A Parent's Guide to the Martial Arts

        by Thomas N. Johnson

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So your kids want to take up martial arts and become the next Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle or Power Ranger.  Or perhaps, you have heard that martial arts training can instill self-discipline, improve self-confidence, teach them respect and courtesy, or teach them self-defense.  However, maybe you're just not sure about all that kicking and punching, and what about all those weapons?  After all, after they watch their favorite martial arts filled movies, they run around the house punching and kicking, swinging their imaginary sword, acting out their favorite action hero.  Therefore, you may ask, “What does all that punching and kicking really accomplish?”  “Doesn't training how to fight make you more aggressive or more prone to fight?”  I mean, we don’t want our kids getting into fights in school or around the neighborhood, right?  The bottom line is you just want to know whether or not learning martial arts is a good thing and you want to know exactly what your kids will be learning in a martial arts class. 

If you’re like most westerners, you probably have some ideas of what the martial arts is all about, but what you know is probably heavily influenced by movies and T.V.  When you combine that with the confusion caused by our abuse of the current terminology used in the martial arts, it's no wonder we have a skewed view of what the martial arts is really about.  As you read on, you will gain a better understanding of what the martial arts is and isn't, you will discover some of the benefits of martial arts training, you will learn what questions to ask to aid you in finding a good martial arts school, and you will feel more confident that you will make the right choice for your kids.

First, what is a martial art?  This at first seems like a simple question.  However, this deceptively simple question involves a lot more than meets the eye.  We should first clarify the term 'martial art'.  Martial is defined as “having to do with war” and comes from, Mars, “the Roman god of war” and art can be defined as “skill acquired by experience, study, or observation.”  Therefore, a martial art is a skill or skills having to do with war, acquired by experience, study, or observation.  Based on your current understanding of the martial arts this answer may seem inadequate.  After all, there are martial arts like Jūdō and Taekwondo in the Olympics, right?  So, somehow the preceding definition doesn’t seem right.  In order to understand why this answer may seem inadequate we need to explore some of the history of the martial arts. 

Over the centuries, the martial arts have evolved into a few distinctly different branches.  These branches can be described as follows: Traditional martial arts, arts that were developed and practiced for their combat effectiveness; Martial sports, martial arts that have been modified for sport competition; and Martial theatre, martial arts that have been modified to enhance their theatrical value. Martial theatre is probably what most westerners are familiar with, as this is what is usually seen on T.V. and in the movies.  The first two branches that I have listed can be further subdivided.  With regard to traditional martial arts, some of these arts have evolved into training for self-perfection rather than self-preservation.  And, as far as martial sports, you have the competitive combat aspect, which pits two combatants against one another.  This competitive combat aspect can be further subdivided into points competition, where winners are determined by points awarded by judges and limited-rules competition, where winners are determined by submission or knockout.  The other aspect is competitive demonstration, which involves participants demonstrating techniques via prearranged forms or via breaking various materials, such as boards and bricks, with a winner, again determined by judges.  One of the modern trends in this competitive demonstration aspect takes the demonstration to the extreme by incorporating acrobatics and gymnastics into the demonstration.  Basically, this modern trend is a blending of martial sports with martial theatre.  As you can see, this evolution of martial arts has created fundamental differences between the different branches that I have described.

 The problem is that our terminology used to describe these differing branches has not evolved.  We continue to label and group a wide variety of Asian combative systems and sports under the term 'martial art'.  "Under close examination, however, we find that not all of these activities are truly martial in nature, nor are they all arts." (Morgan, 5)  Donn Draeger, in his book Classical Bujutsu, echoes these sentiments by stating that one of the purposes of his book is to point out the carelessness of those who describe all Japanese martial skills under one classification, referring to the aggregate simply as "martial arts." (Draeger, 1, 18)  Understanding the differences will be important when attempting to choose a martial art school.




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