I previously wrote an article in 2017 on the 5 reasons Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is the Best Martial Art for Kids. Since writing that, I’ve changed my mind a bit on this topic. Let’s just say, my thoughts have evolved.
In retrospect, there are more martial art styles out there that are just as good for kids, but other factors have to be in place to make them worthwhile.
Let’s take a look at what makes a great style of martial arts for kids:
B.E.E.P. - Some criteria we’re looking for:
Builds - Independence & Confidence - letting children teach one another in class, helps them to become more independent and responsible. For tens of thousands of years of human tribal living, younger kids learned from older kids - not adults.
Kids crave responsibility, and build confidence in themselves and others when they are entrusted to help one another learn, and work together to discover and solve complex tasks. As instructors, we are guides. You don’t make a clay sculpture with a tank, you use a light hand to make adjustments here and there.
Giving kids time to work on something together in class, sparks their imagination, gives them questions to ask, and builds confidence as they experience success in figuring things out, or helping others.
Entrusts - Children with powerful tools - nothing screams trust and acceptance to a child than when you trust them with something powerful. Think about the first time your parents let you light the fire, or help cook. Locking children away from ‘real’ martial arts techniques, only reinforces feelings of inadequacy, or immaturity. Martial arts class should teach a child real techniques, and how to behave with them. This encourages responsibility and maturity, and feelings of trust.
Encourages - Freedom of Expression - Martial Arts, is called an art, not a science, because there is a personalization to it. We are not creating an army of simulacrum.
One boxer, judoka, wrestler, grappler, etc., can gravitate to an entirely different skillset from another. As teachers, our responsibility is to show the art, encourage a strong foundation, and encourage personal development in the direction of what works for the child.
Provides - Mental Engagement - kids are smart, and they have an incredible aptitude to learn new and exciting things. While techniques need to be broken down, and simplified for instruction, they do not need to be watered down to the point of boredom because the audience is young.
How a class and instructor approaches complex subject matter, is of more import. The audience (young or old) should be mentally challenged, but not overwhelmed. Monotony must be masked by challenge. Repetition is the mother of all skill - but that doesn’t mean a 9 year old needs to throw one type of punch 10,000x in one class while standing in a horse stance, just to get those reps in.
The punch can be included as part of a combination, or combined with a takedown, or kick, and worked with a partner. It stimulates the brain, and challenges the student to make the punch work with control, discipline, and technique.
No matter the style, what’s more important, is that the school, or gym, the art, the program, hit’s these criteria to ensure children are getting the most from their martial art.
When I was a kid, I wanted to do martial arts so bad. I wasn’t one of these Bruce Lee fanatics, like a majority of my peers in the martial arts industry. Quite frankly, I don’t think I even knew who Bruce Lee was growing up.
At that time in my life, I was living in a small town in New Hampshire with one General Store in the center which included a lunch counter in the back, along with my first beloved introduction to video games in 1980 when they got the first Asteroids arcade game.
There was a shack called a Post Office (used to be in a house), a police ‘office’ as part of the town hall, and a fire station run by volunteers. TV consisted of Black and White for most of my youth, and cable didn’t exist. We had bunny ears and channels 4, 5, 8, & 9 for VHF, and 25, 38, 56 for UHF. Bruce Lee may have shown up on the movie rental shelves in the General Store, but if he did, I don’t recall.
What did show up? Magazines. NINJA magazines, and comic books with G.I. JOE - who’s toughest, baddest, most intriguing character (on the good and bad side) was…a Ninja! I loved all things Ninja…that I could find. There wasn’t much back then, in my town anyway. The magazines I could find on martial arts, were peppered with advertisements in the back for ninja gear.
I would get a copy of whatever issue I could, diligently circle every item on my inventory list, and proudly present my supply sheet to my mother for request to fulfill.
It was promptly denied. Each…and Every…time. “No. No. No. You are not having throwing stars. No, you can’t have a Kusari Gama (what the hell is a Kusari Gama!?!?!?!), and you definitely cannot have boots with toes that allow you to throw knives at your enemies!”
My attempts were a dismal failure. I resigned to digging through page after page of my magazines, and comic books, later discovering an amazing book full of imagery, items, stories, and lore. A book that allowed me to build my own ninja warrior creations in my bedroom and in my head - ‘Oriental Adventures’ an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons book by Gary Gygax and published by TSR.
While days would go by, of getting the crap kicked out of me by ‘Benny Big Lips’ (the neighborhood thug that would routinely trash us - never of course because we called him that…), I could hide in my imagination and pretend to be a powerful covert warrior, shrouded in mysticism and taking on my enemies through the deceit, shadows, and stealth of Ninjutsu!
Only in my head though. Back in the real-world, there were no martial art schools anywhere near us. The ‘only’ thing available, was an opportunity my friend told me about. He had been taking Judo lessons from some guy that lived in town.
I had no idea what Judo was, but when he told me that he was learning to throw kids around like ragdolls, I decided to dive in. Anything that would help me to one day beat the snot out of Benny Big Lips had to be worth a look.
So I went with him to Judo class one day. We drove to a house in the middle of the woods, and the class/makeshift dojo, was in the guys living room; couches and chairs pushed out of the way. A rudimentary mat thrown down on the floor.
This, in and of itself did not raise alarms, it was a small town in the Cow Hampshire after all. But…as the class progressed, I got some weird vibes from the instructor (the kind that make your skin crawl). I promptly decided this place wasn’t for me, and never went back. Thus ended my career in Judo, before it ever began.
