This question is one that I have had to answer many many times phrased in a variety of different ways. Therefore I have been inclined to spend a decent amount of time pondering the proper answer to this question. I have been a martial arts instructor/BJJ coach/Muay Thai coach/MMA coach for over a decade now and teaching youth martial arts was something that I avoided for the first half of that time period. Originally may goal/dream was to coach high level MMA athletes and that would be how I spent a good part of my day. But that goal/dream has changed substantially over the years. Now teaching kids is one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of my job.
I should begin by saying that in a perfect world ALL kids would have exposure to martial arts and have some fundamental education within the arts. If that were reality?? What a different world we would live in! And the bully “epidemic” that we hear about so much would be cut in half, most likely more. The kids that are prey to the bullies would walk taller, speak louder, stand up for themselves and if it came to it, know how to defend themselves. The bullies on the other hand would also have much more confidence in themselves and not feel the need to communicate with fear and violence. There are a couple ‘thruths’ that I believe when it comes to one way violence. Number one: I believe that all bullies have been bullied themselves and are simply using aggression as a way to get back some of what was lost at the hands of their bullies. Number two: Predators are looking for prey, period! Predators (bullies) are looking for someone easy to lash out at, street violence is typically focused on people that don’t stand a strong chance of defending themselves. Predator/Bullies are not looking for a fight they are looking for someone to hurt.
So now which martial art is ‘best’?
The term martial arts essentially translates to military arts. The military part of that is the structure, the discipline, the functional hand to hand combat skills while the art in martial arts is just as it sounds, it is an art. I could take twin boys or girls, teach the same techniques for the same amount of time and I promise you they would have very different styles of expressing their fighting skills. With that being said there is also an immense plethora of martial arts ‘styles’. And if you really dive into it you will run across all sorts of funny names and variations of the same theme. But essentially it breaks down into striking arts and grappling arts. Striking arts consist of such styles as Muay Thai, Kickboxing, Boxing, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu, and the list goes on and on. Grappling arts on the other hand come in a handful of different systems: Wrestling, Judo, Sambo and Jiu(Ju)-Jitsu. Jiu-Jitsu also comes in some different styles: Japanese (Nihon) Ju-Jitsu, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and No Gi Jiu-Jitsu (Submission Grappling).
When it comes to self-defense the goal just as it sounds, defend yourself. Self-defense does not mean hurt somebody. So to break it down to the most simplistic reasoning, striking styles of martial arts teach a student how to strike using hands, feet, knees, elbows or your head. Striking in a self-defense situation can lead to a very effective way to deter an attacker OR it can drastically escalate the situation if done ineffectively. Grappling styles on the other hand teach students how to take an assailant down to the ground, control them on the ground and ultimately utilize leverage to potentially apply submissions. Grappling styles also strongly focus on teaching students how to escape from bad situation where the opponent is trying to control them, i.e. getting off their back and getting off the ground. Another very important point is that everyone regardless of training or not understands the basic mechanics of trying to hit someone else. While on the other hand very very few people understand anything about grappling. So if we took a student and we could either teach them striking for a year or teach them grappling for a year. I strongly believe that the year of grappling would prove to be substantially more effective.
When it comes to teaching children how to handle a self-defense situation it is very important for them to understand the difference between resolving the situation vs escalating the situation. Lets look at two examples:
Tommy was walking home from school one day when the neighborhood bully (we will call him Billy) approaches Tommy and begins hassling him with aggressive posturing and words. Billy pushes Tommy once, then again and the third time Tommy throws a punch that hits Billy in the shoulder. Tommy meant to hit Billy in the head but he missed. Billy is now very angry so he tackles Tommy to the ground and roughs him up pretty good. Tommy takes a different route home from school every day following this day.
Tommy was walking home from school one day when the neighborhood bully (we will call him Billy) approaches Tommy and begins hassling him with aggressive posturing and words. Billy pushes Tommy once, then again and the third time Tommy ducks under the shoving hands of Billy and uses a double leg takedown ,that he learned in BJJ class, to take Billy down to his back. Once Billy is on his back Tommy progresses to a mount position where he can completely control Billy at which points he lets Billy burn all of his energy until he is tired then Tommy asks Billy if he is done and Billy replies “yes, get off me.” Billy never messes with Tommy again.
Bottom line, if you are debating whether to get your kid(s) in martial arts or not, PLEASE DO! Any style of martial arts is going to improve their confidence, discipline and focus. But some martial arts are also going to teach them functional self-defense skills while others will not. I have been a martial artist for roughly 25 years with the last 18 spent in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai. My first 7 years as a martial artist I practiced many different styles and trained diligently. But in those first 7 years I always questioned whether I could handle myself or not in a real world violence situation. Luckily I didn’t have to because I might have done ok but probably not. Once I began my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as well as my Muay Thai education that was when the light bulb turned on and I could literally feel and see every day in every class how effective what i was learning was.
Im sorry to say this but it drives me INSANE every time I talk to a 12 or 13 yr old kid or parent of and they tell me that they are a BLACK BELT in Tae Kwon Do or Karate or Hapkido or etc. A 12 or 13 yr old should not have a BLACK BELT in any martial art. They are too young to master any legitimate fighting style. Maybe they started training when they were 2 or 3yr old?? In BJJ they kids don’t even enter the adult belt ranking system until they are 16yrs old. At which time, if they are pretty good, they will be promoted to a blue belt. And then they have 3 more belts and probably between 4-8 more years of training until they are BLACK BELT level.
Teaching martial arts to children should be fun and effective. It needs to be fun so they keep coming back and keep learning new things every day. It needs to be effective because if they ever have to use what they have learned in a real world situation (and I hope they NEVER do) it better work because if it doesn’t it can be life altering.
Bottom line is you want what’s best for your child and you should. If you want a martial arts style that is going to improve their confidence, focus, discipline and also teach them functional self-defense skills. BJJ