Friday, July 11, 2008

Martial Arts for Kids Discussion

A homeschooling mom emailed me recently with the following questions:

I seem to remember that you do martial arts along with your kids, yes? I am wanting to do the same thing with my two young girls, ages 5 and 7. They have no interest right now in martial arts - their older brothers have done Tae Kwon Do for years and are totally bored with it. It does seem pretty 'canned' like they are only learning forms and not true techniques. Their combat skills are pretty lame and I don't get the feel that they can actually defend themselves if attacked. My main goal with myself and my girls is to build very good self-defense skills and be able to protect ourselves. We've taken RAD classes and RADkids classes, but I am wanting more than that - more learning about actual combat and certain forms like Aikido or Hapkido which focus less on strength and more on technique. I was told by a martial arts expert that these types were not good ones to start a beginner in, though. Can you give me any tips/advice on what to look for, what is the best style you've found for beginning (does it matter?), how often to practice, how to get the kids excited since they already have a preconceived idea of what it is, etc?

I proceeded to write quite a long response--go figure! And then I thought, this will make a nice article for my blog. So here it is!

I think that it’s hard for much practical self-defense to stick with kids. Learning a martial art can be just like learning gymnastics. It’s just another fun thing to do, but they don’t see that it has real-life applications. I was 14 when I started studying TKD, and continued for three years, but I truly don’t know if I would have used it to defend myself if I’d needed to. Most martial arts really are rather like rote learning—the forms/poomses/katas, one-step sparring, other drills. These things do teach you a lot, and sparring can be really helpful. But even sparring is unrealistic—you’re only allowed to hit in protected areas! It does give you more endurance, but my goal is to end things quickly, not go three rounds. My brother did use his TKD yell when he was about to be mugged or attacked in some fashion in NYC years ago—it just came out of him, and scared the guys off, while he and his friend ran the other direction. He was only 11 when we started training, but it stayed with him. Sometimes a yell is all you need. Plus it gets everyone’s attention. So practicing yelling really loudly is great.

I think hapkido is an excellent choice, and aikido I am guessing is rather similar. Some places won’t let kids start till they are maybe 12, but I think that properly supervised, they can learn it. The potential for injuring someone is definitely there if you’re not paying attention, and I had my wrist sprained by a high-belt because she was putting too much into a wrist move and not paying attention to me—she wanted to get the technique and tried to do it quickly. These techniques need to be practiced slowly. :) You have to give your training partner time to react so as not to be injured. At any rate, that’s what I’d start with if you’re looking for more realistic protection.

The other one I’d go with, and I’d put it first on my list if you have it in your area, is Krav Maga. There is a school in NOVA that teaches it—I’m on their email list and went for a seminar one weekend, I believe at the Reston facility. My SIL went with me b/c she lives in Herndon. She loved it and I believe had never taken any self-defense before. I found it to be really great stuff. They are OSMA . Though they teach a lot of different styles as well. There seem to be some others if you search Google. Here’s another that looks good, because it is associated with Krav Maga Worldwide. They really emphasize that you don’t need hundreds of techniques—that there should be just a few techniques that you learn well and can apply to any situation.

I really would like to start training in Krav Maga. :) I even put a KM book on my xmas wish list and got it from my brother. LOL. If you’re curious, it’s Complete Krav Maga.

If you can, rent the History Channel’s show the Human Weapon. One of the discs, I think the 2nd for the first season, shows Krav Maga in action. Or watch the whole season and see what other styles you like. You can also search YouTube for KM and other martial arts. Most stuff is aimed at adults, of course, but you can at least see the techniques in action. As always, though, there is no perfect martial art—a lot really depends on the instructor.

As for what else to look for, start with the instructor. Ask what he/she feels the strengths of the martial art are, what makes a good student, if you need to be strong, if you need stronger legs or stronger arms, if you need to be very flexible, that kind of thing. Our legs are much stronger than our arms, so I personally prefer something that does take advantage of that fact. Ask how they train—do they emphasize real-life situations, or do they focus only on learning forms and the more rigid aspects of martial arts? It really depends on what the school’s goals are. Some want their students to compete in sparring events, so they’ll focus on that, or have a lot of classes geared toward sparring. Others are more like aerobics and don’t have any contact sparring, even with pads. I don’t think sparring is necessary, but it’s nice to have that option, and kids usually enjoy it.

My school here, where I studied for almost 4 years, taught both TKD and Hapkido, as well as several weapons, which were really fun. I think learning a weapon like knives or sword, or some stick fighting of some sort, can be very useful as well as empowering, especially for women and girls. I imagine that my training helps me think about what I have around me that I can use against an attacker, and I’d be less likely to be shocked or paralyzed at seeing a knife or other weapon in an attacker’s hand. I would be thinking, “if I could get that from him, I could use it.” Or, “I know how to disarm him and kick the weapon away.” The combo of TKD, which at my school was more “old-fashioned” and technique oriented, and hapkido, which seemed more applicable to a real situation, was really nice. I enjoy both aspects for different reasons.

