Kids in MMA
75% of kids will leave organized sport by the age of 12. For many it is not even their choice.
Some will get cut, and some will choose to leave, often not because they don't enjoy playing anymore, but because they don't enjoy the way in which they are forced to play. Youth sports have been taken over by adults who are out to satisfy their interests, not those that actually play the game, those that they are there to help, the kids.
Youth organized sports have fallen far from their original intent, to let kids play. Youth sports have become the game of adults, whether it is parents screaming from the stands or coaches screaming from the sidelines. Players get benched, they feel pressure to win, and they don't feel free to experiment for fear of screwing up and getting yelled at by coaches and parents.
Youth Hockey is a example of what can happen, parents fighting, refs quitting due to abuse, kids fearing for themselves if they can't perform. It has become a way for adults to live out a fantasy of being in charge of a team, of winning at their sport through their children. Their model is based of professional sports, where winning is the primary goal and bending the rules to do so is standard. After all their ability to win is directly related to the ability to keep their job.
But this isn't why kids play. Kids play to have fun. Who wins is far less important then having fun doing so. Studies have shown that the vast majority of kids would rather play on a losing team then spend time on the bench on a winning team. Games that kids play when left to their own devices reflect this. Rarely is there a clear winner, score keeping is often forgotten about and the rules will change to pick up the action if necessary.
Young athletes are not just miniature professional athletes, they are kids, and it seems that many adults involved in youth sports have forgot this. Trying to get kids to play at adult professional standards is not the way to keep them playing. With kids the goal is skill development, physical activity, creativity, social contact, and most importantly fun.
Children rarely participate to win, in 1999 Sports Illustrated asked children why they participate in sports, the results where:
72% - It's fun
22% - For exercise
18% - To be with friends
12% - For Fitness
9% - For the competition
7% - To stay out of trouble
6% - To be popular
From this survey it seems that competition is viewed very low in the priority list. What is important is having fun, exercising and being with friends.
The reason many quit is simple; they no longer have fun. This is often due to over organization and pressure placed on them by the adults who run the programs.
Sports have several intrinsic values that are a part of the sport. They are internal, within the sport itself. Sports by their very nature are physical, they are competitive, they are fun, and they develop a sense of teamwork and sportsmanship. External aspects can also be attached, these are the statistics tracking, trophies, belt colour and the league play structure.
External aspects can add to the experience, but they can also take away from it. If one person gets a trophy how many don't? If one team wins, how many loose? If that desire to win the trophy and to win the championships gets too strong problems will arise. Playing will turn into working. Players will fear making mistakes and getting benched or even cut.
They will learn to break rules to win if they can. They will see coaches screaming and parents yelling at them and their friends when all they want to do is play. Imagine your boss at work standing over your shoulder yelling instructions at you and criticizing every mistake you made. Now if you have a hobby picture the same thing, someone coaching you as you cooked, telling you the recipe as you cook and yelling at you if you deviate, threatening to pull you out of the game every time you get stuck in a sand trap, or giving you a hard time every time you miss a shot at pool.
The hobby would quickly stop being fun. It would become someone else's game, played through you. Kids sports are their game, the adults have a role, but it is not to take the game away from them. A chef could train you, a pool expert could coach you and you would get better and learn from this. But their role would be to offer advice and constructive criticism, to help you get better and develop your skills. Not to try and use your skills to win the game with them in charge. They would likely encourage creativity and let you make mistakes, and you would have fun and learn while doing it.
This is the way youth sports should be as well. The coaches role is to help the children develop skills and to provide the conditions for them to do so. Competition is a great learning tool, so long as it is used as a learning tool. If winning becomes the focus and then coaches take over thinking because they know best, children become pawns in a game. They feel bad when they lose and the other team becomes not only the opponents, but the enemy as well. Sportsmanship is lost and the fun disappears.
