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Young Athletes: The Top 5 Martial Arts for Kids


Just think of how many times have you said to yourself or heard others say, “I wish I would have started training earlier.” There are many advantages to entering a martial arts for kids program at a young age. Some of the biggest reasons parents choose to enroll their kids in martial arts are:

  • Discipline
  • Self-Defense
  • Focus
  • Long Term Goals
  • Year-Round Babysitting
  • Intro to becoming the next MMA superstar

These are all pretty good reasons, but not all martial arts are created equal, and a good well-informed parents should know what kind of skills are about to be unleashed in their child, and what that could mean long-term.

*An increasing number of  gyms and dojos are offering “kids MMA” or “pankration” classes. There is some controversy surrounding the concept of kids MMA, but for the purpose of this article we are not addressing combat arts that are generally referred to as “sports” rather than martial arts. You get the idea. 

These are the top 5 martial arts for kids and why:

1. Karate

This is a martial art that is based heavily on the stand-up arts of kicking and punching. Karate was developed in the Ryukyu Islands, which is now Okinawa, Japan. It made its way to mainland Japan in the early 20th century, but did not reach peak popularity until the 1970’s and 80’s. Martial arts movies like “The Karate Kid” and “Best of the Best, “ helped to boost interest. 5334741020a

The three basic training techniques for karate include:

  • Kihon (basics/fundamentals)
  • Kata (Forms)
  • Kumite (Sparring)

Much of the training is conducted with minimal contact, focusing heavily on the movements and memorizing sequences of moves. This is a great way in encourage focus and mobility in children. Sparring (kumite) is usually done using a point system dependant on contact placement rather than impact, and protective gear is worn. These elements make karate an ideal starter martial art for any level.

MMA fighters who practice Karate: Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida, Georges “Rush” St. Pierre, Michelle “Karate Hottie” Waterson

2. Judo

Made a household name by “Judo: Gene Lebell and UFC Champion Ronda Rousey, Judo is a good introduction to many aspects of fighting arts. Judo translates as “gentle way,” and is an Olympic sport, which was created in Japan in 1882.  The focus of Judo is the throw or takedown elements of the practice. There are also joint locks and chokes similar to that in the art of Jiu Jitsu. Throwing techiques (Nage Waza) include:

  • Kuzushi (The initial balance break)
  • Tsukuri (The act of turning and fitting into the throw)
  • Kake (The execution of the throw) XXX JUDO ROUSEYJS152.JPG S OLY, JUD CHN

Some of the greatest benefits of Judo include learning to balance and counter balance, spacial awareness, self-defense and how to fall.

MMA fighters who practice Judo: “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey, Hector Lombard, Fedor Emellanenko, Shinya Aoki

3. Taekwondo

Taekwondo is a Korean martial art that was developed in the 1940’s, though it continued to evolve through the 50’s and 60’s. It has been an Olympic sport since 2000. The loose translation for the art is “the way of the foot and hand.” Taekwondo participants are known for their fancy footwork and kicking techniques, though fist striking is involved as well.150123328.jpg

Students of Taekwondo develop admirable kicking skills and a knack for perceiving distance during one on one combat. Agility and flexibility are also a plus. Many of the less-fancy kicking techniques transfer well into other arts.

MMA fighters who practice Tawkwondo: Anderson Silva, Anthony Pettis, Cung Le, John Makdessi

4. Aikido

This is another Japanese martial art and it is the most “zen” of the five arts discussed. The translation of the word means “the way of unifying with life energy.” Unlike many other martial arts, the main focus is not to harm the opponent, but instead to redirect the attacker’s force. This is a practice that is known to require little strength. Techniques do include some Judo-esc throws and joint locks.Imm_Segal 2

This is a great practice for children to learn to react calmly in intense situations. The art requires mental training, flexibility and focus. Aikido also uses kata to assist in memorizing the techniques of the art.

MMA fighters who practice Aikido: Anyone who has ever trained under Steven Segal

5. Jiu Jitsu

Whether it is Brazilian or Japanese, Jiu Jitsu is crucial for developing a ground game for a child who show a propensity for competition. This art focuses primarily on getting to the ground and dominating there from any position. It has proven to be an intrigal part of MMA virtually since its inception (or at least since the Gracie family entered the cage). The basic components of Jiu Jitsu include:

  • Takedowns
  • Joint Locks
  • Chokeholds
  • Self-Defensebara

For competition, which is sometimes referred to as “sport Jiu Jitsu,” there is often a point system and time limit. Aside from developing good grappling skills, this art teaches the necessity for control when interacting with other students, whom may be more or less skilled. It also requires attention to learn the skills and motivation to get out of bad positions. Sparring and drilling requiring partners are common in training practice.

MMA fighters who practice Jiu Jitsu: All of them if they are smart, but a few notable are . . . all the Gracie family, B.J. Penn, Fabrico Werdum, Damian Maia

  • JohnEngelman

    As a teenager I studied Tang Soo Do, or Korean Karate, for several years. As a preparation for fighting it was better than nothing, but it could have been better than it was.

