Every Tuesday night, 10-year-old Dylan Herrick takes a break from being a kid.
He isn’t scrolling through Facebook or sitting in front of the tube watching cartoons. He doesn’t even need an Xbox or an IPad squandering his time. All Dylan needs are fight gloves, head gear, and a trainer.
Sporting a faux-hawk a la Chuck Liddell, Dylan makes it a point to hit Wentzville, Missouri-based Academy of Courage at least three times a week. Under the tutelage of gym coach and Shamrock FC fighter Kain Royer-along with support from parents KC and Faith-he works on striking one day and grappling on another. Royer will also throw in a traditional mixed martial arts class in every now and then.
It didn’t take long for Dylan to catch on. Advanced techniques were easier for him than other kids and he found a knack in kickboxing and Muai Thai, infusing both into his regimen. Eventually, classes weren’t enough; Dylan needed a bigger challenge.
“Kids like Dylan, they started getting it right away,” Royer said. “He gets the aspects of mixed martial arts and what it means and what it is, and that helps him develop those skills so much better.”
Academy of Courage, much like other MMA gyms administering youth classes, focuses on developing a child’s mind, body, and soul. For some, it’s an escape from for peer pressures, for others a safe outlet for pent up aggression. Royer makes a point of creating a family style environment. Through training and discipline, Royer says, kids even themselves out.
In Dylan’s case, the end result was what his parents were hoping for.
“His behavior has been a lot better in the past year,” KC said. “I’ve heard him say a lot of things that I don’t think I would have heard him say had he not done this; not hanging out with certain kids because he didn’t want to end up like them. He’s shown a lot of maturity in the last year that I didn’t expect.”
Maturity and age, however, don’t always go hand-in-hand. Kids are more susceptible to long-term injuries than adults. Studies correlating brain injuries and kids in MMA are in their infant stages, mainly because of the sport’s growth over the last few years.
An American Journal of Sports Medicine study released last March revealed about one-third of professional MMA matches end in a form of knockout. This indicates a higher risk of brain trauma than boxing, football, hockey, or other martial arts. The difference between dangers in kids and adults is, of course, protection.
“The risk is very, very minimal. They’re all wearing headgear, they all wearing big gloves, and they don’t have the developmental strength to knock anyone out. They’re padded up pretty good and for good reason. We’ve taken every safety precaution that we possibly can,” Royer said.
United States Fight League, a Pankration/MMA organization for youths, scares parents because of its aggressiveness. Kids are divided into divisions based on their weight, each carrying different rules. Last July, the state of California sent a “cease and desist” letter to all Youth Pankration events, yet kids still join gyms at record rates.
“(Pankration) is just something that hasn’t got here in Missouri or Illinois,” Royer said. “It looks a little bit more brutal than what we do. People have a negative spin on it, but most of those people don’t what they’re doing in there. They don’t understand what the aspects kids go through on a daily basis.”
KC shared the sentiment, especially when parents shy away from his family.
“I’ve got some friends that used to come and they won’t come anymore. But it’s because I don’t think they like it, but I believe in what we’re doing and what he does his. His coach is phenomenal in mentoring him, even though Dylan can be hard-headed sometimes,” KC said.
Whether he is hard-headed or not, Dylan is the epitome of what kids training in MMA should model themselves after. Focus inside the gym translates to focus inside his classroom. His short, Liddell-like cut isn’t a sign of rebellion. It’s an ode to his favorite fighter.
“He’s my favorite because my dad showed me this one move he knocks people out with,” Dylan said. On May 16, he nearly used it.
Dylan fought at Rumble Time: Evolution where his bout ended in a draw; certainly not because he couldn’t have won. All youth division matches are automatic draws. Still, Dylan believes the fight was his. “I mostly was trying to keep my hands up and have good foot work and trying not to fall back,” he said.
In the end, he knows MMA is about more than winning. It’s about teaching. It’s about learning. And, most of all, it’s about respecting one another.
“I’m trying to become pro and if I can’t do that then I want to be like my trainer and just teach kids.”