 2 and 3 year olds!).

The issues with children training in any striking art are essentially three-fold:

  • Control of technique for themselves – and their training partner(s) – is absolutely paramount, but difficult for such young children to absorb consistently or to implement both physically and emotionally.
  • During particular developmental stages, most notably when experiencing ‘growth spurts’ (i.e. when a young person has growing pains, which is caused by the uneven and non-simultaneous growth in bones and the soft tissue attached), the stretching regime and other stresses, such as striking in the air can make injury more likely and exacerbate uneven development.
  • No matter how relatively skilful a child becomes in a striking art, it is difficult to equate their apparent technical ability with actual application of that skill, particularly in a self-defence situation, where they are unlikely to be matched with an assailant of similar size and ability level, as in a class.

Hapkido is a highly practical art, designed entirely for effective self-defence and partly characterised by its refusal to have anything to do with competitive, sporting competitions and by its mix of both grappling and kicking/striking.  Despite this, it shares with Karate and Aikido a similar drawback for the very young.  Put most simply, each of these arts (though perhaps Aikido most of all) requires many years of training to apply practically in chaotic, real-life personal defence.

Having said all of that, children will generally benefit from any quality martial arts training, regardless of style, under a good, informed teacher.  Just as in a primary (‘elementary’ in the U.S.) or high school class-room, it is the individual teacher who is the single biggest denominator of the effectiveness and the usefulness of the learning.  I no longer teach children the martial arts – though I do still conduct self-defence lessons for youngsters.  I tell myself that it is because my own art, Munen Muso Ryu, is too combat-oriented and this creates too much responsibility for the emotional and moral education of a child, but it may well be because I know that teaching children is the most important and therefore, most difficult job in the world!

©John Mellon M.A., and The Martial Arts University, 2011.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to John Mellon M.A. and The Martial Arts University with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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About themartialartsuniversity

In daily training in the martial arts for the last 53 years; teaching almost daily for 43 years. Hold teaching ranks in 27 martial arts, Master ranked in 4 arts, Headmaster of 3 systems, the Founder of 2 arts, and the co-Founder of 2 others. Has been the official Technical Advisor to Profs. Wally and Leon Jay of Small Circle Ju-jitsu since the 1990's. Assistant Headmaster of Small Circle Ju-jitsu and the co-founder and joint Headmaster of Small Circle Concepts with Prof. Leon Jay. Has three Bachelor degrees and a Masters Degree in History. Experienced writer - published or featured in all of the UK martial arts magazines and in Inside Kung Fu in US, as well as: Esquire; She; Elle; Woman's Journal; Health and Fitness; Zest; Marie Claire and The Independent (UK national daily newspaper). Has been featured on BBC and ITV news programmes as expert on weapons defence and usage in relation to law enforcement issues. Former CPO (Bodyguard), and still active as a Bodyguard trainer.
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2 Responses to Children and Martial Arts

  1. ilan says:

    hello

    My first time on commenting an a blog. Have to agree with all the above. I have a young son and last year enroled him into a Korean martial art locally. He wanted to go as his class mate was already a member. There were many brown and black belts under the age of 16years, all had done very well in competition. Only one I would rate as a competent martial artist and the rest had a false sense of their abilities.

    I removed my little one from this class. I may look into a Judo class now.

    I trained many years ago with a wonderful teacher who didn’t place any value in grades or belts but more on the individual and really instilled passion in technique and hard work. Many years later I can remember everything and still have a yearning to learn more.

    I owe my success in life to my teacher.

    • Thanks for the comments, Ilan – yes, I think I know the teacher and she was truly a testament to hard work and applied intelligence, being as far from a ‘natural athlete’ as you can get, but she just stuck with it and can really express martial art as an individual, rather than simply trying to mould herself to fit the ‘style model’.

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