Does your child want to be the next Bruce Lee or Michelle Yeoh? Martial arts are popular with kids, for good reason—but how can you find the right discipline, school, and instructor?
Master Allyson Appen—a seventh degree black belt, with more than 35 years training in Cuong Nhu, and, just as importantly, a mom—knows what to look for.
1. The instructor is more important than the school or the discipline. The single biggest factor in learning a martial art is an instructor who relates to and inspires your child. Go watch classes with several instructors at several different schools. Telltale signs of a good school: focused, happy kids and instructors who act with discipline and kindness. If you see bullying instructors or miserable kids, try a different school.
2. Make sure everyone is treated with respect. Most martial arts schools and disciplines have an explicit culture of respect. That means you should be able to see an instructor treating all her students fairly instead of playing favorites, students treating each other considerately instead of forming cliques, and guests and parents welcomed to watch classes and ask questions.
3. The right discipline of martial arts for your kid is whatever discipline he’ll do regularly. Having fun and attending regularly are more important than learning discipline-specific kicks or punches. A lot of the benefit of martial arts at a low level, especially for kids up to about age 7, is just getting a regular calisthenic workout. Students should expect to attend two to three classes a week if they want to improve steadily.
4. For most kids, stick to the “hard systems.” It’s usually best to steer toward the so-called “hard systems,” like karate, judo, and kung fu, rather than the “soft systems,” like taiji and qigong. That’s both because the hard systems tend to be more hierarchical in a positive way (wanting to work really hard to get that green stripe on your white belt is a good motivator for most kids) and because the soft systems tend to be more internally focused and slower – not always great for little balls of energy.
5. Make sure you’re comfortable with the sparring contact level. Kids at most schools work on the basics independently, but they may also get into actual sparring “combat” on a regular basis. All schools should require sparring gear for safety and should make sure kids don’t get into dangerous situations. Some schools and disciplines (Muay Thai, for instance) can involve pretty hard contact, while others tend to stick to softer contact.
6. Find a school that’s convenient. Since regularity is key to improvement, make sure the school you choose is close to your house, your office, or your kid’s day school, so it’s easy to show up for classes.
7. Find a school where your child will get one-on-one attention. As with any skill, students learn more and progress faster when class sizes are small enough that instructors can talk to students individually, correcting their form or suggesting a different approach. In general, but not always, that means finding a smaller school.
Photo: Örlygur Hnefill/Flickr