My Brothers' Sport: The Benefits of Martial Arts
Growing up, baseball was always the family sport. My four younger siblings and I were each searching for gloves and bats with our parents at only a few years of age. We frequently made the drive out to Arlington to watch the Rangers play and every year, we rode in the back of trucks and trailers tossing candy in the city's annual season opening parade. My parents both helped with the baseball committee and my mother, my sister, and I all worked at the concession stand. However, when Ethan was born, things were a bit different.
Before he started swinging at the tee, Ethan was diagnosed with high-functioning Autism. It made a few things different and posed a fair amount of challenges. When it came time for baseball, it was difficult for him to focus on the game and communicate with the coaches. After a few years, we were somewhat surprised to have him request not to play again. Of course, it was important to my parents that he stay active, so they decided to try out a new sport. They also brought along the second youngest, Carter, to make it less intimidating. Neither of my parents knew at the time how beneficial martial arts would turn out to be for both of the boys.
Focus and Control
One of the biggest benefits for Ethan was focus. Martial arts requires quite a bit of concentration and control, which were things he struggled with in baseball and even everyday life. Breathing needs to be focused and the forms require proper control of the body. Sparring requires restraint, particularly to avoid harming their opponent even against potential frustrations. Prop demonstrations require accuracy to avoid striking teachers and assistants rather than the target.
Master Lee himself first provided an example by being both patient and firm with my younger brother and the rest of his students. They worked for an hour each lesson in a room with minimal noise and outside stimuli where the students could maintain their focus on the lesson at hand. The difference in Ethan was night and day. He was calmer and more responsive to direction from our parents and his teachers. He began working towards a goal of receiving his yellow belt and practiced both phrases and forms to get to that level with visible concentration. This practice translated to school as well, helping him to focus on completion and progress both during class and with homework.
Studies have shown that this is not a single occurrence as well. According to a study published in the Journal of Pedagogical Development, children with behavioral, emotional and social difficulties benefit the most from the cultivation of concentration through their training. It has also been found to promote self-regulation with a strict moral code that involves respect and courtesy, most prominently exemplified in bowing to your opponent. Additionally, martial arts promote avoiding conflicts and impulsive actions and can be used as a tool for avoiding hostility and aggression.
Confidence and Strength
Where Ethan may have been described as impulsive and inattentive, Carter was quiet and timid. While martial arts had a calming effect on the younger sibling, the elder saw his confidence grow throughout his training.
In one large study, nearly half of the surveyed students between 4th and 12th grade reported being bullied by other students in their school at least once during the past month. Not surprisingly, Carter was frequently among that group during elementary school as well. Martial arts provided the knowledge and skills for him to defend himself, but, while he was certainly capable, these skills don't necessarily need to be put into practice to deter potential bullies. Confidence brought on by this knowledge is truly visible and will often cause instigators to reconsider their actions.
In the earlier mentioned study, martial arts has also been found to help its students better cope with stress and anxiety. Several studies have shown that martial artists manage stress in a less violent manner and are more warmhearted and easy going than their peers. This not only helped Carter with being more outgoing, it also helped him develop and exhibit the qualities of a good leader. He was now in position to not only defend himself, but others as well.
Fitness and Health
Fitness and health were always at the forefront of my parents' mind, especially with Ethan who had a limited diet due to sensory preferences. Fortunately, martial arts can be considered a great cardiovascular exercise that promotes strength, agility, awareness and coordination with a whole range of health benefits.
In learning different stances and moves, students can improve their balance and flexibility, as well as their posture. Children who have difficulty with fine motor skills develop dexterity and spatial understanding. It has also been proposed that physical exercise such as martial arts can decrease the symptoms of ADHD.
As a cardiovascular exercise, it can also promote better sleep and it can lower the risk of obesity and insomnia in children with behavioral, emotional and social difficulties. An improvement in perception of physical abilities can also result in a enhanced body image and an extra boost to their confidence. Additionally, martial arts encourages healthy eating habits, though, like everything else, it is dependent on family involvement as well.
With children more familiar with indoor activities and the interesting alternative from more mainstream sports, it is hard not to see how appealing martial arts can be. Well-trained masters of the art provide a supportive atmosphere to develop strength, confidence and focus that can help both in the short and long term. After watching both of my little brothers grow from their experiences in learning martial arts and knowing the tremendous benefits to their physical and mental health, their niece will likely be following in their footsteps - as soon as she takes her first step anyway.