Black Belt Pedagogy – Part 2

Black Belt Pedagogy – Part 2

Why Boys Need Martial Arts – Pt 2 Of Black Belt Pedagogy


As a high school teacher with over 26 years’ experience, I have seen massive changes in education. I started with a blackboard, and given I am a left hander with atrocious handwriting, I welcomed the arrival of the whiteboard, followed by the smart board. But more than technology has changed. Teachers are more aware of risk, and this implies a reluctance to experiment with outdoor activities, and many schools have a hands-off policy. Do you remember your own school days? At my school we played tackle football at lunchtime (out of site of the teachers mind you), wrestled each other, learned boxing in PE and whether we liked it or not, played cricket in summer and rugby league in winter. Now there were of course many downsides to that culture, and if you weren’t into those things then it could have been a bitter educational experience. My teachers didn’t understand autism or ADHD. If a boy was fidgety, he’d be ordered to do a lap of the school, then come back and resume his seat. It certainly worked for me, but not for everyone.


As a teacher I did not employ those strategies as by the eighties we were thinking a lot more about inclusivity, safety and gender equity; and this is a good thing. But somewhere along the way we seemed to lose the boys.  The 2003 Enquiry into the Education of Boys concluded that, wait for it., boys and girls think differently, behave differently, and learn differently, and so we need to develop specific strategies to engage those children who behave like boys, as well as those who behave like girls. Apart from a few years of energetic research and innovation in approaches to boy’s education that had dried up by 2008, we didn’t listen.


American educators, politicians and researchers are finally recognising the peril that is caused by young males not looking for work, being addicted to drugs and being unprepared or unmotivated to either work or embrace new technologies.


The statistics are alarming. Girls suicide rates are alarming, but boys’ suicide at three times the rate if girls from 15 to 19 yrs. and 4 ½ times that of girls from 19 to 24. Researchers point to a crisis of physical and mental health, of shame for one’s masculinity that is labelled as toxic, in a world of increasing dad-deprivation. Authors such as Michael Gurian, Leonard Sax, Warren Farrell and in Australia Steve Biddulph, have pointed to educational changes that don’t support the development of many boys. Discouraged from physical play which is considered violent rather than healthy, confused about his place in the world where he desires to be a warrior but doesn’t see a cause, impatient and disconnected in a school system that seems to place an emphasis on written communication, verbal ability and collaborative effort, many boys retreat to the world of fantastic imagination that is the gaming world.


So why put your boys into martial arts?


Let’s take a look at the structure of a good traditional martial arts program. Children enrol in a structured class, where everyone has a designated place. They all start as white belts, and progress through clear criteria of skill acquisition, time and attitude through the belts towards the ultimate goal of black belt.

Along the way they learn self control, which is an essential outcome of controlled roughhouse play, mutual regard, inclusivity, empathy, team camaraderie, focus and respect.

In martial arts, the warrior attitude is spoken of often, but it bears some attention here. The warrior, like Daniel in Karate Kid, learns that “I learn to fight so I don’t have to fight”. In nearly 40 years of teaching martial arts I have yet to find one of my experienced students used their skill to stand over others. Quite the opposite. I could fill these pages with stories of students who found they could avoid or resolve conflict without resorting to physical violence, and for some it marked a huge change in their default response to trouble.


Rates of Autism and ADHD are rapidly rising, and it is unsurprising that many therapists recommend structured programs such as martial arts to boys who are struggling to find their place. I recall well a mother introducing her son to karate, who turned to me apologetically and said,” Look, I am not sure my son will fit in here. He has ADHD and won’t belong in such a well- behaved class.” I invited her to watch the class, saying, “You will find it had to believe that 1/3 of these boys have ADHD, but they are fine here.” They liked the structure, predictability and physical pace of martial arts.


Consider the importance of play. Children learn the most through supervised and unsupervised play. It is through play that they learn the social and emotional competencies to thrive in the company of their peers. And martial arts for children is play. In the hands of understanding and skilled mentors, children learn to connect, communicate, win and lose, fall safely and get up quickly. The emphasis is never on the victory, but on the friendships built along the way. At our children’s tournaments, we always say “Friendship before victory”. Rather than pump their hands overhead if awarded a match the student approaches the opponent and congratulates them on their effort. Children learn through this attitude the real truth about competitive play; that it is the quality of the game rather than the outcome that brings the real joy.


A good martial arts instructor understands that self esteem is important, but much more important is to build the social, physical and emotional capacity that builds self esteem. And this takes time. This is why it takes several years to achieve the coveted black belt. It is not easy, as it requires perseverance, motivation, support and resilience… and isn’t this what we are looking for in our children?


There is a view in education and in parenting now that roughhouse play should be discouraged, as it promotes the hierarchical behaviour that may lead to bullying from the strong, self-doubt and poor self –esteem on the part of those lower on the hierarchy. It is important to note the difference, though, between violence and rough play. Watch the ways your boys play. They appear violent, but look again. If boys play well, they look like young warriors, fierce and determined to better each other. And they do this all over the world. But they also expect resilience, knowing a boy needs to be able to take some physical discomfort, they play fair, the rules are very clear to all, and if one plays unfairly, breaking the rules that may appear absent or over intricate to the idle outsider, they threaten the future of the game, so they rarely do it. They are ever mindful of the older boys, the big brothers, fathers and uncles who played and conquered before them, and boys will find a great motivation to gain the approval of their mentors. This is where martial arts fits very well, as the teachers and mentors are black belts, and importantly both men and women, who make clear their expectations regarding effort, rules and standards. When boys learn to spar each other, they must firstly have developed self control, focus, regard for the opponent and an understanding of the boundaries. It is not violence, and all children have the chance to thrive, so long as they have the support to stay in the program long enough.


In the martial arts class today, there are almost equal numbers of boys and girls, and this is an important feature. In a world where gender equity is getting closer, boys and girls must learn to embrace their own natures and their unique energy without surrendering to gender stereotypes, while including others, connecting with each other through empathy and the ability to communicate with confidence and respect. In traditional martial arts, the qualities of the warrior are promoted. Foremost is the concept called “bun bu ryodo”. This means to balance the pen and the sword. To develop physical ability is indeed useful, but it needs to be balanced with introspection, compassion, communication and respect. A connection between the body, mind and heart, a consciousness of self, and the growing awareness of one’s inner compass, or greater purpose, is the ultimate aim of martial arts, and a very good reason to introduce boys in particular to the martial arts. In my next article in the series’ “Black Belt Pedagogy”, I will focus on girls and why martial arts is so relevant to them in today’s world.