It was the night before Christmas when I stepped down into the Idaho basement and beheld a horsehair mat measuring six-by-eight 10-year-old strides that changed my life.
The next morning the real gift came when dad took off a bowtie and younger brother Tom opened a big box of boxing gloves. We descended the stairs, and had at it. Thrice weekly for an hour, the bouts alternated among boxing, wrestling and judo for years.
Parents should wonder what martial art to place their youngster in, that will alter his thinking, movement and life choices. Having dabbled in most of the sports from the horsehair mat to asphalt alley, here’s a quick rundown.
Boxing: The attack and defense is with the fists. The hands are wrapped and gloved, and head put in a helmet to prevent injuries. I’ve done enough boxing to say it’s a great sport from a distance. I gave it up at the YMCA after getting so pummeled and pooped that there seemed no need to raise the elbows above the supper table for a day. It’s a great sport for those who stick with it, teaches importantly getting hit is no big deal, and will get you by nicely in most street scrapes.
Judo: The name means gentle way, and was my forte for ten years. The opponent’s center of gravity and momentum are utilized to throw him around like a rag doll, without injury to anyone. It is superior because of ‘hands-on’ training, quick gains, aerobic and anaerobic condition, and is the best progress to balance and tumbling. There is no better way to learn to read a person’s body language in every situation.
Wrestling: This is the most superior martial art that I had a love/hate relationship for many years. I practiced so hard, adored the move and counter chains, and half the time ended up flat on my back in front of jeering fans and my sad parents. Nonetheless, if you don’t know what to do after school, go to the wrestling room and get an epiphany for life.
Karate: The term means empty handed, and is a practical self-defense appended by a philosophical touch. Strikes with the hand or foot stop just short of contact. It involves tedious repetitions that, in college threw my elbow and knee joints out of whack from jerking to a stop. There are more efficient ways to exercise or learn combat.
Ballet: Is too a martial art, especially for an uncoordinated person.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: This is a self-defense system and martial art that emphasizes taking an opponent to the ground and applying submission holds such as joint-locks and chokeholds. The premise is that most of the advantage of a larger, stronger foe comes from superior reach and more powerful strikes, that are negated on the ground. My practicing friends call it ‘tackle-and-choke’, and there’s something refreshing and potent about simplicity where there are so many choices.
Kickboxing: A popular blend of karate and boxing, especially in Thailand where after public contests I’ve been invited, as the only Caucasian spectator in the crowd, to dojos to train with the athletes. I trained little, watched a lot, and surmised (as in other contact sports) it’s good to learn to take blows, plus it builds character and very strong legs. However, it’s inferior as a defense to all the other contact arts.
Full contact Karate: To me, this is the only Karate. I took a year of contact-less in college and the big problem is that after a few months of pulling thousands of kicks and punches short of target, or striking a defenseless sawdust bag, one suddenly finds himself in a rough place with a false glow of confidence. There’s a split-instant hesitation before striking as the muscle memory kicks in to actually hit a person… and by then it’s too late. But Full Contact is a true self-defense with protective pads and helmets during practice for safety.
Ultimate Fighting: It’s an American martial arts’ fest where fighters from different disciplines fight to submission or knockout. I’ve known a few ultimate fighters, usually type A personalities in gorilla bodies, who admit it’s a bloody, real test. The best are former collegiate and Olympic champion wrestlers.
Kung Fu: The term means a skill or ability to do something, hence is aggressive. Also referred to as Wushu, a modern name for Chinese martial arts, I once lived with a practitioner/owner of a dojo who was also a telepath, according to publicity (not mine), and he challenged Sugar Ray Leonard in the boxing ring blindfolded using just his feet. It never happened, but he did get on ‘That’s Incredible.’ Sharp kicks and blows are applied to pressure points on the body, and once I wrestled the housemate who in the first three seconds touched each of about two dozen pressure points, and I gasped.
Thai Chi: Throughout Asia, one sees seniors practicing katas in front yards and parks, content and oblivious to passers-by, dogs and traffic. For this reason, it seems a good meditative activity, develops body awareness and sequential thinking, but is too static to be considered a martial defense or aerobic activity. There are faster-motion forms, but the martial aspect requires years of training.
Aikido: The self-defense resembles a harmonious dance on the mat or street, until suddenly a lock is applied to neutralize or control the opponent. There are chains of beautiful applications of leverage across joints, and circular movements within a contained mat area that teach discipline and respect. I’ve watched practice sessions, and had an elbow and knee bent to testify the efficacy. At the highest level, the defender hurts no one, only leads the red-faced attacker away by a bent finger or ear. This is the first horsehair sport I would encourage my child to undertake.
The above list (from about 50 martial arts practiced around the globe) includes the most popular and ones with which I have some familiarity.
The benefits of martial arts cannot be underestimated. They include:
- General fitness and coordination.
- Decision making, including cross-over training for chess, bridge and many jobs.
- A discipline to greet new challenges by forming a strategy, and to adjust or stick with it to a goal.
- Confidence in mastering new situations.
- A mindset to find a correct frame of thinking to greet novel scenarios.
- The grasp of chained sequences in thought and movement.
- Respect for an instructor, and others.
- Testing and learning one’s limits, hence humbleness.
- Boost in general self-esteem as other life challenges, physical and mental, are met cheerfully.
- A habit of accomplishment from training with many little steps and progressions.
- Increased productivity in school or business
- The confidence to strike out to new grounds, and travel.
- Inner peace.
- Meet worthy people.
- Burn off a kid’s energy with a better night’s sleep for everyone.