The Benefits of Martial Arts Training and What To Look For in a Studio
Why Study Martial Arts?
Let me begin by laying my cards on the table; I've been studying the martial arts for 25 years now and teaching both part and full time for at least the last fifteen years. As such, I might, admittedly, have a bias on this particular subject.
There are a plethora of styles deriving from ancient traditions (such as Shaolin or Shotokan) to more recent formulations (such as Tai Kwon Do). These styles vary drastically in emphasis, efficacy, and physical impact. As such there is a martial arts to fit nearly anyone. From improving executive brain functions that increase focus in school aged children diagnosed with ADHD to stemming the aggression of adolescents to providing the geriatric population a low impact means of exercise, the martial arts are that rarest of endeavors; an activity that integrates the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual aspects of life and propels the practitioner toward a better version of them self while increasing their overall wellness.
Unfortunately only about 2% of the American population will even go so far as to inquire about lessons. This is most probably due to an ever increasing choice of extracurricular activities, a fear of the unknown, and a negative portrayal of the martial arts in movies and on TV.
As an individual who can personally cite hundreds of cases of anecdotal evidence to support the contention that the martial arts are a efficacious promoter of wellness, I can further point to peer reviewed studies (one of which I'll be publishing shortly in a mental health counseling journal) that show that martial artists report increased confidence, decreased stress, better sleep habits, improved immunological function, and higher levels of physical health. If you are able to find the right school you can hardly make a better investment in yourself or your child.
What to Avoid
Unfortunately, the teaching of the martial arts is an almost entirely unregulated industry and those frauds that take advantage of this sour the martial arts for many and damage it's public perception. Here are a few things to look out for when choosing a school. (Just note that not all schools that match any particular item on this list are necessarily bad schools).
- Contracts-Beware of schools that aggressively push you into a contract that commits you to long term billing agreements.
- Jack of all Trade Schools-Many studios as a business model will teach the, "favor of the month," such as MMA or teach such a wide variety of styles that no instructor can be adequately versed in them all.
- Younger Masters-The mastery level of martial arts should take a very long time to reach, (I'm still not there after 25 years) so if the studios instructor is under 30 and he/she claims to be a master or grand master be weary.
- Child Instructors-While young advanced students can be invaluable in the assisting of teaching a class, (this is how I began to learn how to teach) an adult should always be leading classes. This is because you don't want to trust the safety of your child in a potentially dangerous activity to a child and because children simply don't have the life perspective to meet the needs of adult students.
- Militant Instruction-Not only is this type of instruction unnecessary, it can be harmful to the emotional development of child. Observe the Instructors; they should be warm, friendly and patient with all of their students. In my own studio we stress three school rules; Respect, Self-Control, and Self-Discipline. These are lessons that can be taught by experienced instructors without ever resorting to excessive authoritarianism or the shaming of a child.
- Evasive Answers-Ask questions before you begin classes or sign up your child, and ask a lot of them. Ask about the roots of the style being taught, ask about the Instructors' instructor, and ask what if any affiliations the studio has with NAPMA (National Association of Professional Martial Artists) or if they belong to a larger chain of schools. The larger chains that have a long history and scores of locations have typically refined their teaching techniques through instructor seminars, have a unified curriculum (helpful if you ever have to move and can find another studio in that organization), stellar class safety records, and often regional tournaments where you and your child can make new friends through friendly competition.
- Teaching children too much-The martial arts can be lethal or potentially maiming. Be sure that you choose a studio, especially for your child, that emphasizes respect, compassion, and control. A studio should not be teaching children joint locking techniques, choking techniques, or strikes to the front of the throat. These techniques, while appropriate for adult students, should not be part of a child's martial arts curriculum.
- A No observation Policy-This should be a huge red-flag for parents. If a studio does not allow you to observe classes and all the interactions between your child and the staff there may be something very wrong. You after-all are paying for this service and should be allowed to judge if the instructor's seem to be doing a competent job in delivering the service. What's more, you wouldn't trust your child to be alone with any other person you don't know and trust, why should this be any different in a martial arts school?
What to Look For
The days of dank, smelly Dojo's in bad areas of town are none bygone. The school you select should be tidy and sanitary with all the proper safety equipment readily available for use. The instructors should be professional looking with a friendly demeanor. (The nastier and more distant an instructor acts usually the more insecure he/she is in what the are doing.) The school should have a lobby from which parents can observe their child's class. The class should incorporate some form of meditation, usually at the beginning and end of class. Don't worry this is not a religious practice so much as a mindfulness exercise that makes one aware of the stress they are harboring bodily, the regrets they are holding onto mentally, and the anxiety they are projecting into the future. By becoming aware of these things and giving your self a break from them, you prepare your mind to learn and begin to appreciate the serenity of living in the moment.
If the studio is doing a good job, you or your child should be excited for classes. The classes should be challenging but not discouragingly so. The curriculum should be presented in a logical progression from basic techniques to more advanced techniques. You and your child should leave feeling like you got a good physical work out and like you learned something appropriate for your level of experience.
Good studios often talk to their young students about how they are expected to behave outside of the Dojo, also. They should stress the need for self-control and respect in the classroom and at home and teach the invaluable lesson of self-discipline, namely that anything worth having is worth working for.
What You Should Get for Your Time and Money
The martial arts is a sizable investment, fiscally, mentally, and psychically. While change certainly does not take place over night with time, at the right studio, shy-timid children often become more assertive and confident, they are less disruptive both at home and in school, more respectful and empathetic toward both their peers and adults and better able to focus on and complete difficult tasks in all areas of their lives.
Adults should expect to become more physically fit, with more endurance and decreased blood-pressure (though the martial arts are not a substitute for physician recommended medication). They should find the practice of meditation both in the studio and at home to be an effective coping mechanism for stress. And they should notice that they become more cognizant of their surroundings with an ever-increasing confidence in their ability to protect themselves from outside hostility, either by deescalating the situation or by using defensive tactics if absolutely necessary.