Tuesday, August 19, 2014

TROY-KWON-DO: Teaching Young Martial Artists

Martial Arts have been a part of my life since I was about 6 years old. I am 26 years old now. A lot has changed since when I started back in 1993, from the passing of my original instructor Trey Hanrahan, to my Mother opening our family’s Dojo in 2003. I often look back on growing up in the martial arts for knowledge when teaching young students. Any of you who have had the privilege of teaching children martial arts know how hard it can be to get through to them sometimes.

Practicing the TKD Fist Bump with the 'Yo, Broham!" kiai.
It is my belief that no child should test for Black Belt, except for the rare individuals that display adult-like aptitude and can actually handle the requirements like an adult can and have started early enough to complete the years required to even get that far. I have seen many schools “passing out” Black Belts to children; this is wrong and dangerous. To put it simply, children brag. Passing “I’m a Black Belt” around their elementary or even middle school is like asking for trouble. If they are immature enough to brag about that, then they are not even close to being qualified for that belt and are just as likely to lack the skills necessary to defend themselves or de-escalate a bad situation. Sorry, if you have or know a young child that is the “exception to this rule” – they are not.

Children see the world in a much clearer “black and white”, but at the same time, exaggerate things much more than an adult. I’ll explain:

You know those scenes in Martial Arts movies where the newbie opens the door and sees the entire dojo doing extravagant things (in slow-motion of course) and is blown away by it? That’s how I felt when I first stepped into the dojo at age 6.

The older kids with the brown belts, the adult black belts… I don’t remember many of their faces, but I do remember having an instant respect/fear of those belt colors. I treated the belt system with the utmost seriousness. I wanted those belts so badly. My first point is that children take the belt system VERY seriously and achieving their next rank can be used as a huge motivator.

On the other side of that coin, failing a child or holding them back as punishment can be severe enough to make them want to quit. Adults can handle failure as a motivator, children – not so much. Make sure they are ready to test before putting them in the “spotlight”. If your Martial Art does not use a belt system, then some form of goal setting and recognition will work just as well.  Act your rank – children have high expectations of you from the second they meet you.

I remember the smell. That smell to this day almost strikes fear into me. In fact, I’ll admit that many times my parents had to force me to go to class. Once I opened the door and caught that dojo scent, there was no turning back. Two words that are tied to that scent – “Gear up!”

My instructor used to shout that out any time we were sparring that day. I would go the entire class hoping he wouldn’t say those two words. Sparring is very hard for young children. Not necessarily from fear of being hurt (though I’ve seen that plenty of times), but from the uncertainty of the situation. Up to this point, most children have been told what to do by their parents/teachers. They are not used to adapting to unpredictable situations and make their own choices in a high pressure environment. They want to perform well, but don’t know what “well” is yet.'

These girls are down with it, though.
This is my second point – young students need to be introduced to new situations slowly. Instead of having them “just spar”, you need to tell them what to do. Specifically. Have them practice a front leg kick followed by a jab / cross combination to the stomach - something simple enough that it keeps them from ever feeling like they have no idea what to do. Have the other move around and block the techniques, then switch attackers. As they gain confidence have them choose their own moves. Eventually they will handle themselves just fine.

My third point is the effectiveness of positive reinforcement. Children hate being singled out, except when it makes them feel good. If you have the opportunity to tell them they are doing something good – make sure they know. You will now get double effort out of them instantly. Negative reinforcement can be very effective too, provided you don’t just beat all of their confidence out of them. I once had to do push-ups for an entire class for goofing off with a friend on the mat. I didn’t goof off again after that, imagine that…

For my last point I am going to make a list of events that I remember. There is a reason these memories have stuck with me for almost 20 years, so hopefully you can draw some insightful conclusions from them.
  • I once sparred with a girl close to my age (8 or 9 at the time) and she started crying. My instructor told me to hit her harder. I didn't – I thought it was wrong. He was pretty angry with me and did some pretty colorful yelling.
  • I ran up to receive my blue belt before my name was called. I was excited. I ended up having to wait until the end of everyone else to get it – even the “under belts” – whoops.
  • My reason for starting Tae Kwon Do was because of how cool I thought my uncle looked when I saw him in his Gi and yellow belt.
  • My instructor told me to watch out when sparring our brown belt Cole because he was a “head hunter”. Apparently I took that very seriously and thought he would actually try to take my head off!
Inside Troy's head.
  • After 5 or so years of being with our instructor, he gave me a pair of kama for my birthday that he had hand made.
  • After my green belt test one of the black belts gave me a “perfect score” and about 8 years later told me that I was the only person he has ever given that score to. Every time I saw him after that, I tried as hard as I could to keep his opinion of me high. Positive reinforcement at its finest.
  • The instructors would write messages on your broken boards after a successful test. I still have them.
  • My head instructor once placed a bet on me at a tournament with another school’s instructor.
  • My first real “street fight” was handled without seriously hurting the attacker, or me getting seriously hurt for that matter.
  • Discipline and respect for others comes natural to me, as my instructor was very diligent in making sure each of his students learned them. 
I would like to point out that everyone’s journey is different, I am merely recalling mine and how it has helped me understand how differently children view the martial arts than adults. There are many instructors who can get through to children much better than I can and I am not implying that I am always right when it comes to these things.

We must realize how important our roles are to children in the martial arts. We have the advantage of appearing like a “superhero” in their eyes and have a tremendous opportunity to instill confidence, respect, discipline and a healthy lifestyle in each in every one of them. The fact that you could positively change someone’s life is a pretty awe-inspiring yet sobering at the same time. This goes for adult students as well. The next time you are instructing a student I would like for you to remember your role in their life – as I can promise you that they will.

If you have any questions or would like more info on any of these points, please leave me a comment below. Even more importantly – these are my conclusions based on my experiences, please share yours!

Troy Seeling is a 1st degree black belt and instructor in Tae Kwon Do, with 5 years experience in Boxing and a two-year white belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  Troy also instructs a strength and fitness class, and helps to manage his families' dojo, North Texas Karate Academy  In his spare time, he enjoys trying different forms of physical fitness, including Olympic weight lifting and distance running. He also enjoys film photography with antique cameras.  You can contact Troy at troyseeling@aol.com.

Ed note: Opinions in "Troy-Kwon-Do" posts are those of Troy Seeling, and I don't always agree. I got a perfect score on my green belt too.  Of course, I was 40 years old...  -The Stick Chick