Within the martial arts world this is no different. I have seen clearly biased judges, instructors and parents who looked like they where ready to start a fist fight with referees over a bad call, competitors faking injuries so that the other person loses a point or gets disqualified and intentionally hurting a person to physically and psychologically disable them. All of which was done at their coaches/parents approval and often on their advice. Competitors who knew that they didn't score react as if they did, hoping the judges couldn't clearly see that they didn't and award the point. Star athletes break out in tears after being beaten by someone else.
It is not that competition is inherently "bad," it has just become "bad" based on an overemphasis on winning. Every hockey season we see news stories of abused officials, out of control parents, and abusive coaches. Something has gone wrong with our youth sports programs. Children are being treated as professionals, and sometimes held to a much higher standard then those that do this for a living with coaches that are paid to win and lose their jobs if they don't.
Now winning is part of the game, or rather trying to win is. In any game there is a goal and ways to accomplish that goal. Without that goal there is no game. The players of the game compete to accomplish that goal, that is their function. But actually achieving that goal is far less important then trying to accomplish that goal. And when the game is over, it is over. If everyone had fun then the game was a success, regardless of who won.
Watch a group of children play, it won't follow the rules, the rules will even change as the game goes to keep the action going and the game fun. Easily dominating the opposition is no fun, nor is being easily dominated. Kids will often change things to make if more fair if this is happening They will develop social skills, a sense of fair play and develop the skills needed for that particular sport, all while having fun doing it.
Adults can add to their experience by showing them how to improve their skills by providing the conditions and equipment for them to develop those skills. Adults provide safety restrictions and can deal with a child should they become too rough. But in the end the game must still belong to the kids, even if administered by adults.
If we take a sport that requires catching and we work on that specific skill there are several approaches we could take. We could stand the children up on two opposite lines and have them throw on command, or we could teach them the basic skill and then turn it into a game. Given the choice of throwing a ball back and forth or playing "Monkey in the middle" or "500" most kids will choose the game. Not only that, but they will put more effort into it and the skills will develop faster. As they play they can be coached on catching, intercepting or any other aspect of that skill. Want to teach them to catch ground balls add a rule that they can only throw ground balls and work off that.
Any skill that can be taught and coached can be turned into a game. As a game it will be more fun and get more effort put into it. As a result the skills will not only still be learnt, but they will be learnt faster in a more dynamic environment. This will mean that while this simple training game is being played elements of strategy and adaptability are also being trained. These elements are essential to actually playing the game.
So when someone tells you they are there to teach, not to play games, realise what they are saying demonstrates a poor knowledge of how to teach. Skills can be taught to a higher level and much faster through the use of games focusing on those skills. The children will have more fun doing it and will be more likely to stick with it, and give it more effort.
However it has become hammered into most of us that things need to be structured, that everyone should do things in an organized way. Children standing in formation doing callisthenics and executing skills on command may look organized, but it is ineffective. They would have more fun and get a better work out running around chaotically trying to achieve a goal that no one over the age of 12 can really understand because the goal keeps changing. Within a loosely organized structure focusing on specific skills in a game environment we can capture the best of both. The participants are having fun, giving it their best, developing specific skills, learning to follow rules, play fair and sportsmanship.
As they develop those skills they can be coached on how to execute better if necessary, but much of it is learnt through self-discovery. This self-discovery is aided through hints and advice from coaches who have made the same self-discoveries in the past. Children are free to experiment and make mistakes, and they learn from making those mistakes.
Adults need to look at the game from a child's perspective. The important aspects are simple. Have fun, make progress and not get injured. If those things are being accomplished then they are spending their time in a productive manner. Robotic like discipline and actually winning, as oppose to trying to win, are not important.
Winning can become more important as they progress, as they mature and reach adulthood some may choose to move up to more competitive levels where winning is important. But this needs to be their choice, and it shouldn't be too early. In an article entitled "What has gone wrong with Athletics Today" (1998) Robert Butcher states "One prominent psychologist spoke of her research, which shows that competitive athletes consistently show lower scores on scales of moral development" while describing the International Summit on Ethics in Sport" the main point of the article was that sports went wrong when we forgot that they are still just a game.
