– By Geoffrey H. Beeson
Every year millions of children are shuffled through the glass doors of strip mall martial arts schools. Parents lag behind the kids carrying bags of gear, clothes, water bottles, snacks, and all other necessary accoutrements for the transport and care of an active child. The instructor calls the class to attention and shouts the kids through a series of martial arts drills and practices. The parents sit bored in a waiting area staring at smart phones. The instructor looks over the heads of the children at those parents and thinks, “Now there is the group that really needs to be out on this floor.” Because the instructor knows the secret. Perhaps you’ve already figured it out as well, but if not, here it is:
MARTIAL ARTS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN
Let that settle in for a moment…
Okay, ready to move on? Don’t get me wrong here. I think martial arts can be great for kids. They learn all sorts of life skills and get some great benefits. I would recommend martial arts to any parent and my own kids will study martial arts, if they want (one has already done some BJJ). But most of the benefits children get from martial arts they can garner from just about any structured physical activity. The point here is that martial arts were not created for children, children don’t benefit nearly as much as adults, and the true practice of martial arts is something deeper than most kids can even begin to grasp.
The Origins of Martial Arts
Throughout history various cultures around the world for one reason or another needed to take their average citizens and improve them. And honestly the driving factor behind most of these practices was war and battle. So systems and methods were created across the world to improve the strength, speed, agility, and mental acuity of people. Because if we want to survive as a nation of people, our people need to be better than their people.
Many people consider martial arts to be a practice of eastern origin and philosophy. It is true that many of the most prevalent arts that we think of when the phrase “martial arts” is used were derived from eastern practices. Japan is the birthplace of many forms of martial arts, some practiced by samurai, others practiced by the merchants and farmers. China has given us many varieties of kung fu and other martial arts forms as well. Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines each have some famous contributions to the world of martial arts. But the west is also home to rich martial arts traditions. The knights created western fencing and jousting. The early Greeks wrestled in the Olympics and had fierce warriors in the varied city-states. The Roman army had fierce martial discipline and were masters of military tactics and the civilian population reveled in the games of the colosseum.
Regardless of the form or the origin martial arts had a specific and real purpose. It was a practice that adults used to strengthen their body and sharpen their mind. But as the world has become less violent, martial arts are used more and more for sport and less and less for war and in our current culture sports are games and games are for children. As adults we don’t have time for games. So the whole point of martial arts as a self-improvement tool for adults was pushed into the background.
Some may argue historically that children were taught the martial arts from a very young age. There are two reasons for this: one, children in early history were not really children as we know them today, they were expected to work and contribute as soon as they were physically able, and two, the arts were taught at a young age so that when the child would later become an adult and be expected to employ those skills, they were prepared, but the children never stopped practicing the martial arts when they became adults. Adulthood was when martial arts became the most important.
On top of everything else, martial arts as a commercial practice has struggled to survive. Without adults that would seek out and financially support a martial arts school for themselves, the martial arts only had one market to turn to: children. Parents will spend ridiculous amounts of money on activities for their kids. So with the popularization of the martial arts in the media of the 70s and 80s (much thanks to Bruce Lee, Pat Morita, Chuck Norris, and may others) and the biggest financial market being kids, the martial arts industry geared up the marketing machine and started selling the benefits of martial arts for kids, and spent much less time trying to sway adults. But just about every martial arts instructor would tell you that the average kid is not going to be doing martial arts as an adult and that the act teaching kids classes is the proverbial search through the haystack for those one or two that will continue to dedicate themselves to the arts as adults.
The Benefits of Martial Arts
Children learn and grow by leaps and bounds in martial arts classes. But children grow by leaps and bounds in ballet, soccer, gymnastics, and other structured physical activities. Martial arts may offer some special combination of lessons, confidence, and skill but the benefits of martial arts to an adult, especially in today’s world, are far more impactful and valuable. I recently read through a series of articles on the benefits of martial arts for children and I have distilled the list down to the following:
Focus is certainly something that kids need. Being young and full of crazy amounts of energy (and likely crazy amounts of sugar, unless you’re the unlucky kid with the health-nut parents) sitting still and paying attention is really difficult. But kids are kids and the stakes for being hyper-focused as a child are really low, at least as low as they are ever going to be in life. There is room in the world for kids to be kids. Children need to start learning to focus, but it is okay if they screw up, and they will practice focus every day in school and in all of their other activities. So how important is the benefit of this focus practice for children?
Most of us adults know, that focus is not a skill that you learn and can then just reproduce on demand. Focus is something that must be practiced and maintained. But as adults we spend our daily lives distracted by the world and rarely take time to really focus on any one thing. We are never really present in the moment. A lack of focus can lead to lost work productivity, damaged relationships, and kids that don’t feel loved and appreciated because their parents don’t have the focus to put down their smartphones and pay attention. The effects that focus, or lack thereof, can have in an adult’s life are far more serious. An adult that practices focus in martial arts could really see some benefit.
