Exercise is great for every kid. But kids who learn and think differently can have a hard time finding a sport that suits them. Find out why martial arts might be a good fit for your child.
What Are Martial Arts?
Martial arts are an ancient practice from Asia. They were originally meant for self-defense. Today, lots of people do martial arts to build physical and mental strength.
There are many different types of martial arts. Some—like karate and tae kwon do—focus on striking and blocking. Others—like judo and jiu-jitsu—focus on wrestling and grappling. All use planned, repeated movements and focus on the connection between mind and body.
Lots of families say martial arts help boost their kids’ self-control and focus. Some research supports this, says Kimberley D. Lakes, Ph.D., of the Pediatric Exercise and Genomics Research Center at the University of California, Irvine. (Most studies don’t focus specifically on kids who learn and think differently, though.)
The Benefits of Martial Arts for Kids
There are lots of reasons martial arts might be a good match for kids who learn and think differently. Here are nine benefits.
They focus on individual growth, not on team competition. Many kids struggle with the pressure of competing with other kids. So traditional sports may not appeal to them. But in martial arts, the focus is on self-improvement. There’s no “letting down the team.”
They work toward specific goals. Some kids who learn and think differently feel like they never “win” at anything. In martial arts, kids work at their own pace. They earn a different colored belt every time they reach a new skill level. This can boost self-esteem and keep them motivated.
Routines are broken down into manageable chunks. A technique or form in martial arts can have dozens of different movements. But kids learn gradually, repeating and adding steps as they go. They learn to anticipate which step comes next. And eventually, they put everything together into fluid movements.
They emphasize self-control and concentration. Attention is central to martial arts. Kids have to stay focused to learn and to do the movements. When a child’s focus drifts, instructors often ask them to take the “ready stance.” This lets them reset and get ready for what’s next.
They help with coordination. Doing martial arts movements can help kids get a better feel for their body in space. This is good for kids who struggle with motor skills. It also helps kids understand the power of the mind over the body. (This could be valuable for kids with ADHD.)
They provide structure. Good martial arts instructors have clear rules and constantly reinforce them. They also emphasize good behavior in and out of class. Some even send kids home with behavior charts for parents to sign.
They’re a safe way for kids to get out extra energy. It’s a myth that martial arts encourage violent behavior. In fact, instructors often say that fighting is a last resort. At the same time, kicking and karate chopping lets kids work out frustration or anger, while also practicing self-control.
It’s an accepting environment. Respect is a core value in martial arts. Kids have to show it for their instructor and their peers. Negativity is generally not tolerated in class, and students are encouraged to support each other.
They’re cool. Kids who learn and think differently sometimes feel awkward or out of the loop. But lots of kids think martial arts are cool. It’s hard not to feel special when you’re wearing martial arts gear and breaking boards in half.
What to Look For in a Martial Arts Class
Your neighborhood may have classes for different kinds of martial arts. Some, like mixed martial arts (or MMA), are more aggressive and might not be the best choice for kids.
Most youth classes teach tae kwon do or karate. The type you choose for your child, though, isn’t as important as how a studio teaches, Lake says.
Before you sign on, meet with the head of the studio. Be honest about your child’s challenges. Explain what you’re hoping your child gets out of the class.
For the best experience, look for a school that:
Takes a traditional approach that focuses on character development.
Offers a free pre-evaluation so the instructor can look at your child’s strengths and challenges. You can also see if your child and the instructor are a good fit.
Have a low student-to-teacher ratio. If there are too many students, your child might not get enough attention.
Is supportive. It’s important for instructors to push students. But they should also be supportive and understanding about your child’s challenges.
Martial arts are a great opportunity for kids to build positive self-esteem and find community.