Eventually, we moved out of that small town, and into the big city (big for New Hampshire). I went from a school with 350 kids across 8 grades, to a school with 750 kids in two grades; multiple floors, institutionalized decor/accoutrements; and populated with a large cadre of students which included weaponized ‘gangs’. Something we only pretended to have while terrorizing the playgrounds on recess in my previous school.
In retrospect, this probably would have been an ideal time for me to start martial arts, but life had plenty of turmoil in store, and it was honestly the last thing on my mind. Regretfully, it wasn’t until adulthood, and during my military service before I actually stepped onto the mats once more.
However, having spent plenty of time being bullied, beat up, and daydreaming as a child of ways to become empowered into being able to defend myself against bigger, stronger opponents; I can tell you definitively, that your child does not see martial arts class as a place they are going to mentally starve/suffer, or dance through the air. What do I mean by that?
I mean, that your child’s ideals, or imaginary ideal of martial arts, does not include going to a place where they have to sit in some ridiculous looking stance, count in a foreign language, yell strange noises, and pretend to behave while an instructor yells at them.
Their preconceived notions of martial arts, do not include dancing around the room in pajamas, while doing fighting moves in the air. Unless…you plan to show them how balls of fire, water, air, or earth will fly out of their hands while doing said moves.
Your children want to be stronger, faster, more confident, capable, and…mentally stimulated! Kids are not dumb. Quite the opposite. They require large amounts of brain food as they learn to navigate this giant world. They also need to be trusted with dangerous objects sometimes, and they definitely need to be mentally engaged while enveloped within a learning process.
A massive pet peeve of mine, is martial arts schools across America, where a child shows up to learn self-defense, and is instead introduced to games of tag, dodgeball, jump the dragon’s tail, or whatever other non-martial arts related entertainment activity is used to substitute actual training.
If you were a child, or even you as an adult (it really doesn’t matter, and for my purpose here, it may serve you better to think of it in the terms of being an adult), how would you feel if…
You chose to take up skiing. You signed up for ski lessons. Prior to skiing, you likely have an idea of what skiing is, and indubitably you have seen pictures, video, or some other form of media that depicts people skiing.
On your first day, you arrive at the slopes for your 45 minute class on downhill skiing. You’re introduced to your instructor and the other people in your class. You begin with group calisthenics to warm up. You’re ok with this part, because someone is telling you it’s necessary for safety of training, or you are following along with the instructor led group.
Now, after the warm-up, your instructor says - “Ok, now we’re going to play dodgeball. Ready…Set…Go…” You are completely confused, and have no idea why you are playing dodgeball, but in the milliseconds you were thinking this over in your head, someone decided to throw a ball right at your face. Now you are diving for your life, or eating rubber. You quickly switch into survival mode, or retaliation mode, and succumb to battle that ensued.
Perhaps you successfully beamed the ball off someone else’s head later in the game. It felt so good your brain decided you liked this sort of thing. It was primal. It was base. As the game subsides, you are told to put everything away, and now we’re going to learn some skiing. There’s about 20 minutes of the initial 45 minutes left to the lesson.
You move to the area for the instruction, and you spend about 15 minutes learning a fraction of what there is to know about how to ski. To make matters worse, you are shown the moves on how to ski, in the air, but you aren’t allowed to actually ski. This is the equivalent to a modern martial arts class in America.
Too dangerous for kids…
Just as you are getting into the groove, you are yanked out of the lesson, and told it is now time to play another game. That is, if you behaved during your lesson, otherwise you are in timeout. Another game ensues, maybe this time it is tag, you get to play because you certainly behaved!
Upon leaving the class, you feel one of the following:
You were beat to crap during that dodgeball game and hated every second of it.
You had limited success at dodgeball and want a chance to pay that jerk back that hit you 15 times in 30 seconds.
You were the jerk and you loved it so much you can’t wait to go back to ski lessons.
REALLY liked the skiing part, and figure that you can deal with the dodgeball stuff because this is the only place to learn skiing, and you really want to ski.
As an adult, you control your wallet, your time, and your ability to choose whether or not to return to this environment. For a kid that feels insecure, weak, or is being bullied, and wants more than anything else in life - a solution to their woes, they will put up with a lot if they think they are going to eventually learn how to protect themselves.
In the long run though, we are doing kids a disservice by refusing to teach them, and entrust them with ‘real’ martial arts.
So what is the best martial art for kids?
In my opinion, any martial art (Boxing, Wrestling, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, Mantis Boxing, etc.) where a child is actually trusted, allowed self-expression (making the art work for themselves), and mentally challenged and engaged so they learn the art that will empower them.
Look At Wrestling
I’ll use this because it’s not only a martial art, but in America it is the most likely martial art you’ll find inside a school system, or endorsed by, as a school sport.
You do not show up for wrestling practice, and stand in a horse stance for 2 minutes. You show up and start drilling with warm-ups. You drill techniques.
After 6 months of wrestling, most kids that wrestle could wipe the mats with a comparable child who has been studying traditional martial arts for 4 times as long. Take a moment to mull that over please.
I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s an acceptable ratio.
So why, when it comes to traditional martial arts, do we bore the hell out of kids, refuse to trust them with the tools that inspired us to get into martial arts in the first place, and ultimately set them up for failure when some school bully finds out they are taking martial arts, and decides to test their mettle?
If we need to play all these games with kids to get them to keep coming back to class, then maybe, just maybe, we’re a giant B-O-R-E!!!
(PS - I personally love dodgeball. It’s a fun game and I always enjoyed it growing up. However, when I showed up for my first Hang-Gliding lesson, if we had played dodgeball, or any other game to start out, I would have promptly exfiltrated the AO!)