Self-control follows a similar line of reasoning as focus. Kids need to practice self-control. A kid with a good amount of discipline and self-control is a great thing. But to reiterate, a kid with self-control issues has both the time and space to work it out before it effects their life in a serious way.
We adults on the other hand desperately need some discipline and self-control. A lack of self-control can literally kill us. I have dedicated myself to the practice of martial arts for most of my life. The discipline and self-control that martial arts has given me helped get me through college and law school and has helped me build a great career and a great family. I was even able to use the discipline I gained from my martial arts practice to quit smoking without the need to rely on any patches, gum, or drugs. Despite my level of self-control, until just recently I was seriously overweight. I have currently turned my attention and self-control to this particular issue, but my health has already suffered because of this lack of self-control when it comes to food. Thanks to some strong will and practiced discipline I have now lost nearly fifty pounds. Alcohol, drugs, overeating, addictions, procrastination, neglecting our children, neglecting our other responsibilities can damage our lives in irreparable ways. A lack of self-control can destroy anything that we may hope to build as adults. Just ask any public figure whose career got ruined by their lack of self-control. So, who really needs to be training for self-control here, us or the kids?
Martial arts is a fantastic source of agility, balance, flexibility, coordination, and just general mobility. I regularly fold my children in half and tie them in knots while playing with them. And they can run and jump and climb and swing better than I could hope to manage. I am a bit more coordinated than most for sure, but I have had years of practice. Martial arts can certainly add to a child’s movement ability, but your average kid can move pretty well on their own.
Mobility for adults on the other had is a serious issue. Those of us nearing and past middle age have mobility limited by bad knees, bad backs, sciatic pain, general everyday fatigue, and a whole host of other issues. We slow down, or worse we stop moving altogether. We allow our mobility issues to stop us from pushing our body and moving, when we should be doing the exact opposite. Your bad knees are exactly why you should be doing squats. Your bad back is the reason you should be strengthening your core. Your lack of energy is caused by the fact that you’re not exercising. As we reach old age, our lack of mobility will kill many of us. Every year 700,000 Americans are hospitalized due to falls, and it costs our economy $34 billion in direct medical costs. (That’s ten times the estimated size of the entire martial arts industry.) So our whole society would benefit if we adults would just at least keep up with a little Tai Chi.
- Mental Acuity
Martial arts can be very mentally challenging. Complicated movements and patterns, foreign languages, long lists of techniques and other material make for a lot for one brain to handle. I have probably forgotten as many martial forms and movements as I currently know. In addition to the laundry lists of techniques martial arts also teach your brain how to interact and feel your body. If you’ve never read up about kinesthetic intelligence and proprioception, I highly recommend it. But at the core we’re talking about challenging the mind and forming a strong brain-body connection. These are not bad skills for kids to work on, but again who really needs this work? As we get older our minds fade, and our kinesthetic abilities and our proprioception (did you look it up yet?) are reduced. Continuing to learn new skills and maintain our mind-body connection can help us feel young and in control of our faculties well into our old age, but only if we do the work.
- Physical Fitness
We have an obesity epidemic in this country. We are generally in terrible shape. That goes for kids and adults. But the rate of obesity in adults in this country is double the rate for children and the chance for adults to make a change gets shorter and shorter each year of their life. Yet despite our fitness problems we spend between 40 and 50 billion dollars annually on weight loss and 30 billion a year on fitness apparel. Cause, you know, you have to try and look good while you’re sweating. Obviously physical fitness (and fashion) is of great importance to adults in the US.
However, rather than practice a martial art and really improve many facets of ourselves, we sign up for gym memberships and run on treadmills. Imagine if someone suggested you should pay to take your child and put them on a treadmill for an hour. It’s ridiculous. As parents we demand that our kids’ activities not only give them physical fitness but true personal growth and development. I wonder why we don’t demand the same of our own activities. Oh wait, I know, because personal growth is hard, and running mindlessly on a treadmill is a heck of a lot easier. American adults, we need martial arts.
Confidence is great in kids. So many of them come by it naturally. They think that they can accomplish anything. I have seen kids with very little confidence transform into self-assured strutting champions from the littlest success. Life and failure and embarrassment haven’t yet beat the confidence out of most of them. But as for most adults, we know the fear and anxiety that comes from a lack of confidence. We have to put ourselves out there in the world repeatedly. We have to present ourselves before friends, acquaintances, bosses, judges, customers, police, coworkers, and the public in general, and pray that we don’t screw up. There isn’t the same level slack in the world for adults as there is for kids and having confidence is really hard.
