Why Study Martial Arts?
Physical, Mental, and Social Benefits
For people new to the martial arts, the benefits of martial arts training might not be obvious. Some will think, sure, it’s a great workout–just look at that “Ty Bo” guy. And of course it’s good for self-defense, with all that punching and kicking. But the benefits of martial arts training, especially for children and teenagers, are much more than simple physical improvements. Martial arts benefits span a spectrum of physical, mental, and social attributes, all of which are learned and improved through martial arts training.
Physical benefits include the following:
· Physical fitness
· Personal security
Mental benefits include the following:
· Learning abilities
· Goal setting
Social benefits include the following:
We’ll cover each of these attributes–benefits of martial arts training–in this article. We’ll also discuss special benefits for girls, which make martial arts training for young ladies even more important.
Naturally, these benefits also apply to most adults as well. However, developing these attributes early in life contributes to a healthy, happy adulthood. That’s why it’s even more important to get those kids kicking.
Kung fu started as a way for studious monks to get physically fit. A Buddhist monk, traveling from his native India to what is now southern China, encountered a temple full of sickly monks–some who were spending so much time studying that they were neglecting their physical health. This place, the famous Shaolin Temple, soon became the wellspring of martial arts knowledge for much of Asia.
Cardio, Strength, Balance
Martial arts, taken as pure exercise, develops cardiovascular fitness as well as muscular strength. Martial artists also enjoy a heightened sense of balance, as well as learning specific skills to avoid injury (like learning how to fall properly in throwing arts like aikido and jujitsu).
The benefits of physical fitness for kids are well-documented. According to the American Council on Exercise, physically active children have fewer chronic health problems than kids who are sedentary. Regardless of which martial art your child studies, moving the body in martial arts techniques is great exercise. While not as calorie-consuming as its more fitness-oriented renditions, like cardio kickboxing or Tae Bo, martial arts classes exercise all joints and muscle groups. Classes usually begin with warmups, then stretching, followed by intense exercise and a subsequent cooldown. Regular training causes incremental improvements in fitness.
One Alarming Statistic: There’s also specific physical benefits unique to the martial arts. For example, aikido’s founder Morehei Ueshiba stated that the rolls and somersaults in aikido were beneficial to internal organs. These rolling breakfalls, used to prevent injury when being thrown by a partner, come in handy when riding a bicycle or skateboard as well. The American Council on Exercise states that by the time they reach high school, 63% of children are no longer physically active.
With all the virtual things to do these days, getting kids to embrace a physical fitness regimen is often hard work. Often kids would rather spend their time sitting in front of the TV exercising their thumbs at PlayStation, or risking carpal tunnel on instant messaging, than working up a good sweat. In martial arts classes, they’re acquiring useful skills while exercising, and the novelty of learning something from an exotic culture often holds their attention.
Personal Security and Self-Defense
Martial arts are perhaps best known for increasing one’s fighting ability. After all, that’s what we see in the movies and on television–the good-guy martial artist kicking some bad guy butt. However, these skills for personal security aren’t just used for fighting. “I do this so I don’t have to fight…” For kids who are preyed upon by bullies, or reside in neighborhoods where street violence is common, the ability to defend themselves allows them peace of mind. In almost all cases, they never have to use their martial arts techniques on someone. Their increased awareness and presence deters violence. In effect, by understanding and mastering a higher level of the force continuum, they can acheive their goals by using lesser levels of force.
To Win Without Fighting is Best
For example, basic martial arts training always involves learning how to avoid physical damage in a confrontation–whether by blocking a punch, evading a strike by moving out of the way, or checking the incoming limb before it can reach full-speed. Often, trained martial artists don’t need to harm their opponent–their adeptness at evading attacks lets them be in control, and frustrates their attacker.
Martial arts training also involves awareness of how attacks occur. In training to spar, students learn how to detect the beginning of an incoming punch or kick: the subtle weight shift to a support leg, or a change in focus in their opponent’s gaze. Translate such awareness to the street, and kids learn to watch what’s in a stranger’s hands–is it a weapon? They learn to size up a potential opponent, and decide the best countermeasures–perhaps it’s better to cross the street before you pass that shady-looking character.
These “combat-oriented” benefits of martial arts training are most often never used for combat.
