Martial Arts for Kids–Sometimes it’s Tough
I speak to a lot of parents who express to me how absolutely nerve wracking it is to watch the struggles that their children encounter while on the mat. Imagine a different sport. If my kid is the worst one on a soccer field, she may not get the ball much. She may experience anxiety about it if she does. But at the end of the game, she basically just stood on the field and hopefully had a good time. In kids’ martial arts, being the worst one in class looks a little different. Being the worst one in Jiu-Jitsu or Muay Thai means she had some tough-looking sessions where she was the recipient of another kid imposing their will on her physically. It is difficult to watch them lose and work through what’s going on mentally and emotionally. They are very different lessons in growth and development.
I own martial arts schools, and I am an evangelist of the doctrine of good martial arts for children. The benefits are innumerable and it teaches survival skills that are not taught elsewhere. It teaches respectful but firm physical contact, and how to be a good person. Through martial arts, kids develop compassion for others, and learn that we are all to be respected and heard. Their training teaches them how to be humble in victory and defeat. It also teaches how to help out your fellow training partners, when to go hard and when to be soft.
A Parent’s Point of View
Muay Thai Boxing and Brazilian (Gracie) Jiu Jitsu have been in my life for over forty years. All my best friends, most influential business influences, and many others dear to me I’ve gotten to know through martial arts. I attended a traditional university, but the education I have received on the mat has been far more influential in my journey. Both in terms of self-discovery and relationship building.
Because of all this, I can honestly say that sitting on the side watching my children learn, and being in the heat of the struggle, are some of the most difficult moments for me. I have two children (a boy and a girl) and they are similar to me in my younger years. Like I was, they are small in stature for their age. I was a “late bloomer” and as such, the physical challenges with my peers were amplified. As a smaller individual, it’s difficult to have the confidence that you can overcome a significantly larger opponent. In my own martial arts journey, there were years of being the metaphorical nail who comes in and gets beat on. No one wants to be bad or mediocre at something, so watching my children struggle with this is not an easy task.
Growth and Greatness Come from Hardship
I can tell you that all the best martial artists I know started as children. The most technically sound and inspiring artists I know were all training when they were small. They were getting held down and dominated by their physically superior teammates. As in many sports, the best competitors often do not start their careers on the podium. They start out getting punished and losing a lot, which ends one of two ways: overcoming or giving up.
Of this group, the ones who persevered over time learned how to overcome the physical differences with technique. They learned how to get smashed by a larger, more confident, and agile opponent. Over time, they learned to come out on top. They learned about the struggles often encountered in life and how to persevere even when it’s tough. Achieving their personal greatness was a lesson in how to avoid defeat their own way. Regardless of their place on the podium, they learned how to struggle and not quit. I truly believe this ability to conquer adversity is one of the most pivotal attributes for a healthy and happy human.
The Fragility Theory – We Get Better When We Fall
Given the option, would we shelter our children from all hardships and painful experiences?Jonathan Haidt has a great idea that he calls the “Fragility Theory.” It says that we humans are different from something delicate like a glass, in that we grow from struggle. If we knock over a wine glass, it breaks, so it must be protected. If we knock over a plastic glass, it does not break, but it also does not improve. Humans are more like an immune system. If you keep a person in a bubble–thus not testing their immune system–they would become very fragile and prone to sickness. Our immune system gets stronger when we expose it to viruses and diseases. Humans become more physically, emotionally and mentally resilient with appropriate stressors on those systems.
My Decision as a Parent
My personal experience with my kids might be somewhat unique as I am the number-one believer in our academy and the benefits children derive from participating. Due to my position in life and my beliefs about martial arts for kids, my kids do not have a choice about whether to do Jiu-Jitsu and/or Thai Boxing. This made it very difficult to watch them when they were the smallest kids on the mat. My daughter was often the only girl in the class. It wasn’t infrequent to see her get beat up and consequently not want to train. Not wanting to go back to training after being pummeled was a constant challenge.
After some time I decided, like swimming lessons, that it was so important that there would not be a discussion about whether they go or not. Simply put, they go. I believe it is such a huge benefit to their life that I’m making that decision for them. There are certain moments as a parent you have to decide between exercising your ‘parental rights’ to decision making. In other moments, you allow your children to be their own autonomous beings. This was an example of the former.
The Fruits of Their Labors
I don’t want them to be physically intimidated or to feel awkward about physical touch. I want them to have the resilience to stand up to a bully, to make decisions that aren’t based on fear or intimidation. Once I made the decision that going to class was not a discussion, things got easier. For a while they still got beat up, but over time and with consistency they began to turn the tables. Now they actually really like class because they are getting better at it, and the improvements are recognizable. They have good days where they are the ones dominating other students.
