Martial Arts and Children – The Challenges of Teaching Them

All martial arts are complex, taking years of discipline and focus to master. Without the immersive environment and social pressure to excel, teaching children in the states is stacked with challenges, primarily psychological and motivational. 

Martial Arts - Child

For the past few months, I’ve been teaching martial arts classes at the local YMCA in Kennett Square, PA. This was my crash course in instructing children and from these classes I’ve come to draw some of my own distinctions about teaching kids martial arts.

Muay Thai, specifically, is not one of the easier martial arts to master.  To try to teach it to children in a classroom setting where they are around other kids who are just as distractable as they are makes it even more challenging. What I’ve found, the younger the children, the more difficult to try to demonstrate the mechanisms of martial arts.

Ages 4, 5

This age group will be extremely difficult if not near impossible to train kids this age. Sure, in Thailand, you see kids this age getting into it, some having better form and strikes than grown adults training over here in the states.  Situation and environment is everything for kids this age. Their cognitive functions are not developed yet and they learn primarily kinesthetically – sight, sound, feeling, touch. In Thailand, kids are surrounded by the older kids in Muay Thai camps and they take it all in from an early age. Even so, under a certain age, kids may pick up the general movement of martial arts, but not fully grasp it entirely, as depicted in this funny, cute video of two toddlers sparring. 

To try to teach them an authentic version of a martial art without this immersion and social proof from the older boys and men around them is going to be very difficult. Their natural tendency will be to play without this immersive environment. Their use of language is so basic that it would be near impossible to use the tricks and analogies that you might use to teach adults.It’ll be frustrating for the teacher as well as the kids to try to tackle this hurdle at such an early age.

At Age 7, children begin to truly develop their cognitive logical thought, although rudimentary. The younger they are, the more difficult to teach. An environment of immersion into the martial arts, such as the one’s found in Thailand, are required to get children to develop real martial arts skills.

Ages 6 – 10

At about the age of 6, kids start to develop their prefrontal cortex and have a rudimentary access to their brain potential. To teach martial arts to kids this age, there needs to be a lot of positive support and reinforcement from parents and the teacher. Again, without the immersive environment, the teacher has to be a damn good entertainer and keep things fun and exciting. I’ve had some success teaching kids 8 and 10 kicks and they really seem to love it, with the support of their parents.Martial Arts - Child in US

If you want to teach these kids martial arts, one method of instilling a vision or ultimate outcome is to have them watch a few short training videos of the masters and pros. This doesn’t entirely re-create that immersion that a Thai kid would get at a Muay Thai gym in Thailand, but it starts to create a vision, an outcome of what the art is supposed to look like.  With kids, you need to be ultra authoritative because you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile – in other words, be easy on them and they’ll test you into the ground!

That being said. I never had any experience teaching kids prior to this but after these few months, I’ve grown to love them! They are a ton of fun and bring a youthful creative energy to everything they do. It is the challenge of the martial arts instructor to cultivate that and direct it into skill and discipline.

A master teacher is not only a master of his craft, but a master of human psychology as well. Without the later, the instructor is just a martial artist and at best a mediorcre teacher. For instructors out there trying to teach martial arts to children, it’s going to be slow going. Be patient, calm, and in control. To the kids, they don’t really understand and it’s not entirely their fault. The small shifts you make in their life at an early age will have a huge impact so treat them well!


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