Martial arts training doesn’t just improve physical attributes. One of the more renowned benefits of martial arts training is the mental workout.Focus…is Key
Learning to execute the complex and foreign techniques of martial arts requires extreme mental focus. Students need to concentrate under pressure; whether they’re directing energy into a difficult board break or ensuring that a technique is executed crisply and correctly. Students often find this focus is applicable to academic studies as well, citing improved concentration and focus, even under stress as in college entrance examinations.
Martial arts training also requires extensive memorization of terms and techniques. Many martial arts terms are in a foreign language–it’s not uncommon for young students to be able to count in Japanese or Korean as easily as in their native tongue. Kata, or pre-arranged sequences of techniques, must be memorized–not only to replicate each technique in the proper sequence, but also with correct execution and with an understanding of its implementation in combat.
Aiding such learning is the repetition used to ingrain martial arts techniques into students’ muscle memories. These instructional techniques: repetition leading to memorization and then testing the implementation of that knowledge (for example, through belt exams, kata interpretation, or sparring), are adaptable to academic settings as well.
Learning martial arts is learning made fun.
Many martial arts divide the various stages of ability into ranks. In styles derived from Japanese and Korean martial arts, the ranks are often denoted by colored belts, ranging from the white belt of a new beginner to the black belt of a senior student.
Advancing One Step at a Time
The requirements for each belt level are defined in detail and represent incremental improvement in that martial art. Successive belt ranks require more difficult and comprehensive knowledge, and represent new challenges to overcome.
Kids learn to take on new learning in chunks; by dividing up all the knowledge needed to master a martial art into sections, they can take on each section as they become able. Upon passing the tests required to receive the next level, they can look forward to the next belt level, and so on.
Learning to tackle complex and comprehensive bodies of knowledge by breaking them down into smaller portions is a skill that can help outside the martial arts as well, whether it’s learning to swim or learning calculus.
The regimented nature of martial arts instruction fosters a deep sense of self-discipline in students. One can’t become a legitimate black belt overnight, and so students learn that their worthy goals will require patience, hard work, and dedicated study over several years. The message is that if it’s worth anything, it’s worth working hard for.
Martial arts training has become popular for children diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) because of the training moderates some ADD traits. Martial arts training teaches students self-control and concentration–in order to perform a technique correctly, students must focus intensely on their task. Furthermore, the self-confidence gained through martial arts training lets ADD kids feel able and “normal”, not burdened by the stigma of being labeled with a “deficit.”
Discipline, to many people, is all about doing what you must do even when you don’t want to do it. Martial arts training instills such discipline by showing a path of rewards for hard work, and the benefits of doing that extra few reps.
Martial arts students feel a strong sense of camaraderie with their fellow students. This feeling of fellowship is based primarily on shared experiences and surpassing of challenges, but is also based in tradition.
In historical times, instructors taught the martial arts only to those students the instructors deemed worthy. To endear themselves to the instructor, prospective students would often have to perform menial labor or perform the most basic techniques for hours–showing that they were humble, patient, and honest. Today, most students don’t need to undergo these tests before they can start training, but the sense that the martial arts are special, and learning martial arts is a special privilege, remains.
Many martial arts classes are held as a few parents have noted, “like the old one-room schoolhouse”. Although kids of different ages and belt levels are segregated into their own smaller groups, most children’s classes are held with all kids together in the same room. Kids at a lower rank can look over at the senior students practicing their forms–even when the lower-ranked kids haven’t yet learned those techniques.
Martial artists feel a sense of esprit de corps with other martial artists–and particularly with students of their own style.
Self-esteem is largely based on a student’s self-worth; if students feel capable, able, and confident, then they enjoy a healthy self-esteem. Martial arts training builds self-esteem by providing small challenges that build incremental successes. Students learn that they can overcome the challenges as they improve in their training.
Many martial artists note that before they began training, they were awestruck and amazed by the seemingly superhuman feats that their instructors or senior students were able to perform. Yet after just a few months of study, they progress to a level where they too can do things they would have thought impossible. Challenges–like breaking a board–are surpassed and students feel a surge of pride in themselves and their abilities. As a result, they feel capable and alive.
Also, the physical security provided by martial arts training builds confidence–students do not have to worry any longer about the bully at school. This confidence enables students to feel better about themselves and their reactions to conflict.
One thing newcomers to the martial arts notice immediately when visiting a school for the first time is the numerous expressions of respect. “There’s all that bowing,” they might remark. Showing respect is intrinsic to the martial arts, and is a core facet of the cultures from which many martial arts originate.
