Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Parent's Guide to the Martial Arts

My oldest daughter, nine years ago
I'm a martial artist, but I'm also the parent of a martial artist.  In fact, I've been a martial arts mom far longer than I've been a martial artist myself.

I believe that most, if not all, children can benefit from studying a martial art. Which martial art - and which school - is highly variable, based upon the skill sets and temperament of your child.

If you are considering putting your child in a martial art, here's some tips I've learned that I hope will help you.

First, read this excellent post written by +Jesse EnkampHow To Be A Good Karate Parent.

Make sure you have a good understanding of  your child's emotional, physical, and mental abilities and temperament.
  • Is your child outgoing, or shy?
  • Is your child aggressive, or passive?
  • Is your child physically gifted or not so much?
  • Is your child able to pay attention for long periods of time (20 minutes or more) or not?
  • Is your child "high strung" and intense, or laid back and loose?
  • Is your child emotionally sensitive, or not?
  • Is your child a perfectionist who needs things "just so", or she just "goes with the flow" of things?
  • Is your child goal oriented, or not?
  • Does your child have physical, emotional or mental special needs?
  • Is your child especially sensitive to people getting inside their personal space, or are they fine with touching and being touched by other people in a sporting/martial arts context?
  • How much empathy does your child have?
For example, if your child is passive or shy, it's probably not going to be too much fun for him to
enroll in a school that does a lot of tournament and demonstration stuff, but if your child is a competitive over-achiever, she may get bored quickly with schools that are more laid back and intellectual.

Next, make sure you understand why you're signing up little Junior for martial arts classes. Why do you want your child to take the martial arts?  Reasons may include:
  • Physical fitness
  • Positive effects on self-esteem
  • Self discipline
  • Learning moral values such as courage, perseverance, fair play, etc.
  • Helping your child learn how to protect herself against bullies or other people who wish her harm (i.e., self defense, but what that means for a kid is different than what it means for an adult)
One major benefit to the martial arts is that it can help out with other sports. Many NFL teams have hired martial arts trainers and coaches.  Four time Pro Bowler and two-time All Pro Outside Linebacker Tamba Hali for the Kansas City Chiefs is a Blue Belt in BJJ and studies with the Gracies.


One note about self defense:  I believe it is a bit irresponsible to teach young children self defense techniques that involve staying engaged with an attacker.  Kids that age should not exclusively be taught to trade blows and stay engaged in a fight.

I did not mention any specific art, as I don't believe that the art itself is the primary reason you choose a school for your child.  Sure, we can debate grappling vs. stand up and all that stuff, and the utility of it all, but honestly, when you're just starting out, make sure you pick the school that fits your child's unique needs and your budget, not what somebody else insists is "the best" or right art.  Here's a secret - each one of us is biased in favor of our own art, so take that into consideration.

When looking for a school, visit and watch the classes before you sign up for anything.  Talk to parents and see what they say they like and dislike about the school.  A good martial arts instructor will welcome this visit and examination.

Here are the big red flags to watch out for, in my opinion:
  • Very long contracts (more than 6 months). I am not completely opposed to contracts on principle, but read the fine print VERY closely.  If they try to sell you some sort of big package immediately, and use high-pressure sales tactics, run away.
  • Hidden Fees.  These may include testing fees, belt fees (which are not unreasonable as long as they cover the cost of the belt), equipment fees, weapons fees, special uniforms, federation fees, and others.  Many of these are legitimate, but make sure they are being up front about it versus hiding or surprising you with it later.
  • Dirty or musty smelling training spaces in poor repair.  This school is either running out of money and will close soon, or they don't care too much about the quality of what they teach.  A single broken mirror on the wall is not "poor repair" - they can be expensive and difficult to replace.  But falling down tiles, dirty mats, a bad smell are all hallmarks of a place you absolutely not allow your child to enter, much less train in.
  • Unprofessionalism.  Are teachers yelling at students, cursing, denigrating other arts or schools, treating parents with disrespect... basically engaging in any behavior that in any other context would be considered rude or poor customer service?  If so, run.
  • Flakiness.  When teacher doesn't always show up or start class on time, where they don't follow through on promises, where they don't return phone calls and emails (it's the 21st Century - YOU MUST USE EMAIL), where classes are run by very low level belts while the instructor talks on the phone or gossips with a parent on the sidelines, all that is being flaky. Avoid instructors like this, no matter how good a martial artist or nice person they are, as they will invariably disappoint you.
  • I have two at home.
  • Poor teaching.  Just because one is an excellent martial artist, it does not necessarily equate to being a good teacher.  I am convinced there are more people teaching than really should be, because they think that you reach a certain rank and must strike out on your own and teach.  Hallmarks of poor teaching include no structure to class, no curriculum or clear process in which ones' progress is measured and tested, and having high-level belts that still look clumsy and can't move smoothly or with power.
Some final tips:
  • Don't ignore Rec Center, Public Parks or YMCA martial arts programs, as they can actually be very good instruction, sometimes at a cheaper price than a stand-alone school.
  • Trust your gut.  If it feels wrong, it is wrong.
  • Do not allow your child to be alone with instructors without other trusted people around.  It's unfortunate, but there are numerous reports of martial arts teachers abusing their students when they get them alone.  Also watch for inappropriate texts to your child's phone.
  • It's a good idea to survey prices for a variety of places to get an idea of "going rates" for martial arts in your area.  If a school you are considering is much more expensive or much less expensive than average, make sure you know why before you enroll your child there.
  • Research online reviews and check out Bullshido School Reviews.
  • YOU are the customer.  
I hope this helps you pick a martial arts school and teacher for your child. Feel free to contact me to ask questions!