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Why you need to tolerate discomfort as a martial arts parent

By Melisa Schelvan

A few years into our martial arts journey, we moved to a different Taekwondo school. It was stressful, and an excellent reason why you should choose the school you join carefully (this will be a topic of a future post).  I’ll never forget my sweet, shy son standing out on the mat in a new place, with a new teacher, surrounded by kids he didn’t know, when he was called on to answer a question. My poor boy could not find his words. The silence that followed felt interminable. If there had not been a strict rule about wearing shoes on the mat, I likely would have rushed out there, scooped my baby up, showered him with kisses, and carried him off to somewhere far nicer. It was excruciating for me. The instinct to physically rescue him was second only to my desire to yell out the answer for him. To this day, I’m not sure how I was able to hold my tongue.  Surely this was the end of his Taekwondo journey! I couldn’t imagine that he would ever want to return.  Imagine my surprise when the opposite turned out to be true. Sometimes, as a martial arts parent, you need to just “get out of the way” and let things happen. That requires a certain emotional discipline, but it’s worth it. Here are 3 reasons why.

Being active in martial arts improves physical fitness

This is probably the most obvious benefit; however, it is still worth thinking about. There are many directions a parent could go if the goal is strictly to help their kids increase fitness.  The martial arts are not for everyone, obviously, but for those kids who find it appealing, it provides a dynamic way of maintaining physical health. Martial arts require cardiovascular endurance, muscle strength, flexibility, and self-control. (ok, maybe self-control is more of a mental benefit, but you need self-control to do all those other things, so I’m keeping it here!)

By necessity, the best martial arts programs involve periods of high intensity interval training (HIIT). Yes, the same type of work-out that is all the rage. There is a reason this type of exercise has been gaining in popularity.  Compared to more traditional continuous training, HIIT improves overall exercise capacity and metabolic health. What does that mean? In short, it means an increased ability to take up oxygen, improved aerobic endurance, and greater anaerobic capacity, among other benefits.  I personally find it surprising that HIIT training corresponds to lower dropout rates as well. It’s just fun!

Participating in martial arts builds resilience

I have seen this play out firsthand in my own kids over and over. Whether it’s the way they walk, how they talk to or about themselves, or just in the way they resist giving in to the temptation to quit, I have noticed a difference as time goes on.

So, what, exactly, is resilience? When it comes to our kids, there are two aspects of resilience worth considering. The first is their innate personality.  Are they naturally able to adapt to situations that are stressful or traumatic? Second is their learned responses. To what extent do they learn from and cope with circumstances outside of their control? Of course, it is much more complicated than that (for example, age, socioeconomic status, gender, life experiences, etc. all play an important role). Regardless, resilience is an important skill/trait that is a useful tool for children as they go off into the world.

Sports activities in general are considered conducive to building resilience. For example, it has been noted that “aspects such as effort, struggle, sacrifice, overcoming challenges, rivalry, evaluation, risk of injury, assimilation of defeat, and, in short, facing and overcoming numerous adverse and stressful situations are, to a greater or lesser extent, inherent to the practice.” Highschool Taekwondo athletes were specifically described as being resilient in a way that improved performance. Similarly, martial arts training had a positive effect on the resilience of middle school children aged 12-14 years when used as a mental health intervention.

Resilience is one of those ideas that, as a parent, I hope to not just convey to my kids but provide them with opportunities to develop. I want them to both think about being resilient (and consequently make an active choice to do so) AND be put in positions in which they have to BE resilient. I have found Taekwondo to be ideal for these lessons as my children have been challenged physically as well as emotionally and even socially by their peers and coaches.

The martial arts, when done correctly, foster empathy

Ok, it probably seems counterintuitive that participating in combat sports can foster empathy—I get it. However, learning a martial art, such as Taekwondo, requires “training partners”. There is an incredible amount of trust that must be cultivated between athletes who are training together (and their parents who are watching– this is where I tell you to just breathe).

Especially at the more elite levels (when kicking to the head is a desirable outcome), imagine the chaos if a martial artist had no empathy for his/her training partner(s).  Mickelsson and Stylin used the model of “rough-and-tumble play,” also known as “play fighting,” to describe how this works.  Rough-and-tumble play is a developing social concept that, when effectively moderated, documents how kids become aware of their playmate’s needs and desires so that the “play” continues. For example, if one child physically dominates another child and is unable to adjust his/her intensity, then the other child will no longer wish to continue. As Mickelsson and Stylin state: “this implies a give-and-take relationship where the attacker becomes the defender and vice versa”.  That is an elegant way of describing the relationships that are built within a team that trains together to compete in the martial arts. To further understand this idea, consider that there is a fine balance between the need for athletes to push each other to test the limits of their abilities and to maintain an empathy for the limitations of their sparring partner. This character-building dynamic begins at the youngest ages and is tested over and over as they move up in belt rank. One note of caution: while the potential benefit is overwhelming, the net effect can be negative if your child falls under the tutelage of the wrong coach. To quote Mickelsson and Stylin again, “one still needs to pay attention to the cultural and social factors embedded within specific martial arts or gyms.”

Take homes

In conclusion, putting your kids in a top-notch martial arts program is a great way to get them active (and keep them wanting to stay active). It’s fun!  They’ll also be learning some of those hard-to-define traits that you hope they pick up on—but lecturing them on the subject results in “blank stares”;  instead, they’ll develop those skills almost effortlessly. Simply put, don’t underestimate the importance of learning resilience and empathy while becoming physically fit–not as separate endeavors, but simultaneously. It’s a beautiful thing.

Let’s Go? Let’s Go!

By Melisa Schelvan

I was thinking through my reasons for why I want to write about being a martial arts parent. There are various other things that my children do—all of which are very worthwhile. One of these days I’ll write about the many benefits of music and 4H. However, for now, we are enmeshed in the world of Taekwondo. We seem to eat and breathe martial arts.  I must go back to when my daughter was younger…

She was slow. I don’t mean unintelligent; I mean literally slow. She was always the last one to do anything and everything. My husband and I still laugh about his time walking her home from elementary school. He tells of the many times when he would finally give up and just carry her (a third grader!) because she was pondering life (very slowly) as she considered putting one step in front of the other. He needed to get back to work at some point! This is the same girl that came home crying because she wasn’t strong enough to play on the monkey bars with her friends. She was soft (and sweet and adorable, but soft). It’s tough to describe the difference that the martial arts, specifically Taekwondo, have made in her life. It’s made a difference in my life, as a parent, as well.

Anyway, when she declared her desire to start Taekwondo, to say I was hesitant would be an understatement. Martial arts? Taekwondo? Doesn’t that involve a lot of kicking? And punching? And yelling? (OK, I wasn’t too worried about the yelling part, she had that skill, ha!) Her younger brother was semi-interested, and we decided it would be a good way to keep them active, so we signed up. (Their older sister wasn’t interested at the time, but that too is a story for another post.) Needless to say, that’s when the avalanche of information began, from which we have not yet recovered! I’ll be writing about that in more detail. For now, as their coach would say, “let’s go!”


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