Students show respect to each other, their instructor, and even to their school upon joining each class session. Sometimes it’s a simple bow, in other styles it’s a salute of some kind. The gesture encompasses several messages: gratitude, for the learning the student receives, and respect, an acknowledgement of the other person’s abilities.
Regardless of the ritual, almost all martial arts teach students to value age, rank, expertise, and experience. Respecting those who know more than you do (greater expertise), and have proven it (higher rank) shows that you are worthy of them teaching you their knowledge. This respect for instructors and senior students can often carry over to classes in regular schools as well.
Calming and Stress Reduction
The martial arts are very calming–a trait that may seem contradictory to those who just see the martial arts as violence. Most senior martial artists are the coolest, calmest characters around.
Work It Out
Martial arts classes, because of their intense workouts, allow students to release nervous energy until they are drained from the exertion. Working up a good sweat has always been a great way to diffuse anger. Adding punches and kicks, especially against a heavy bag or foam shield, is even better.
Shout It Out
Some martial arts use a ritual shout, known as a kiai in Japanese styles, or kihap in Korean styles, made at the moment of attack. While the shout is meant to improve one’s focus and breathing when delivering a technique, or to startle and frighten an opponent, it also serves to release the student’s tension and nervous energy.
Many martial arts include meditation as part of the curriculum. Meditation, or training the mind to achieve a calmer, empty state, allows martial artists to relax fully.
Experienced martial artists exhibit calmness outside of the training hall as well. This inner peace is due to several factors, but is probably a result of experiencing stressful situations when learning self-defense or sparring–and overcoming them. The confidence gained through mastery of martial arts techniques also lends itself to keeping calm in stressful situations.
While the reasons for studying martial arts apply to all kids, there’s special reasons why girls should learn martial arts.
Girls often don’t have the same avenues as boys for developing self-confidence or exhibiting mastery. Boys are channeled into sports at young ages, finding spots on Little League baseball teams or pee wee football squads. Without similar sports opportunities, girls are left with just academic, social, and family settings to build assertiveness and self-esteem.
Martial arts techniques are often easier for young girls to learn than young boys–a girl’s natural flexibility is an advantage over boys the same age. In some arts, upper-body strength, usually a male advantage, is not as important as lower-body strength, usually a female advantage. As a result, girls can enjoy a unique pride in their abilities–they can think, “if I can do as well as a boy in karate, I can do as well as a boy in math class.”
Invented by…a Girl
Girls can take pride that some martial arts were even invented by female masters. The origin of pentjak silat, the national martial art of Indonesia, is due to a legendary peasant woman. The story is that the woman went to fetch water for her household, but stopped to watch a tiger fight a large bird, the animals both dying from their wounds. Her husband, angry at her for forgetting her chores, found her and tried to strike her, but she easily evaded his attack and struck back using the techniques she learned from the animals’ battle. Eventually, she taught her husband and the art continued on throughout the centuries.
Another martial art, wing chun kung fu, is named after it’s most renowned practitioner, a young girl who learned the art from a Buddhist nun named Ng Mui. Wing chun is perhaps best known as the first martial art of Bruce Lee–meaning, that the martial art first learned by Bruce Lee was invented–and passed along–by girls.
Assault and Rape Prevention
Lastly, girls need a particular focus on self-defense. Techniques and awareness learned through martial arts training can help girls avoid assaults before they occur and defend themselves if an assault takes place. With the seemingly prevalence of abductions in modern times, it makes sense for girls to learn at least basic self-defense and rape prevention techniques.
The martial arts offer so many benefits for kids that it seems unbelievable that some parents don’t want their kids in the dojo. But thanks to unfavorable impressions of violence on television or in the movies, the martial arts has taken a bad rap.
The solution is to go out and visit the schools in your area. Talk to the instructors. How do they feel their programs benefit kids? Talk to other parents. Have their kids changed for the better because of their martial arts studies?
Yosh Ashizawa, a semiconductor industry executive, has two young sons currently studying taekwondo. “Martial arts has given the boys added discipline,” says Ashizawa. “With three boys in the house, things can get pretty unruly, but taekwondo training has definitely helped.” Ashizawa, himself a second-degree black belt in hapkido under Grandmaster Han Jae Ji, is extremely positive about the benefits of martial arts training. “I think it’s essential,” he remarks.
Written by: James Hom