Psychology of Teaching Martial Arts to Kids
(Column appears in Black Belt Magazine, March, 2008)
By Dr. Randy Borum
All advanced martial artists and martial arts instructors should invest in kids. Not just because kids will determine the future of our sport, but also because they will choose our nursing home when we get old. :-)
Anyone who has taught or observed a kids’ martial arts class, however, knows that they are not just “little adults.” They often get into martial arts for different reasons. They learn differently. And they stay in or drop out for different reasons also. Effective advertising and marketing may bring kids to your school, but their experience, the climate of the class and their relationships with the instructor and other students is what will keep them there.
Over the past 25 years numerous studies have explored why kids participate and continue in sports. Having fun is consistently at the top of the list. They also want to achieve and improve their skills and to hang out in a positive environment with other kids (and an instructor) that they like. Winning doesn’t even make the top ten. Young people enjoy the excitement of competition, but winning isn’t the most important thing or the “only thing.” In fact, most kids say they would rather get to play more on a losing team than have to sit on the bench more on a winning team.
Participation rates in youth sports peak between the age of 11 and 13, then steadily decline through adolescence. The main reason that kids drop out of organized sports, research shows, is that they are no longer having fun. The other specific reasons that kids cite include a perceived lack of ability, too much pressure, and poor coaching. All of those things might understandably take some of the fun out of sport participation.
Parents are also a big part of the equation. Studies show that when parents support and encourage their kids’ sport participation that the kids enjoy the sport more, and tend to have more positive feelings about their own performance. On the other hand, when parents create pressure for the kids, it reduces their enjoyment and increases their stress about how they perform – both factors that cause dropout.
What are the implications of this research for martial arts instructors and parents?
First, when teaching kids, consider how you might make learning fun and enjoyable. This does not mean that you only do “fluffy” drills or never critique students’ performance. It does mean that you can choose to create an instructional climate in which kids are more or less inclined to learn and retain what you are teaching.
Second, consider how you can provide regular feedback to students about their progress. As an instructor, you understand the difference between effort, skill and ability. Young kids often do not. They think if they lose it is because they did not try hard enough. Without correction, they may just continue to repeat the same mistakes but with greater effort. When they continue not to do as well as they would like to do, they may conclude, they just don’t have the ability…and drop out. Young people - particularly in a competitive environment – may only gauge how well they are doing by whether they win. As an instructor, you can help kids find other ways to monitor and assess their progress and give them specific feedback so that they can focus on their performance, not just on the outcome.
Third, remember the power of specific, positive feedback. Being specific is an important part of making feedback effective. If we equally praise good and poor performance and effort, then it loses its impact. This may mean that you will have to look more actively and more closely for specific signs of improvement.
Correction will also work better when delivered along with positive feedback. Some have recommended a “sandwich” technique in which corrective feedback is embedded between two positive comments. For example, an instructor might say: “You were giving really good effort right there. Remember to keep your hips low on that move. Your timing is excellent.” In general, you can consider the ratio of positive to negative comments you make in any given class or lesson, as well as the tone and manner in which they are delivered. You might even videotape a class and count them for yourself. If they are out of balance, try to even them out a bit more.
Some research suggests that positive feedback from the instructor may be even more important for male than female students. This may be – as other research shows – because girls’ sport participation tends to be more strongly motivated by intrinsic factors – like enjoyment – than is boys’ participation, which may be driven more by needs for achievement and status.
Finally, martial arts training provides a venue for kids to learn and apply important life skills. Instructors and parents will model these lessons whether or not they intend to do it. How we handle frustration, how we treat and speak to others, and how we exercise our authority will not only affect how kids learn martial arts, but also how they navigate the challenges of youth and develop their character.