There is a lot of truth to this claim. Sports have become a commercial entertainment business. They are about profit and winning or at least the sports that the media exposes us to are. Professional sports are a business and they are entertainment. Fans will pay to see hockey players fight, so it is allowed and teams have "enforcers" who are not there because of there hockey skills but because of there ability to fight.
Basing youth sports and adult recreational sports off of this model is a mistake. Now we need to try and undo this mistake for the good of the children who got caught in the middle of something they had no control over.
One result is a new breed of sports, skateboarding, snowboarding, BMX, etc. These new sports are all about the athletes. The athletes get together and train on their own. A skateboarder will spend countless hours learning fundamental skills without quitting and without an adult telling them what to do. He becomes dedicated, he will get together with his friends and train and they help each other. He will have fun and develop his own skills his way. There are no adults on the side yelling at him when he makes a mistake, no one telling him what skills are important to him.
This new breed of athlete is at the far end of the scale. They are the ones that became so fed up with being told what to do and how to do it, of having their games stolen from them that they left them completely and went to one that there where no adults involved in.
This happens all the time, remember three quarters of children will leave organized sport by the age of 12. Many will move to other activities such as music, art, and "extreme" sports. These activities give them the opportunity to create and to experiment and the freedom is not be compromised by "adult created structure".
Children can be coached by adults in the skills but if their creativity is taken away by their coach they will likely reject that coach quickly. Sport should be no different. It should be coached and aided based on the children's needs and interests. It should help them develop creativity and adaptability. These skills will be more useful to them in life. They will learn to take responsibility for themselves and they will gain confidence knowing that they accomplished their goal, not the coach's goals that he threw at them.
So the job of the coach in developmental sports should be to help children reach their goals within the limits of that sport. It also must involve helping them realise what goals can be accomplished and how they can be accomplished. So if a child's goal is to play a forward position, it should be the coach's goal to help them with that goal. Not to force them to play goal because that is where the coach thinks they should be. Initially they must be shown all the positions and all the skills, otherwise they won't be able to make that choice. Even after they know all the possibilities it can better them to keep them playing all positions at different times, perhaps with a specialty. This will give them more variety and slow burn out.
So how does all of this work in the martial arts?
Well first of all, practices should be fun. Training should be done through skill specific games and children should be mostly coached, not taught. Classes should be organized, but that organization should be loose. Drills should be aimed at developing a specific skill, but this does not mean standing in line doing repetitions. It means working towards a specific goal and having fun doing it.
One basic skill in the martial arts is to be able to control the wrists of an opponent and not have your wrist controlled. To get free requires a small circular movement that exploits the weaknesses of the hand and it's ability to grab. This skill can be learned and developed through the use of a simple game. The objective is simply to control both your partner's wrists and avoid having them control yours. This will look chaotic and unorganized if compared to students standing in line taking turns practicing the movement required to get free. But they will have more fun doing it, and they will learn it better because they are working against full resistance. They are also learning the opposite skill, controlling the wrists and have to deal with a more and more skilled opponent as they progress.
Some things to notice about this game, there is no winner, there is no score and there is very little structure. But it is competitive and it is fun and it does develop a specific skill. Not sure? Find a partner and try it, it requires no training and is safe.
Now once this skill and others are learnt they can be combined to create more complex games requiring greater adaptability and strategy, but the skills remain exactly the same, they are just combined with other skills. Instead of just the wrist you may also control the elbows, the shoulders, the body and the head while trying to avoid being controlled.
Later other skills are added, takedowns, ground control, breaking away, closing into that clinch, striking, closing on someone who is striking, controlling someone who is trying to strike you. Through the use of progressively complex developmental games and coaching within those games skills are developed to a much higher level then any amount of standing in formation practicing repetitions can achieve. More importantly it is a lot more fun, so more effort is put into it and there is a greater chance of sticking to it.
