Just because your child doesn’t love sports doesn’t mean they’re not an athlete. See why they might love martial arts, plus 3 questions to ask when choosing.
By Rachel Stamper
Great news: Your kids don’t have to be “natural” athletes to excel in martial arts. In fact, this type of organized physical activity offers all of the perks of team sports (and a few extra benefits, too, such as self-defense skills) — without the aspects that tend to stress some kids. We asked one ActivityHero provider to share her observations on why this is true … and what kids can gain from trying a class in karate, taekwondo, or another type of martial art. Here’s what we learned …
Sports can boost your child’s self-esteem, improve coordination, enhance fitness, and encourage lifelong healthy habits. If you’re like many parents, though, you may have found that your kid didn’t dig the team sports vibe. One team member of ActivityHero from San Jose, California, says her daughter, Anushka S., thought that team sports were cool … until she was actually playing them.
“When she would go to soccer games, all she was interested in was sitting by the side and playing with the grass,” says her mother, Shilpa D. “She was happier to be subbed out so she could socialize with her friends.” Since trying martial arts, though, Anushka has found an activity that challenges her in a way that she thoroughly enjoys. “She likes that it is not competitive with others,” says Shilpa. “But at the same time she has her own milestones to achieve. She loves moving on to the next belt-level. She is very persistent about achieving her goal.”
Maybe your child, like Anushka, isn’t the competitive type. Or perhaps your kid played sports as a youngster and lost interest when the age level — and intensity — increased. Or maybe you don’t see team sports as a good fit for your child who has special needs. Whatever the reason, if you are looking for a positive alternative to team play, you might want to do as Shilpa and Anushka did and consider adding martial arts to your child’s after school activities.
I recently spoke with Meggie Presti, owner and primary instructor of Core Taekwondo in San Mateo, California, to get her thoughts on martial arts as a healthy alternative to team sports. “I have all types of kids in my classes that benefit in their own way,” says Presti. “I have kids that have ADHD or dyslexia, kids that just march to a different drummer, and kids that tend to get lost in the shuffle. I also have students that are simply more into academics or prefer video games to outdoor games.”
Here, Presti shares some of the perks of martial arts training for all types of kids, along with some tips to help you choose a martial arts school for your child.
What is the biggest difference between martial arts and team sports?
PRESTI: Team sports force everyone to do the same activity at the same time. The big difference with martial arts is that everything is individualized and self-paced. Children have instructional time in class, but then it’s up to them to develop learning habits to address areas where they need more practice.
For example, if I’m struggling with a front snap kick, that’s on me. I can ask for help, turn to other students, or ask the instructor. And at tournaments and belt tests, you’re scored for your performance and success is on you. This teaches accountability and encourages and rewards individual effort.
How does martial arts training compare with team sports in terms of inclusion and competitiveness?
PRESTI: Team sports for younger kids are more inclusive, with everyone getting equal time, but as kids get older, those less confident or less skilled may be benched. But with martial arts, your child will never be excluded.
There is also a different sense of competitiveness. On a team, if you can’t hit the ball, you let the team down — that’s a lot of pressure. But with martial arts, you are challenged at your own ability level. You progress on individual merit and it’s a powerful experience because it was all on you. Your child can say, “I did this.”
Are martial arts best for a certain “type” of child?
PRESTI: No. I work with all types of kids. We instruct kids who struggle with weight or self-esteem. Kids that are smaller than their classmates, that struggle academically or socially, or that would rather be at home behind their computer. All kids can enjoy martial arts. It’s different from other sports they’ve seen or tried. Kids that stick with martial arts are those that need success outside of a group setting. No matter what age your child is now, they can develop athleticism, confidence, and a love of physical activity. And martial arts can benefit kids with a wide array of special needs, as long as it’s developmental appropriate.
What are the benefits of martial arts beyond fitness?
PRESTI: Not only is martial arts athletic, but it builds amazing coordination. Martial arts wires your brain differently: Studies have shown martial arts helps in math, logical progressive reasoning, and standardized test performance. Studies show a correlation between physical fitness and test performance. And other studies specifically show martial arts students score better on memory and other cognitive functions. Martial arts involves moving your arms and legs in different directions, which builds cross-coordination. And it’s helpful for kids with weight issues, since an hour of martial arts burns close to 700 calories.
