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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.

  • JohnEngelman

    A number of years ago I read an article by a Tang Soo Do instructor who prided himself in teaching what he called “traditional karate.” He also claimed that the purpose of karate training is to “make better people.”

    Gichin Funbakoshi is considered to be the father of karate. He was born in Okinawa when it had a sense of being different from Japan. In 1922 he introduced karate to Japan in the First National Athletic Exhibition in Tokyo.

    In 1943 Karate-Do Nyumon by Gichin Funakoshi was published in Japan. In this book he wrote, “Karate is ever advancing, it is no longer possible to speak of the karate of today and the karate of a decade ago in the same breath. Accordingly, even fewer realize that karate in Tokyo today is almost completely different in form from what was
    earlier practiced in Okinawa.”

    Gichin Funakoshi was not investigated for war crimes after the Second World War. Other karate instructors were. They had used prisoners of war to test techniques.

    During the turn of the last century karate was a fairly obscure physical art restricted to Okinawa. Karate training consisted of calisthenics, punching, kicking, and blocking drills, punching the makiwara, and kata. One step sparing, three step sparing, and free style sparring did not come until later. Protective equipment for full contact sparing was not invented until the 1970’s. Unfortunately, it is still rarely used.

    During the twentieth century karate training evolved more than boxing training. The only major advance in boxing training was the use of training helmets. During the turn of the last century boxers in the gym used larger gloves than they did in competition, but their heads were uncovered.

    There is often wisdom in tradition. Nevertheless, we should not assume that the old ways are always the best ways, just as we should not assume that what is newer is always better.

    What matters when learning self defense is becoming a better fighter. Mastery of a
    martial art will take several years. Proficiency should take much less time. After six months of training a boy who is picked on by high school bullies should have the skills to defeat the bullies. A girl of woman who wants to learn how to defend herself from a rapist or a date rapist should during the same amount of time be able to do so.

    What about becoming a better person? I doubt that there is anything intrinsically character building about karate training, just as there does not seem to be anything intrinsically character building about boxing or football training.

    Learning how to box did not make a better person out of Mike Tyson. Football players often become spoiled. As long as their presence on the team wins games everything else is forgiven of them.

    I was fortunate to have learned Tang Soo Do from Ki Whang Kim . Although Mr. Kim trained tournament champions, the atmosphere at Kim Studio in Silver Spring was one of comradery, rather than competition. The mid level students helped the beginners. The advanced students helped the mid level students. There was an atmosphere of one for all; all for one.

    The fact that I spent two years at a boarding school where the lowest common denominator prevailed increased my appreciation for Kim Studio.

    A bully, or anyone who would have been a bad example, would have felt stifled in such an atmosphere. If any began training at Kim Studio, they quit. I do not remember any.

    Nevertheless, the positive atmosphere of Kim Studio was established by the example of Mr. Kim, rather than the training itself. Mr. Kim would have been equally inspiring as a high school teacher, a college professor, a scoutmaster, or a clergyman.

    Parents selecting a martial arts studio for their child should consider the character of the instructor, and the environment of the studio. The main point however, is teaching the child to fight.

  • Hercules H Manago-Baxter

    I find it hard to believe that you trained under Ki Whang Kim with the statements you made in this article:

    “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.”

    ” 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.”

    I came out of Ki Whang Kim’s Studio. If you were there in the 70’s then you would have known Ray Lee, Cheeks, TJ, Warren and Bernard Floyd. Whom all were street fighters. Cheeks and Mike Warren were both bouncers and the only training they had was from Ki Whang Kim. Ki Whang Kim was a street fighter. He talked about it many times how he got into fights back in Japan. My point is that he didnt teach things that didnt work.

    I dont what years you were there at the studio but I find it hard to believe that you got your black belt from Ki Whang Kim. Because I dont know any black belts from Kim’s Studio that will make the statements that you made. Yes GM Kim was against the wearing of protective gear because it dosent help. We fought full contact without people getting hurt. And still to this day everyone thats teaching now that came from Kim’s Studio still dont use or use very minimum protective gear. I disagree with ALL your points because Im living proof of the Ki Whang Kim’s style thats a street fighter. I also was a bouncer and my only training was from Kim’s Studio.

    Hercules Baxter