What about discipline and respect?
Well there are two types of discipline: Self-discipline and the discipline that is hammered into you. Using this model self-discipline is learned through fair play and competition among friends. They are constantly working towards a specific goal in a specific way. They will impose their own discipline among themselves.
The same idea holds for respect. Some people are respectful, and some only act respectful. Forcing kids to adhere to titles and imposing artificial signs of respect such as excessive bowing and rituals does not teach them respect. It only teaches them how to act to avoid disciplinary action.
On the other hand children who want to learn and want to try hard learn a different sort of respect. They learn to respect others through their activities. Respect is required for peer acceptance. If they don't respect the rules of the game and their training partners they would quickly find that no one wants to be their partner. There respect is not forced and it is not artificial.
As a result it will also look different then it does when it is artificially imposed. Children will feel comfortable around their coach, not intimidated by them. They will feel free to joke and have fun with them. They will be able to do this because they respect them, not out of disrespect.
This also requires respect from the coach, if the coach demands to be addressed by a title, demands to be saluted and demands a strict code of behaviour that is lack of respect. The coach is on a power trip and has no respect for those that train under him, as they are under him. A coach who respects his/her athletes will have no problem joking with them and making mistakes in front of them. The respect between them will be far stronger then any artificially imposed code of behaviour that places the coach in a position of power over them.
Consider what an artificial code of conduct, that places the coach in a power position, teaches children. It teaches them that it is ok to force others to bow down to you if they are inferior to you. It teaches them that it is ok to place yourself above others when you can. Coaches are humans, same as those that they coach. They should be treated as such, and treat others as humans as well. That is respect.
The respect is not there when one person is higher then the others, it can't be. You are teaching them to bow down before superior, but at the same time that it is ok to force others to bow down before you. The child should respect the coach, but not because the coach demands it explicitly, but because the coach is respectful towards them and can help them achieve their goals.
You respect your friends, and if they are teaching you something you are still respectful to them. But if your friend is helping you with your golf swing and demands you call him by a title and follow a imposed code of conduct towards him while he does so would you put up with it? Respect must go both ways for it to be genuine. Someone who imposes such conditions has no respect for those he imposes it on.
There are of course exceptions, the military being the big one. The very nature of military work demands adherence to a chain of command and the following of orders. If orders are not followed, people can and will get killed. If every private is given a choice about how they should attack they will not work as a unit. There is no time for democracy, and no time for all of them to receive the full picture.
This requires a very strict chain of command, and in times of peace this chain of command still must be maintained. This means that artificial conditions must be imposed to keep it in place, even when it is not needed in full so that when it is needed it is there.
This chain of command is also a part of business, with management making the decisions and everyone else following. In business this is far less rigid. You are not required to salute executives, the code of behaviour is based on respect, not ego. And it generally goes both ways. If it doesn't the employees will hate the job and eventually quit. Abuse in the workplace is no longer tolerated, and it shouldn't be in youth sports either. Unfortunately it is, one only needs to attend a youth sports games to see abuse of players and officials by coaches and parents.
Occasionally a child will act in a way that does need to be stopped either because it is physically dangerous or emotionally harmful to others. This doesn't mean they should stand and act like little automatons. There is a difference between two people joking with each other and one abusing the other. Everyone makes jokes with their friends and at their friend's expense, and their friends do it back. There is no disrespect in this. But if it crosses the line into verbal abuse and is harming one or more people then it needs to be stopped.
Where that line lies is different for different people and is based on the different relationships between them. While children should be made aware of this line and not to cross it, they should not be kept from playing with each other.