PRESTI: We live in a team sports society where teammates are also friends. But if you’re not on a team, you don’t have that opportunity to socialize. Many martial arts schools are a community. At Core TKD, we have a Halloween carnival, parents’ night out, ice skating, and all sorts of non-martial-arts activities outside of class. We also offer camps in summer and during school breaks. Plus, while the kids are in class, parents get to know each other and become resources for each other. Even though kids compete individually, there is a definite sense of camaraderie and community that helps improve socialization skills.
How do martial arts increase self-confidence?
PRESTI: In martial arts, there’s a notion of ‘this is my success.’ We pay attention to and build up each child. A lot of kids come in with low confidence. They may be picked last in PE class so they don’t want to do physical activities. I’ve noticed over years of teaching martial arts that every child does something well — whether it’s doing a certain kick, doing push-ups, or putting in extra effort. We notice areas where they excel from the start. A good instructor will make each child feel special. We train as a group, but we see each child as an individual. Low-confidence kids that may hide in the back in other sports can’t do this in martial arts — and they don’t want to.
Can you share a recent success story?
PRESTI: Yes. I have a female student now who is on track to complete her black belt this Spring. She is from a family of 12 people that live in a cramped three-bedroom apartment so she doesn’t get a lot of ‘me’ time or space. She has two special needs siblings and is the glue that holds her family together. Her dad enrolled her here because he wanted her to have something that was all hers. On her first day, she said, “I can’t do this,” but her dad told her to try. Now, she’s one of the hardest working kids I’ve had. After two-and-a-half years, she’s completing her black belt — and other kids have told me they want to be like her.
Do martial arts also appeal to kids who do like team sports and are natural athletes?
PRESTI: One of my most determined students is a girl that competes in cross-country and track at school and decided to try martial arts. She’s on my elite team that competes at a high level. She is on our demo team, is at the top of the class, and usually wins awards, but sparring was one area where she was lacking. I encouraged her to recognize this challenge and meet it. She dedicated herself to mastering this weaker skill and is now in the master sparring class. She admits she still doesn’t love sparring, but she appreciates the challenge in an area where she struggles.
What’s the best way to choose a martial arts studio?
PRESTI: Not every instructor is the right fit for every child. Your child needs to make a connection with their instructor — this is important to keep kids motivated to keep going. When choosing a martial arts program for your child, I encourage shopping two or three schools and asking three important questions:
- What do you do if a child misbehaves? Some programs will do push-ups or time outs. At our school, we rely on our culture to prevent misbehaving. Make sure you are comfortable with the school’s disciplinary model and that you will be allowed to observe classes.
- How long does the contract last? Some programs ask for a commitment of six months or a year, but others may ask for up to five years. Avoid a contract that locks you in too long. If your child wants to quit, you may be asked to keep paying until the contract runs out.
- Who will be teaching my child? Some studios take anyone with a black belt as an instructor. And large programs with hundreds of students may offer no consistency in instruction. You want a studio where your child has the same instructor at every class.
The bottom line is that if a program doesn’t feel right, don’t sign up: You want to make it a good experience for your child. Do your homework first and look for a program you both feel good about. Try a free lesson or a month-long trial before you sign a contract so you can evaluate the programs thoroughly.
Check out Meggie Presti’s Core TKD on ActivityHero and see class and camp offerings as well as after-school programs. Or, if you live in a different geographical area, visit ActivityHero to find martial arts programs near you. Martial arts may be just the thing to get your sedentary or sports-hating kid off the sofa and into the dojo!
VR Chomitz, MM Slining, et al, “Is there a relationship between physical fitness and academic achievement? Positive results from public school children in the northeastern United States,” Journal of School Health, 79 (1) (Jan 2009): 30–37.
Alesi Marianha, Antonino Bianco, et al, “Motor and cognitive development: the role of karate,” Muscle, Ligaments, and Tendons Journal, 4 (2) (Apr 2014): 114–120.