    In free sparing students compete by pulling punches and kicks short of the target. There are too problems with this. First, one does not build the power that is necessary to make a technique effective. In a real fight it is not enough to hit someone in the jaw. You need to hit him hard enough to stun him or knock him out. Second, this builds the wrong habits. I have read of karate students who got into street fights and who continued to pull punches and kicks out of habit. In an actual self defense situation one is likely to be nervous, so habit may determine one’s behavior.

    Although protective equipment for full contact sparing was invented in the 1970’s, it has not been used in the karate studios I have visited since then.

    One step sparing amounted to leaning forty different defenses against an attack no one would ever make.

    I was one of the few students in my studio who punched a makiwara regularly. However, my emphasis was on hand conditioning. It should have been on developing punching power. A boxing heavy bag is better for this.

    In addition to taking karate lessons, I did calisthenics on my own, and bicycle riding. Most of the students did nothing in addition to taking the lessons. Most would not have had the power and the physical conditioning to make the techniques they were learning effective.

    Much of what we learned looked good in a staged demonstration. It would have been less impressive against a street fighter or a mugger.

    Because I think there is often wisdom in tradition, I think there is probably some value in practicing kata. If I was a karate instructor I would teach the nineteen kata described by Gichin Funakoshi in his book, “Karate-Do Kyohan.” However, my main emphasis would be on physical conditioning and full contact sparing, using protective equipment.

    Aikido techniques can be valuable if one is grabbed while standing. Ju Jitsu techniques can be valuable if the fight goes to the ground.

    Mixed Martial Arts competitions serve as a laboratory for testing various martial arts, and martial arts techniques.

    Several years ago I read an article in a martial arts magazine that I wish I had bought. It evaluated different martial arts by how well practitioners of each did no MMA contests. I was distressed, but not surprised, to discover that karate practitioners did not do very well. What seems to work best is a combination of Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, and ju jitsu.

    I still believe that karate can have some value, but only if it is taught the way I have suggested.

    • You are quite right about your observation. The method of teaching, and ensuring practice is approached with more reverence for the function than the art alone is paramount to ensuring a practitioner can utilize their skills in a real confrontation. Which is again why we stress selecting a school to be very important. It likely warrants a follow-up article.

      • JohnEngelman

        A martial arts instructor should be a good role model for teenagers. A martinet who uses bad language does not qualify. A role model does not only teach young people how to fight, but how to live. If I had a son I would not want him to learn boxing from Mike Tyson.

        In addition, when choosing a school, one should ask to talk to students who have actually used the techniques in actual fighting situations. Find out if what they learned actually worked.

        A studio that trains tournament champions is not necessarily a good place to learn self defense. The studio I attended trained people who won tournaments. That was because the instructor was charismatic. He was able to attract and keep teenage boys who could have excelled in high school sports. Boys like that do not really need to learn how to fight, because they do not get picked on by teenage bullies.

        The real mark of an excellent instructor is the ability to take bully’s victims who lack athletic aptitude, and to teach them how to defeat the bullies who torment them.

  • JohnEngelman

    For middle class boys in the United States fighting is only likely to be important in early adolescence. A boy who is picked on by bullies in grade school is likely to be picked on more frequently in middle school. Such a boy should begin the study of a martial art before he passes puberty, but the emphasis should be on practical self defense.

    Practitioners of traditional Oriental martial arts often view the techniques of their style as though they are religious doctrines that are impious to question. A fist fight is an unsentimental judge of the difference between truth and falsehood.

    • Yes, there are many masters who are not truly effective instructors. But the few gems that do exist are worth their weight in gold. If you can find someone with traditional knowledge but progressive attitudes towards instruction then you’ve found an ideal instructor.

  • amazed@thesecomments

    Very interesting choices for the top five. I would have to disagree though. There is no mention of any Chinese forms. These forms are more popular and accessible to the public. However, if one decides to be a serious technician they will seek out Wushu eventually. The Chinese forms encompass all of the other forms and with greater detail.

    • Thank you, I cannot comment on Wushu myself, as I am not a practitioner nor have I studied it in great detail. However I will be the first to concede, there many, many other martial arts that could be recommended. More important than the art however is the instructor. Of course, the original masters / creators of the art will have a great deal of influence on who practices and what is taught. I will look into your suggestiion with my team and see about addressing Wushu and other art forms in a separate article.

  • treerhino

    It is ju jitsu which is Japanese. So called Brazillian ju jitsu is just ju jitsu learned from a Japanese instructor. I guess if calling it Brazillian ju jitsu you mean only partly ju jitsu then that’s fine, but don’t be confused they do ju jitsu plan and simple.

  • Fight League

    It’s my biased opinion but Pankration is the best Martial Art for children, they learn the striking of Karate & Muay Thai the Grappling of Jiujitsu & Wrestling but only utilize the techniques that work in both standup and ground combat. Plus, children can practice their techniques on a fully resistant partner without injury. If taught with a belt ranking system, discipline and structure it’s just as much a Martial Art as the 5 listed in this article. Best yet, kids who choose to compete are going to have some incredible opportunities in the near future. The one thing lacking in many schools is teaching the history behind the name of our art but we anticipate things are going to change very soon.