The School of Hard Kicks
How I came to appreciate the benefits of Karate
Karate was never my thing growing up. I loved to punch and kick things as much as the next kid, no doubt, especially if that thing was a sibling, but it wasn’t something I ever wanted to do in an organized fashion. I feel like I had the vague impression Karate was for dorks, the kids whose parents wanted them to be active but who couldn’t play real sports. I was a jock. Also, a nerd. (It’s complicated, don’t worry about it, the point is, I wasn’t a dork, not yet.) I played real sports like soccer and basketball and baseball. So did my wife. I became a good tennis player. My wife was great at soccer. Either of us could have played in college somewhere. So of course our kids would be athletic, too. Of course they would play—and dominate—the traditional sports, right?
Nope. Oh, they dabbled in youth soccer, but it hasn’t really caught on. And don’t even get me started on tee-ball. Instead, my daughter has become an extremely competitive gymnast, the benefits of which I’ve already mentioned. My son, meanwhile, has taken to karate. I have no idea how it happened. I swear it wasn’t anything I did. Both kids were introduced to it at their after-school program, and both wanted to do more. Virginia had to abandon it for gym, though she swears she’ll get that black belt one day, but Jackson has stuck with it. And I must admit, the first time I walked into the dojo, dressed up him in a toga (they call it a Gi), saw all the mats and the pads, got a look at the class, I began to question all my parenting decisions. Was this what I wanted my kids to do with their time and talents? Yes, as it turns out. Karate is great.
It’s a different kind of great than the traditional team sports or even gymnastics. It’s less about teamwork, of course, and competition, though they do play various games at the end of practice, and it is a social experience. They might spar with other kids for fun or help each other practice certain techniques. But the primary aim is personal discipline and self-control. That’s not a lesson that’s easy to learn. For a kid like Jackson, who has major ADHD and does not stop wiggling and jumping and flipping from breakfast to bedtime, it’s exactly what he needs.
There’s so much more to it than punching and kicking stuff. There’s that, of course, and plenty of other activity, which the kids love, but they have to do so in a controlled manner, making precise movements with the proper form and in the correct order. One drill requires them to stand at attention, perfectly quiet and still, while the Master tries to distract them with jokes and funny faces. At no other point is his life can Jackson not move for 30 seconds while conscious. And he’s getting stronger, doing pushups and lunges and burpies and all sorts of things that don’t happen on the couch. He’s so proud that he can break (fake) boards with his fist, and he’s working to do it in less tries.
That’s just the physical component. I can’t speak for every Karate program, but at this dojo (MATI South Charlotte) everything they do has a purposeful, positive lesson. The kids are expected to greet the teachers as they come in the door and must bow before they step onto the mat. They have to say “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am.” They learn a whole list of principles to recite, sayings like “discipline and respect,” “always 100%,” and “common sense before self-defense.” When they test to get a new belt, one of the requirements is to introduce themselves to an adult, learning their name and one thing about them. They actually practice saying hello, stating their name, and asking questions. I was amazed the first time I saw it. It’s heartwarming. Also, convicting. Where else do kids get that kind of lesson these days? Not from school. Not from me.
The ingenious belt system keeps everything moving forward and the kids focused on personal growth. You might not think getting a different color piece of cloth to wear would be a big motivator for kids, but it totally is. It’s a tangible goal to work toward and a sign of their skill and status. It’s a big event to advance to the next color, the culmination of a season’s worth of practice and effort. They love it. It makes perfect sense. We’d probably all be better parents if we had got some visible sign every time our kids passed an important milestone. An orange belt for having the baby. Blue for making it to preschool. Green if they can learn to read. Purple for having an honor student. Black when they finally leave the house for good. Judging by all the bumper stickers I see, you can bet your house we’d all be wearing those belts around with pride. Then again, maybe we should just do some Karate of our own. It’s never too late to start. I’m already a dork now, anyway.
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