You need to also try to see what the instructor’s attitude toward kids is—does he think kids can learn his style well? If he doesn’t, of course, don’t bother. Or if he teaches a watered-down version to children, skip it. There are limits, of course, to what a 5 yr old will learn, or what they can physically do or be coordinated enough to do, and also so many things seem unreal at that age. You don’t want to scare the child by saying, “you need to learn this or someone will kill you!” But you do want them to know they have the ability to defend themselves, even if it’s just on the playground and some kid is harassing them. They don’t need to react with violence, but feeling confident goes a long way. Being vocal about what’s going on and what you want stopped is a great gift to give a child.

I do think you need to be matter-of-fact about the idea that there are some (very few) people out there who might try to harm any of us for some reason, and it’s good to be prepared just in case. Our instructor did a good job of that, I think. And he taught the kids simple things that weren’t part of TKD, like, if someone grabs you and picks you up, clap your hands over their ears really hard, or poke their eyes, or go for their throat. But mean it when you do it, don’t just tickle them. Dangling legs or knees are at just the right height to hit the groin. :) Simple stuff, but effective.

I also tend to think that having self-defense training shows in your walk, in your confidence. A potential attacker isn’t going to say to themselves, "that person’s a martial artist," but they’re going to think that you look like you’re aware of what is going on around you and while you don’t want trouble, you’re not going to let someone get away with hurting you. You’re ready to face them. So they’ll move on and look for someone who appears to be a softer/weaker target.

Whenever our instructor was speaking to a group of women, he’d tell us to remember that if something happened to us when we were alone, we needed to act as if our kids were right there with us and their lives depended on us—because they do rely on our coming out of a situation alive, to be with them as they grow up. Good thing to keep in mind. And if your kids are with you, if the attacker incapacitates you, he’s going after your kids next. (Though I read somewhere that women with kids with them are attacked less often than women who are alone, which makes sense—less to deal with for the attacker.) Some women might otherwise give up or not want to hurt the attacker—I saw screw him! If he attacks me for no reason, he’s going to get all the hurting I can muster!

Practice--To get the most out of classes, really you should be ready to commit to going 3 times a week, or you’ll forget the techniques, but that’s just my opinion. Practicing at home is something we never did much of, but it could have been really fun and very helpful. We at one point were going about 4-5 times a week, so it didn’t seem like there was a reason to practice at home also! Of course, before tests we’d practice a bit at home—and I practiced breaking boards before my 2nd degree black belt test—I was incredibly nervous about that part. :) And I would kind of quiz the kids when we were going out somewhere there might be crowds—what would you do if . . . Mostly I just wanted them to have a plan, to think that their first response would be to give their best yell, and to start attacking right away in whatever way they could. Technique flies out the window in a bad situation. The thinking part of your brain is too slow. You’re never going to have the time to think of a particular move to use; you’re going to use whatever comes most naturally and instinctively, what your muscle memory and reflexes are used to doing.

Equipment--Our school used those swimming pool “noodles” cut to different lengths to give the kids targets—you could hold one upright on the floor, and it’s a leg to kick—train to not look at the leg but hit it anyway with your foot. Or a shorter one is a flying arm coming at you—how would you block it from above, the side, straight at you? If you want to do even more at home, get a couple focus pads that your hands slip into. Like this or this. You can also buy a body bag for kicking—not a hanging one, the kind you hold onto. These are really great for getting the kids to put power into their kicks and punches. And this could also turn into a group thing for your friends’ kids as well. :) Get some music with a good fast beat and play it loud, line the kids up and let them have at it.

I think as far as getting your girls excited about the new martial art, see if you can find some martial arts movies of any style, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or something else that you would consider suitable. I find it exciting to watch the fight sequences, to see it in action, even if it is somewhat rigged. I imagine myself trying to do those techniques. :) It just looks so cool! You can even just show the really great scenes and skip the rest of it. Again, check YouTube for different people practicing the style you choose, especially if there are videos of kids performing. No matter how many clips you watch (this one's great), your school will be different, so just be ready to follow the program. If it’s not working, find another one. See if there are any free classes offered, and especially see if you can observe a few kids’ classes or family classes.

Thinking is your best weapon in any situation, I believe. The particular style is less important. Fast reflexes, fast thoughts, they count more. And a couple good books to read, if you haven’t already, are The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker, and Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe, same author. I haven’t read A Girl's Gotta Do What a Girl's Gotta Do, but he’s a co-author on that one. [Actually, he just wrote a forward.]

So that was my reply. It can be dangerous to ask me about a subject near and dear to my heart. LOL

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