So while it should be perfectly acceptable for children to be joking and laughing throughout practice, anything that is abusive should be unacceptable. This is bullying, not playing. Ideally preventing this comes from within the group. If the group will not allow bullying then bullies won't appear. Peer pressure is the best way to prevent bullying. When the bullies are rejected by their peers and no one joins them in bullying, the bullying won't last. This is because bullies are what they are because of the power associated with being able to dominate others. They try to gain a position of power by mistreating others. They want to elevate themselves by forcing others below them. These are people who are insecure in themselves and fight that security by imposing their will upon others. When the rest of the group will not be suppressed and stand together against them, the bullies will see their actions backfire. Instead of gaining a position of power and respect by exerting themselves on others they lose it as the group stands together.
This is the same behaviour that is reinforced by an imposed code of conduct that places the instructor at the top. If the instructor demands to be referred to in a specific way and demands shows of submission to him, he is reinforcing the idea that you can gain power by putting others below you.
If a coach wants to prevent bullying in a group he should not bully the bullies, this will only reinforce their behaviour, but the coach should move it out of sight. He should become a part of that group and help the group stand together against that sort of attitude, not display it in himself.
A perfect instructor would not deal with bullying for there would be no bullying to deal with. But unfortunately no one is perfect and even if one was found, there are many others that kids are exposed to. Bullying is a learned behaviour, an instructor placing himself above others is teaching that behaviour.
When a problem that does require disciplinary action does arise how it is dealt with is also an important issue. Many feel that it is best to make the kids do something, pushups is a popular one. But again what does this teach the child? When someone doesn't do what you say you should force them to do something that they don't like? That is bullying. No push ups are not the answer, nor is giving them any form of "Do thisâ€¦" as punishment. Forcing others to do something for stepping out of line again teaches that it is ok to force others to remain subordinate to you.
It also teaches them that push-ups, a beneficial exercise, are a punishment. Something that is not done for the benefit of doing them, but as punishment. Using activities as punishment will teach the children to hate those activities.
Instead it is better to deprive them of something. If they are bullying, or just playing too rough, sit them on the side while others continue to play until they've calmed down. What does this teach them? That if you don't play by the groups rules, you don't get to play with the group. It makes it a more positive lesson than a negative one. It also shows them that the activity is something that they want to do, and if they don't do it by the rules they miss out.
So instead of bullying the bully and reinforcing his behaviour as acceptable when you are at the top of the pecking order, you are teaching him that bullying will get you excluded, not give you a position of power.
The Belt System
The belt system is an interesting concept, it provides benefits and rewards to the members but at the same time it can cause a great deal of problems.
Initially it was meant as a means to group competitors in Judo competition. Later it was imposed upon karate by the Japanese government as a condition for its recognition as a legitimate form of martial arts. Many Okinawan's rejected it and it wasn't until after World War two that it became fully accepted on Okinawa.
Some believed that it would lead to people focusing on the belt and not the art, that it would cause people to be judged by their belt, not their ability, that it would lead to inflated egos and political fighting. They were right.
Far to many people in the martial arts judge their worth based on their image and their image, they believe, is correspondent to their rank. They also judge others by the rank that they hold and consider themselves above those who are lower ranked then them. They demand exotic titles, and everyone wants the most exotic. Soke is the big one lately, some say it means founder, others headmaster. But if any of them actually understood the term they would know that it is impossible for them to hold it. It is a title reserved for the head master of a classical Japanese art form handed down through the generations. No westerner could ever become a Soke as it is an inherited title. But it makes them feel important, it is an exotic wounding title in a foreign language that they can award themselves.
For this reason we have countless self-promoted masters and high ranked black belts. There is a little known phenomenon which occasionally occurs mid flight where a person takes off as one rank and lands at another, higher one. The desire to feed the ego has taken over for many. For others it is a realization that a higher rank works better as a marketing tool. The higher rank, the more importance you can impart on yourself in the eyes of prospective students as well as existing ones. Some have so many ranks that based on the "official" requirements they would need several hundred years training to have achieved them all.
