The Benefits and Risks of Martial Arts Classes for Teens

The benefits of martial arts stem beyond physical.
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Karate and other forms of martial arts can be really good for teens. Generally, the sport promotes self-discipline, builds strength, flexibility, and agility, and instills values of honor, hard work, and respect. Many programs teach confidence-building self-defense skills as well. However, some parents may wonder if karate promotes violence and worry about injuries.

There are many things you should consider before you decide whether or not to enroll your teen in martial arts classes. Learn about the benefits and risks and how to determine which type of program is best for your child.

Forms of Martial Arts

When choosing a class, make sure you and your teen have a basic understanding of that particular style of martial art. There are many different types, each with its own unique history, focus, and style. Some classes are more about the individual practice and mastery of kicks, punches, blocks, and other moves, while other styles focus more on competition or direct combat with other students.

More than 6.5 million children in the United States participate in some type of martial art.

Talk to your teen about what they hope to gain and try to understand their expectations to find the best fit. Ask questions about the program, including its background and any required time or other commitments for students. Also, learn about the philosophy and leadership behind the program you are considering. Here are the most popular martial arts:

  • Aikido: Aikido teaches a non-aggressive form of self-defense. It involves joint locks, restraints, and throws, rather than kicks and punches. It is not a competitive sport.
  • Judo: Judo is about using an opponent’s energy against them. It involves takedowns to the ground and submission holds.
  • Jujitsu: Jujitsu allows smaller fighters to overcome larger opponents. It's a grappling-style martial art that incorporates karate, judo, and aikido.
  • Karate: Karate is a stand-up martial art that involves punches, kicks, and open hands to block strikes. 
  • Kung fu: Kung fu is a stand-up martial art known for its powerful blocks.
  • Mixed martial arts: Mixed martial arts may involve a combination of boxing and wrestling with a variety of submission holds and takedowns.
  • Muay Thai kickboxing: Muay Thai kickboxing involves kicking, sparring, and punching with boxing gloves. It’s performed with different levels of protective equipment.
  • Taekwondo: Taekwondo involves 80% kicks and 20% hand techniques. Training involves blocks, punches, and open-hand strikes.

Make sure your teen knows that competition may or may not be part of the class. Teens who have seen someone perform Taekwondo in a movie or who have watched a mixed martial arts fight may expect to compete right away, but often, competition doesn't begin (if it is part of the program at all) until basic skills have been mastered. And competition may mean performing solo moves in front of a judge, rather than sparring with a partner.

How Martial Arts Benefits Teens

Whether you want your teen to gain some basic self-defense skills or you’re hoping they’ll learn self-discipline, martial arts can provide the structure kids often crave and be a great teaching tool.

Health Benefits

Participating in martial arts can offer many advantages to students of all ages.

  • Balance
  • Self-awareness
  • Motivation and work ethic
  • Physical fitness and muscle strength
  • Flexibility
  • Self-esteem
  • Improved cognitive function
  • Patience
  • Self-respect
  • A sense of community

Martial arts may be a great physical outlet for a teen who isn’t interested in traditional sports like baseball or soccer. Your teen won't be cut from a team and martial arts don't require any prior experience or specific skill set. Typically, students advance at their own pace and can enjoy the benefits of an Individual sport within the camaraderie of a group atmosphere.

Your teen can set goals, such as earning the next color belt or mastering a new move. Over time, they'll learn how their efforts, patience, and consistent practice can help them accomplish their goals. 

Common Injuries From Martial Arts

Like any other physical activity, martial arts pose some risk of injury. Here are some of the most common injuries in martial arts:

  • Contusions
  • Fractures (from falling)
  • Hyperextension of the joints
  • Nosebleeds
  • Sprains
  • Strains

While less common, participation in martial arts may put your child at risk for more serious injuries, such as head or neck injuries. Many of these injuries can be prevented with appropriate safety precautions.

How to Reduce the Risk of Injury

Before enrolling your teen in the study of any martial art, talk to your teen's pediatrician. Discuss which specific form of martial art you are considering and ask the doctor if your teen is healthy enough to participate. Note that all sports carry some risk of injury. However, activities like American football and certain martial arts (particularly when done competitively) do carry higher risks.

