It’s tough for us to remember what it was like starting something new as a child. The strange people, the strange surroundings, the complete abandonment of our comfort zone. Sure we still experience that as adults, but it’s not quite the same. From my experience teaching children, here are some stumbling blocks that I think are common for kids to run into. Of course, every child is different and must overcome unique obstacles, but there are a few issues that commonly arise in the realm of martial arts.

5. Fear, Intimidation, Jitters

Starting school can be tense. So can trying out for the softball team. But what about coming to a karate school where you will inevitably be punched and kicked!? Some kids actually thrill at the thought of strapping on pads and going at it, but many experience trepidation and anxiety. I often found it to be a good idea to spar with children on my own before sending them out against each other (control can be a bit lacking then). Something else that causes fear is performing alone, in front of others. Sometimes shyness is so strong that they refuse to participate and shut down for the rest of class.

Karate and other martial arts offer all kinds of seemingly unpleasant obstacles, and can occasionally leave children asking their parents if they ever have to go back again. But its those same trials that build strong character and a willingness to take risks that pays dividends later.

4. Peer Ranking

Ranking is one of the strongest motivators used by many American schools (if not most schools worldwide) these days. An instructor must gauge students for progress and ability and award rank accordingly. Unfortunately, if a child sees some of his peers being promoted while he/she is not, it can cause jealousy and a desire to quit.

This is a sometimes insurmountable obstacle for instructors because the schools that provide the most amount of rank (and award it the quickest) are often the ones that get the most business. Instructors are therefore put in a position to provide children with rank frequently for fear of discouraging them and losing them to competition. It’s really up to the parents to introduce kids to a good school right off the bat, before they get in the habit of constant rank attainment. Both the parents and child have to ignore little Johnny down the street when he gets a new rank every month.

3. Sports/Activities

Balancing martial arts and school activities can be as difficult as tightrope walking. They both prompt kids to spend their time and energy to succeed, but there are only so many hours in a day.

I do believe that kids should experience other activities as they grow up; it’s really the only way to find out what they are passionate about. That’s why I am always filled with contrasting feelings when kids or young adults leave the dojo. They have my best wishes for success in their other endeavors, but I also know how difficult it can be for them to make the leap back into the martial arts.

2. External Oriented Teaching

Ranking is a small subset of a bigger problem – teaching that is driven by external reward. Tournament trophies, ranking, patches, championships, titles…it’s all a big mess.

Here’s the problem – that stuff runs out of steam after awhile…and the child will move on to another endeavor that will provide BETTER external reward. It’s not a good cycle.

1. Black Belt

The black belt has become the finishing line. Think about it – would you take your child to a martial art school that didn’t offer a black belt?

The black belt has become a symbol of supposed mastery, instead of it’s intended meaning – a readiness to begin learning. Black belt is on top of my list because it’s not just the biggest hurdle for young martial artists, but for all martial artists. Why carry on after a black belt is attained?

The answer is extraordinarily complex, and the rest of my writing is generally dedicated to explaining just that.