Some groups recognising this have reduced their grading requirements to try and attract more students. After all the prospective student knows very little about the martial arts, seeing someone titled "Grandmaster" or "8th dan this, 7th dan that, etc." gives an impression of importance. While in reality others of similar knowledge and ability within a different group might only be 1st or 2nd dan.
Coloured belts are no different. Some schools will guarantee you a black belt in 2 or 3 years if you sign the check. Others might not give you one after 10 years of hard training. The colours in the middle come the same way. For some you write a check and show up for twice a week for 8 weeks, for others you work for over a year and don't qualify.
Which is Correct?
Depends on your goal. For many it is simply to keep the parents writing the monthly check. So the child gets promoted, whether they worked hard or not and keep getting told that black belt is the goal. They are given a test of some basic skills and charged for it so that they feel they earned it and it is worth something, the higher you get the more it costs making the higher ones worth more. But they are all low ranks, black is the first "real" rank and you have to keep at it till you get it, then you get charged a huge fee, given the belt and will probably quit as the only goal you had was to get it, and you did, and have little else to show for it.
To use them as a reward for hard work and improvement requires a different approach. Children will have different levels of ability and they will develop at different rates. Two children of the same age may be as much as six years apart in developmental age. Those that are behind will have a hard time and may become discouraged. But they are still maturing, in 10 years they could be the top athlete or they could be the bottom. Until they get there they must be free to develop at their own rate and have fun doing it, without the pressure to keep up and develop at the same rate as everyone else.
Unfortunately with a belt system in place there will be a visible sign that shows that they have fallen behind. It is the job of the coach and the parents to make sure that they realise that the belt is not the most important thing in training. It is simply something given when the student is ready to accept no and more difficult challenges. So long as they are having fun and learning there rank should not be a big issue.
As unfair as it is to not promote a student with their friends it is also unfair to do so. Not only to their friends who will feel that they are being held to a higher standard, but to them as well. It would be unfair to move a child up in swimming lessons when they weren't ready as they would be unable to keep up and trying to get them into deep water when they are not prepared for it is negligent. Eventually they will get there and how well they swim at 8 may not have any relation to how well they swim at 18.
Martial arts are the same. If a student is thrown in a way that they are not prepared for, or spar at a level they can't handle yet they could be seriously injured. Some kids are early bloomers, others late bloomers. Those that are late bloomers are too often written off before they are given a chance. In team sports they can end up cut at a early age where they may have developed into a star athlete. But no one will ever know because they are not given the chance to find out.
If a child does fall behind it should not be held against them and they should not be made to feel guilty and inferior because of it. Instead they should be reassured that in time they too will get promoted, and eventually they may be at the top. They are still growing and while it would be great if all children matured at the same age that is not the case.
On the other hand having a child who is very gifted at an early age can cause later problems as well. If everything comes naturally to them they may become used to being on top, and using very little effort to get there. Later when other kids catch up to them developmentally they may fall behind because they are used to using little effort and can no longer keep up.
So no matter how fast or how slow your child progresses through the belt system, remember that they are still children and still developing. Someone at the bottom end may end up at the top end, or they may stay at the bottom. No one will know unless they are given the opportunity to try.
Belts are not that important, especially for kids. Most kids won't treat them as that important unless they are taught that they should. So while getting a belt is an accomplishment to be proud of at no time should any child ever feel pressure to get one to impress or bad because they let either the coach or the parents down by not getting one.
Too much focus on getting a belt can have as negative an effect on a child as too much emphasis on winning. Yes it is a goal, but not one to be taken too seriously. Remember why they are there, to have fun, for exercise, to learn skills and for social development.
Kids should feel no worse about not getting a belt as they would getting to the next level of a video game. That may be their goal, but it is not why they play. If it becomes too big of an issue they will stop doing it and get into something like video games where there is no one imposing a high level of stress on them.
On the other hand, if you want to end your child's addiction to video games you could try taking an interest in them and giving them a hard time when they make a mistake or can't keep up to others.
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