Various types of martial arts carry vastly different risks of injury. Generally, competition and fighting experiences pose the greatest risk and stand-alone training poses the least. For example, a noncombat karate class will have a much lower injury risk than a combat-centered program. To reduce the risk of injury:

  • Ask the instructor about safety: Find out about training, experience, injury prevention, and philosophy before signing your teen up for classes. Look for an instructor who focuses on building skills safely and only encourages competition once students display adequate emotional and physical maturity, as well as adequate skills.
  • Only allow your teen to compete in a safe environment: Competitions should discourage blows to the head and should deduct points for illegal and dangerous moves. Make sure your teen is being taught proper defensive blocking moves before allowing them to enter a competition.
  • Start with lower contact forms of martial arts: Look for a martial arts class that doesn't involve a lot of physical contact. Then, if your teen shows self-discipline and maturity with that type of class, consider moving into a more competitive environment, if desired.
  • Talk to the instructor and your doctor about safety equipment: A mouthguard, for example, may reduce oral injuries. Talk about soft headgear as well. While some studies show headgear may reduce the risk of concussions, other research is inconclusive.

Promoting Martial Arts vs. Violence

Most martial arts programs do not promote violence. In fact, they often focus on self-control and de-escalation instead. However, students do learn powerful self-defense and combat moves, which may make some parents wary, depending on the personality of their child.

In some cases, parents may feel hesitant to enroll their teen in a martial arts class due to fear that it will promote violence in their child. This is an important consideration. After all, you don’t want your teen practicing their kicks on their friends or younger siblings.

Only you know what is best for your child and what activities will promote the behavior and values important to you. However, note that many kids tend to thrive in martial arts, and rather than spurring violence or aggressiveness, many parents may find that their child becomes more focused, driven, and self-regulated after joining a martial arts program.

When taught appropriately, martial arts aren't about promoting violence. Instead, the practice of martial arts is about learning self-discipline and self-defense.

The vast majority of martial arts programs teach avoiding unnecessary conflict and rising above petty disputes. Studies have found that, overall, teens who participate in martial arts don't become any more aggressive than teens who are involved in team sports. Research is lacking on whether they show more externalizing behavior—such as aggression, bullying, and conduct issues—than teens involved in individual sports like swimming or golf.

Which Martial Art Is Best?

Some martial arts are better choices for teens than others. Some studies show significant differences between the types of martial arts and the amount of externalizing behavior. For example, one study found that teens taking karate lessons were less likely to become aggressive compared to teens taking judo. 

While it's important to take the kind of martial art into account, perhaps most crucial is the role played by the instructor. Their teaching style and perspective can be a big influence on your child's experience. You'll also want to consider the dynamic among the other students participating in the program—is there a healthy, supportive energy or does it feel more cut-throat in the studio?

The American Academy of Pediatrics singles out mixed martial arts as inappropriate for children. The risk of injury is much higher in mixed martial arts than in other contact sports, including collegiate football.

Teens who participate in mixed martial arts are at a high risk of concussion and asphyxia, due to chokeholds and hard blows to the head. Lacerations, upper limb injuries, and fractures are also common.

Be Cautious of Media Portrayals

Professional mixed martial arts has become sensationalized in the media. Reality shows and movies about mixed martial artists may make it seem like fighting is an easy way to become rich. Such shows often glorify violent moves, like choking someone out or kicking an opponent in the head.

Video games may extol the aggressive aspects of martial arts by emphasizing injuring and killing opponents.

There is evidence that exposure to media violence can increase aggressive behavior in kids. Watching violent acts may also desensitize youth to violence.

Limit your teen's exposure to media that portrays martial arts as violent. If your teen has a strong interest in violent media—despite your clear objection—talk to your teen's doctor or a mental health professional before enrolling them in martial arts classes.

When to Encourage Participation

Overall, martial arts can be an overwhelmingly positive activity for many teenagers. So if your teen is interested in signing up for a class, it’s most likely something you should encourage. Just make sure you find a positive, safe class with an excellent instructor.

If your teen has a history of physical aggression or a mental health condition, talk to a mental health professional, and possibly the instructor or studio owner, before enrolling them in a class.

There is some evidence that martial arts can be particularly good for kids and teens with ADHD and other behavior disorders, but it's important to discuss your child's situation with a mental health professional.

One of the best things about karate lessons or taekwondo class is that it is suitable for people of all ages and various fitness levels. A martial arts center may offer classes the whole family can join.

Of course, not all teens want to take martial arts with their parents. But if you have a shy teen or one who is reluctant to get involved in physical activity, joining together may be a way to encourage participation in physical activity while providing an excellent opportunity to bond as a family.

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