Whether you want your child to learn the secrets of the Orient or just to get off of the couch, choosing the right martial art can be the best decision you ever make, if you take the proper steps.

To ensure your children have a positively memorable experience, you have to know if they’re ready to start an afterschool program involving martial arts. The trend today is to start kids in anything as soon as they can walk. This may be fine for some kids, but it’s not necessary. In fact, if you push children too soon, the effects may do more harm than good.

What age should your child start?

For martial arts training, 4 is the absolute youngest age to enroll in classes, and even that’s borderline. While I’ve seen classes for 2 and 3 year olds, these weren’t much more than organized playdates.

When I was young, which according to my daughter was a very long time ago, 7 was considered a young age to start an afterschool program in martial arts. Realistically, anywhere in the 4 to 10 year range is fine; however, it’s never too late to start. The nice feature about martial arts is that you aren’t missing the boat if you start a little later than most organized athletic programs. Unlike gymnastics, where athletes peak in their teens, martial artists don’t really develop until they reach full maturity. Therefore, don’t stress that kids interested in martial arts are missing their “developmental window” or haven’t won a tournament.

Mike Swain, who was the first world champion in judo from the United States, never won a big tournament as a kid. It wasn’t until he matured that he started winning national titles. Here’s a prime example that you shouldn’t stress about getting kids on the mat as soon as possible— everything happens at its own pace.

How to choose the right martial arts school and instructor?

Finding the right dojo may take a little work, travel and research. But, with extra planning you can rest assured that you’re placing your child in a safe and supportive environment. Your child’s safety is of the utmost importance. The same care you would use to select a doctor should be taken to find a martial arts school.

Confirm the facility is clean and safe. The dojo should be insured and the instructor should have the proper accreditation. Be warned: Because there is no government regulation on martial arts, you have to do some research on your own. Start by exploring martial arts styles that have been around a while and have an established governing body in place. For example, the United States Judo Federation (USJF) requires instructors to undergo a criminal background check as well as CPR training and certification. USJF also has strict black belt standards, informing you that an accredited judo instructor has undergone standardized testing and certification.

Your best bet is to stay with Olympic sports like judo and taekwondo. They provide a standardized method of teaching students. Make sure the facilities are associated with Olympic organizations. Typically taekwondo will be a World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) school and judo will be a United States Judo Federation (USJF) or a United States Judo Association (USJA) and a USA Judo school. This will also tell you that your instructor has insurance and has been held to some international standard for black belt requirements

Should you meet with the instructor?

Parents should meet their children’s potential instructor and have their kids take an introductory lesson, if possible. This will give you a good idea if your child is physically ready to handle the basic skills for the particular martial art. If your child has difficulty following the instructor or appears to be distracted, maybe you should wait six months to a year before he or she tries martial arts again.

Does your child show extreme stress before class?

Social apprehension is normal in kids. But kicking, screaming and fighting parents before martial arts classes are not. Sometimes kids need to test the waters by sitting on the sidelines and watching class sessions. If they opt to join class 30 percent of the time, kids may not be ready for an afterschool martial arts program. If your children are constantly crying and fighting you, perhaps wait before extending class enrollment. Try every six months. Have children observe a class first to determine if they’re ready.

Should children have a choice in trying a martial art?

Don’t give them a choice, give them a chance. Too many times have I seen a parent ask a child during a consultation, “Is this something you want to do?” While it’s important to include your children in the decision-making process, it’s difficult for children to conceptualize the situation just by talking about it. Let children try a martial art first, then ask them about the experience after class. This way, kids are able to give you a real answer. If they are energized and happy after class, you may want to continue enrollment. If they’re sad and frustrated, maybe they’re not ready for martial arts or the school and the instructor aren’t a good fit.

Keep in mind, most children resist going to class at some point. It’s normal. As people, kids may lack motivation from time to time when it comes to attending class. This likely has nothing to do with the martial arts program. It’s just human nature. Only about 20 percent of the kids who train are excited and ready to go to class the majority of the time. Don’t give kids a choice; don’t barter, trade or compromise. Hey, I know you’re busy, tired and overbooked and the last thing you want to do is wrangle your child into the car. Yet, this is when they begin improving. And anything worthwhile takes a little work— even on your part.

How can you keep it exciting?

Studying a martial art is an educational process. Unlike seasonal sports, martial arts consistently develop mental and physical skills throughout the seasons and the years. The great thing about martial arts is that every child who participates learns and improves. And, in order to keep children mentally sharp, you should cycle their training. You should do this around vacation breaks and promotion exams. If your child’s school doesn’t have normal breaks during the calendar year, plan to take at least a one-week respite from the martial arts program every four to five weeks. This will keep your child interested, motivated and fresh. While everyone is different, your child is not a machine and neither are you. Parents need a break from routine, too. And planned breaks are better than impromptu breaks.

With a little research, a martial arts program can be an extremely life changing and rewarding experience. Take the time to find a reputable school with qualified instructors, and you and your child will remain satisfied and motivated.

Tuition often reflects the quality of instruction. Reputable programs have tuitions that are priced accordingly. You can’t get Harvard-quality training at a community college price. In the long run, if you’re taking advantage of the training, the tuition should be worth it.

Tips for maximizing the martial arts experience:

  1. Choose a school that looks clean and well-maintained.
  2. Choose a style that has a governing body that oversees instruction, such as judo and taekwondo.
  3. Choose an instructor with credentials and a traceable lineage.
  4. Avoid martial arts that teach strangles chokes and arm locks to beginners and children under 13 years old.
  5. Take advantage of introductory lessons.
  6. Give your child a chance to experience the class before you include him or her in the decision.
  7. Cycle children’s training by taking one week off every four or five weeks.
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