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How To Choose a Martial Arts School for Your Child

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My first advice when selecting a martial arts studio for a child is: Never pressure your kid to learn a martial art unless they really want to learn. Most young kids would rather spend their time playing. Let them.

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A teenager with first rate athletic talent can gain more social prestige participating on school athletic teams. That participation may result in a college scholarship. School athletics will look good on their records when they apply for college. Even a teenager without first rate athletic talent may prefer to spend their time on the chess club, the debate team or the school newspaper. Like school sports, these activities cost the parent nothing. And they, too, look good on a college application.

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But, that’s not the way I did it… When I began to take gym class in the seventh grade, the bad guys could tell that I was not good at touch football, basketball or softball. They guessed that I was not good at fighting either. Sadly, they were right.

I reasoned that I could either learn to play touch football, basketball and softball well, or I could learn to fight. Learning to fight seemed like a more direct way of dealing with the problem.

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When I was in the eighth grade, I began to work out with a barbell set. As a preparation for fighting, weight training was better than nothing. In retrospect, I wish I had combined calisthenics, running two or three miles three times a week, and punching a heavy bag. Somewhere I read that, as a teenager, Pat Buchanan hit a heavy bag three times a week. He punched it one hundred times with his left fist, one hundred times with his right fist, and followed this with one hundred left right combinations.

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When I was fifteen years old I began to take lessons in Tang Soo Do taekwondo from master instructor Ki Whang Kim. Mr. Kim was one of the most charismatic people I have known in my life. He was always smiling, always encouraging, always saying, “Much improve.” While still on the tournament circuit, the late legendary karate champion Joe Lewis once said, “Ki Whang Kim taught the best fighters in the United States.”

The tournaments featured free sparing and kata contests. When Mr. Kim trained students to compete in those tournaments, he was teaching for the test.

In retrospect, I suspect that much of what we were taught back then would look good in a staged demonstration, but would be less effective in an actual self-defense situation. The techniques made too many assumptions about the behavior of an attacker. One-step sparing drills amounted to learning forty defenses against an attack that no one would make. One-step sparing and kata did not train a student to respond quickly to unexpected situations.

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In free sparing, we had to respond quickly to unexpected situations, but we were pulling our punches and kicks short of the target. By punching and kicking thin air, we did not build the power to make a punch or kick effective … nor did we learn how to withstand an effective punch or kick.

Unlike most of Mr. Kim’s students, I regularly punched the makiwara in his studio. However, I was thinking of hand conditioning when I should have been emphasizing punching power. The best practice for power is punching a heavy boxing bag.

Protective equipment for full-contact sparing was invented during the 1970’s by nearby taekwondo master Jhoon Rhee. Yet few martial arts studios used it. If you have a son who is picked on by bullies, and you cannot find a studio that uses protective equipment for full-contact sparing, think about sending him to a boxing gym. Full-contact sparing and boxing can be more dangerous, but not as dangerous as being routinely beaten up by schoolyard thugs.

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In the fistfights that I observed (and occasionally participated in) as a teenager, there was a tacit taboo against kicking. If adult intervention followed in the aftermath of those scrapes, the guy who kicked usually got the brunt of it … whether or not he started it. Of course, the Korean styles of taekwondo karate – of which my Tang So Doo art is one – all emphasize kicks. So do many Northern Chinese styles of kung fu. For that reason, if a kid must live by those unspoken rules, I’d recommend a Japanese or Okinawa style of karate, or a Southern Chinese style of kung fu, or maybe amateur boxing.

I do believe that there is often wisdom in tradition. Consequently, if I were teaching karate, I would teach Gichin Funakoshi’s nineteen kata. I would recommend that my students practice each kata they know in sequence at least once a week. I would teach two or three one-step sparing defenses, using them to elaborate on the kata whenever practical. I would have one makiwara in my studio, so that my students knew what a makiwara was. Nonetheless, the emphasis would be on practical self-defense. Also, for those occasions that an attacker grabs while standing, or whenever the fight goes to the ground, I would teach basic combat wrestling moves from aikido, judo, and jiu jitsu.

Gordon Liu as Kung Fu master "Pai mei" in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume 2 distributed by Miramax Films.
Gordon Liu as Kung Fu master “Pai Mei” in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 2 distributed by Miramax Films.

Moreover, when looking for a martial arts studio for my kid, I’d also consider the character of the instructor. I once visited a studio where most students were under thirteen years old and the instructor yelled at them with unending red-faced vehemence … like a sadistic drill instructor. I was appalled. An instructor should not only teach children and teenagers how to fight with calm, patience and maturity, he should teach them how to live. In this latter regard, I was most fortunate with Ki Whang Kim.

I realize I expect a lot from a martial arts studio and its instructors. Perhaps in addition to advising parents to look for a lot, I am also counseling martial arts students to learn a lot and to aspire for a lot … especially if they want to become instructors.