The good news is that it is possible to practice confidence. Confidence is built by being challenged accomplishing something difficult. Martial arts is recognized around the world for the ability to challenge people to excel and thereby build confidence. We seek this experience out for children, but as adults we shy away from the chance and the challenge.
We live in a disrespectful society. Our public discourse has been getting worse and worse for as long as I can remember. At the time of this writing the leading presidential candidate for the Republican Party is popular, at least in part, specifically because he is disrespectful of just about everything and everyone. Unlike some cultures in the world we very rarely show each other any outward sign of respect. We just push our way through the day many times ignorant of those around us.
Despite our best intentions to train our children to be polite and respectful they often end up as disrespectful little twerps with nothing but attitude. But it’s not their fault really. They are observant, and they can see as well as anyone that respect is not actually honored in our culture. More often than not their parents are just as disrespectful as they are. Imagine a parent telling their child that they need to say please and thank you and be polite and then the child watches the parent in a fit of road rage, shouting all manner of profanities at other drivers. We know what we want for our children, but we need to have it for ourselves before we can give it them.
Most of the martial arts practices are based in respect. We constantly bow or otherwise show respect to our schools, our teachers, and each other. And teaching this sense of respect to children is fantastic but if we don’t practice respect as adults, no amount of training is going to stick. They will follow our lead.
- Social Interaction
Humans are innately social creatures and children need to have social interaction to thrive. But adults need social interaction as well. And having a deeply tied community can have great benefits. Community relieves stress, improves quality of life, and thereby improves health. Being part of a martial arts school can give kids a social group, but as children have tons and tons of social interaction. They have social circles in school, and sports, and other activities. As we reach adulthood many of us have social circles that seem to get smaller and smaller. The friends that we do keep up with, we keep up with mostly online and not in person. Many people fill this community void with churches and other similar communities, but as more and more Americans are non-religious, there are a lot of people that have almost no actual community.
Some of the strongest and most abiding relationships I have built in my life have been through the martial arts. My schoolmates are the people that I call on when I am in need. Martial arts can provide a space and a home and a community that we as adults so often start to lose.
There are times when kids find themselves in dangerous situations. But these situations fall into one of two categories: the child is being assaulted by an adult, or by another child. The realities for these situations make teaching kids martial arts as self-defense often close to meaningless. If a small child is attacked by a large adult, those punches and kicks they learn aren’t going to save them, and they aren’t going to have the strength to grapple a full grown man into submission. It’s best that children simply learn to escape and run as self-defense. If a child is in a conflict with another child, rarely in our modern society is skilled violence the answer. That is why the curriculum of most “bully-buster” programs teach confidence, avoidance, and de-escalation techniques to kids, rather than just punches and kicks. And let’s be honest, the bumps and bruises from violent child interactions are usually far less consequential than adult violence.
As adults though, we run the risk, however small, of being put into extremely violent situations. Unlike children we possess the strength of mind and body to actually do something about it and defend ourselves. That is, if we know how and have the confidence to do so. So as adults knowing a little self-defense could go a long way in a very serious situation.
A martial arts practice should be fun; challenging, exhausting, sweaty fun. It should be fun for any participant, youth or adult. Everyone needs to have a little fun. But as adults that have to work long hours, pay bills, and deal with commutes, I’d say we need some real fun in our lives a little bit more than the kids. They have plenty of other chances for fun.
The Deeper Practice and Power of Martial Arts
One of the most crucial reasons that martial arts are not for children has to do with the deeper introspective nature of the practice. Martial arts as stated before is a self-improvement tool. Through the practice of martial arts, you can find your limits. You discover what you’re made of, so to speak, and push those boundaries. Martial arts can help you recreate yourself into the person that you want to be. It teaches you to face obstacles and bring them crashing down. Martial arts is the hammer and chisel you can use to sculpt yourself into whatever it is your mind can envision. Many children just do not have the personal insight to even approach this part of the practice. For many children martial arts will always remain learning to punch, kick, and grapple.
Beyond simple self-improvement, as every martial arts instructor knows, martial arts is a tool that you can use to reach out and help and improve another human being. To assist another person in becoming what and who they want to be is by far the most rewarding experience of being a martial arts instructor. It was the greatest gift my instructor gave to me and I have an obligation to turn around and give it to others. True martial arts practice is not just a benefit to the practitioner, it is a responsibility. Most kids are just are not ready to understand that.
Martial arts can go beyond individuals as well. If widely adopted the lessons of empowerment and respect could be tools of community improvement. We could take our uncivil, sickened, and shiftless mass of adults, and create a society where people are strong, self-assured, and respectful of all others. That is the power that martial arts can have. That is not a job for kids, it’s something that we, the adults of this country need to take on.
But first we need to get some adults into some martial arts classes.
Geoffrey H. Beeson
Chief Instructor – Five Circles Martial Arts