I’m most proud watching how they care for all the students. When students are shy and learning, my kids take it easy on them. As true competitors they might still beat them, but it’s in a calm, controlled manner. I often see them give those less experienced students victories in a selfless way.
The next match might be against a less skilled but frustrated opponent that tries to really out-muscle and spaz their way to victory, and I watch my little prized possessions calmly deal with the situation. I watch my 11-year-old daughter go against far more aggressive boys with less experience. Although I admittedly get nervous for her, she calmly deals with the situation. She is starting to be able to handle people 10-20% bigger than her, be it boys or girls. I see the smiles and confidence starting to really shine. This all started with me making the decision for them that they are going to get proficient at martial arts.
Keeping Kids Well Rounded
I am a man of many passions and interests, especially as it pertains to physical and outdoor activities. As such, I think it’s very important to expose my kids to a variety of activities across the board. My kids do music, soccer, ski team, basketball, climbing and weekend crafting activities. I also try to have some time for unstructured play. It’s good to let them use their imagination to come up with their next adventure. My eyes are peeled looking for their special passion, if they have one. And during the journey they will, as professor Eliot Marshall says, “learn to swim and learn to defend themselves” as these are life-saving skills.
I try to be very cognizant of not pushing them too hard into my dream. I don’t care if they are BJJ Champions. However, as Eastons, they must have a reasonable level of proficiency. If and when they fall into a river or get pulled out to sea, they will know how to swim because they have put significant time and work into gaining a level of proficiency in the water. When they get bullied, they will already have some options. They’ve been rehearsed, and if the proverbial push comes to shove, my kids will be less frantic. Instead of asking, “What should we do?” they will have tools to utilize.
When most of us start training, we feel like everyone beats us. This is especially true for small children. As we progress, the kids around us progress too. When we finally start to do well, we may get moved up to a new class where we are getting dominated by everyone again. All this stress can understandably hinder motivation. It is important to get some time training with more junior students to help remind yourself that all this stress actually does make us grow, even if we lose sight of that during some classes. When kids in the older classes get moved up, I like to bring them back to visit and help in the beginner class periodically to be reminded of their progress.
Getting Comfortable with “You Suck”
In my own personal life I have experienced many personal (albeit relative) hardships. I truly believe I have become a far more resilient human because of these struggles. The truth is I’m pretty good at “sucking.” I worked in Taos, NM, as a dishwasher for a few years at a hotel. I worked with a kid who was a very smart and physically superior to me. Although he could have been more kind, in some ways I am grateful to him for doing his small part in making me who I am. He would constantly tell me “you suck” and remind me of his physical superiority and that he thought I was horrible.
Today it is clear to me that being comfortable with “sucking” has truly helped me overcome so many obstacles in life. When faced with hardship I don’t quit, I don’t get super frustrated, I’ve been here my whole life. I look the fire in the eye and I keep working until I figure it out, all with a smile. For this, I am truly grateful for all that martial arts has taught me. For all those tough battles and not-so-kind people in my life, for all the difficult experiences. Had I been coddled, protected, or if things had come excessively easy for me, I might not have the perspective on life I have today.
Controlled Exposure to Struggle
I am constantly reminded of my own struggle when I watch my kids struggle. We try to balance protection and appropriate difficulties and challenges for our kids. In today’s era, I often see what I perceive to be an overbearing fear of danger. We have a lot of stress about what we can and cannot let our kids do. People think its safer to leave our kids at home with a smart phone or video games than to send them out to a park. We won’t even let our kids out of the house without a phone.
I believe we must resist this urge. I don’t have to know where my kid is 24/7, I have to teach him how to survive. This starts with a walk home from school, a solo trip to the park, the memorization of two or three important phone numbers. So when he faces the struggle of the day, he is able to stay calm and work his way through it. When he is on the mat facing a bigger stronger opponent and he glances over to me, I can give him a genuine smile and thumbs up that says, “You got this, I believe in you.” And slowly, over time, this works. He’s got it!!
Practicing The Struggle
That being said, it is important to protect our kids from grave mistakes. But we need to make sure we are letting them, or more importantly even setting them up for, appropriate challenges, failures and mistakes. They are not wine glasses, they are smart, learning little humans and with proper testing, failing, challenging, stressing, they will have the greatest chance to overcome the inevitable challenges life will throw at them and move through them with grace and panache.
The most dangerous thing we could do for them is lock them in the house with a smart phone, and social media, and encourage them to avoid the real world. They need to learn how to overcome the struggle, they need to continually flex that muscle. The amount of teen suicide and self-inflicted pain is one of the most dangerous struggles our kids’ generations are dealing with. Getting them out in the world and teaching them self worth is invaluable. So get your kid to a park, get them into Easton Training Center, make the commitment and help ready them to lead us into the future.
See you on the mat!