When I look back on the most significant, powerful and transformative moments in my life, few can come close to when I first walked into a Shotokan Karate dojo.
I was a weak, somewhat weird, high-energy 11-year-old. My dad had started going to Karate lessons and wanted to take me along too. I honestly had no idea how much it would change my life.
I had watched Daniel Larusso’s epic stories in the original Karate Kid series as a small child. Sometimes I would try and copy the moves, making loud ‘Hiiii-Yaaaaaaa’ noises, which usually triggered a fight with my younger brother and a subsequent ‘grounding’ from mum. I was hooked from an early age, and attending my first Karate class with my dad at age 11 (in 1994) was also like re-living the Karate Kid fantasies I had as a 5-year-old.
Now, with the massive popularity of the Cobra Kai Netflix series (I’m a big fan too, I’ll admit), Karate is seeing a long-awaited resurgence in interest, albeit misinformed (perhaps). As an experienced Karateka, I watch Cobra Kai with much amusement: the students make progress way too quickly (performing advanced moves like spin kicks and spin sweeps after seemingly only a few months of training); the big school fight is exciting, but unrealistic (it’s unlikely that on-duty teachers would allow that to happen) and parents would be kicking up a massive fuss if kids were coming home battered and bloodied from the Cobra Kai dojo (there’s one scene in Season 3, for example, in which Eli “Hawk” Moskowitz takes another kid to the ground and repeatedly punches him in the head, MMA style until he’s very bloody. John Kreese smiles, doesn’t intervene, and when the pounding has finished he says words to the effect of, “Will someone pick him up?” In real-life, parents and probably the police would have intervened and the dojo may have been temporarily closed).
My karate lessons were (and are) exciting, fast-paced and painful. I and the other white belts had to do lots of stretching, hold fixed stances for long periods of time, perform basic movements (Kihon) with power and aggression and perform well in sparring (Kumite). There were no mats on the floor and we didn’t wear pads or gumshields – this was old school, traditional Karate, done on hardwood school-gym floors. We respected each other, and aggression was always controlled. If things ever got out of hand (which rarely happened), it was seen as a moment of shame and embarrassment. And as for Karate competency – it takes years and years to get ‘good’ at Karate, even with daily training. Real karate isn’t like Cobra Kai (sorry).
When I first started Karate my body was uncoordinated and unconditioned. After around one month, however, I was performing techniques with some accuracy, had made friends at the club (and later, within the larger Shotokan community as a whole) and was seeing some (albeit minimal) progress. And that’s what I believe initiated the other changes I saw in my life: seeing the progress I made.
27 years later and I’m still training daily. Shotokan Karate has given me so much to be grateful for, including:
- Self-discipline: Progressing through the belts required hard-work, real perseverance (especially when my sensei would criticize my movements, and I had to keep going and not just simply give up) and sacrifice: I could have stayed at home and watched cartoons instead.
- Friends: Meeting and socializing with other kids who had a common interest with me really boosted my confidence. I was bullied at school by a small group of boys, and I really valued my support network in Karate class.
- Mentorship: My Karate sanseis didn’t just teach me techniques to use in a fight – they would often give advice about how to work hard at school, the importance of creating a good life for myself and how to have goals and work towards them.
- Health and fitness: I hated P.E. (Physical Education) classes at school, and I was terrible at football (a British school staple). Karate gave me an intense workout that I enjoyed, despite the pain that came with the training.
- The ability to defend myself: Admittedly, this took many years to develop (martial arts’ practitioners will often claim that MMA, boxing or Brazilian Ju-Jitsu will get you to a level of ‘street competency’ quicker), but I did get there. There have been a number of occasions in my life (a small number, thankfully), where I have had to use my Karate skills to get out of a bad situation. One key skill that Karate taught me was situational awareness: knowing how to spot trouble before it happens, and how to avoid it.
- Spirituality: Karate training involves meditation and reflection (when done properly). As a teenager, these exercises were instrumental in helping me to maintain a positive attitude when life got tough.
My own experience speaks for itself on this matter, but I’m not the only one who sees the benefit of martial arts training for schoolchildren. Keri Wilmot, an occupational therapist who works with children of varying ages and abilities in all areas of paediatrics, identifies nine benefits of martial arts training for children:
- Self-improvement: Martial arts focus on individual growth.
- Goal-setting: Kids work through different coloured belts at their own pace (in many martial arts). This can boost self-esteem (I can personally vouch for that).
- Repetition and routines: Sets, katas and basic movements are broken down into manageable parts that students can digest at a realistic pace.
- Self-control and concentration are encouraged: One of my Karate senseis would often say that “This will help you with mathematics”. I believe he was right.
- Coordination is improved: I think Keri puts this perfectly when she writes that “Doing martial arts movements can help kids get a better feel for their body in space.”
- Boundaries and rules are in-place: These are constantly reinforced by (good) instructors.
- Martial arts provide a safe outlet for excess energy: This is great for adults and children. Excess aggression, anger and even exam-stress can be dissipated in a martial arts workout in a controlled way.
- Respect is at the core: In most martial arts’ dojos, students have to show respect for their sensei and for each other. The Cobra Kai dojo is clearly an exception to this rule.
- Martial arts are cool: I’m taking this word-for-word from Keri because I can’t rephrase this in a better way. Kids feel special and cool when they’re wearing their martial arts’ gear. To add to Keri’s excellent description I will also say that this adds to a sense of community, and this can be a great esteem-booster for children. As I mentioned earlier: a good dojo can also provide a good support network and social circle for kids who might not have such close ties with friends at school.
- Are there any countries or schools where martial arts training is compulsory for students?
Yes! Tai Chi is a compulsory course at Zhenbao primary school in Jioozuo in Central China, for example. The aims are to strengthen students’ physiques and to promote Traditional Chinese culture.
This school, however, is the only example I am aware of. If you know of any others, then please do feel free to comment in the comments box at the bottom of this page.
Have people advocated for compulsory martial arts classes in schools before?
Many celebrities, politicians and former athletes have called for compulsory martial arts classes in schools in the past:
- In 2016, centrist French politician Jean Lassalle called for the introduction of compulsory martial arts classes in schools to combat France’s “culture of fear” that had developed in the wake of recent events at that time.
- Tiffiny Hall, former Biggest Loser trainer and Taekwondo black belt spoke out about the benefits of martial arts training for school students in 2018. “All I’m asking for is an hour in the PE curriculum in schools to teach kids basic self-protection and self-defence”, she is quoted as saying by Radio 3AW Melbourne.
- In 2019, martial arts instructor Neha Shrimal set up a petition (which garnered around 137,000 signatures) to include martial arts as a compulsory component of school curricula in Maharashtra State, India. She is quoted by India Today as stating “In India, over 53 per cent of children face sexual abuse. Whenever any such incidence happens, we just look at the police and the legal system for help. We never imagine that a girl can also have the power to deal with such situations, I believe that every child should be trained to protect themselves from an early age. I am asking Maharashtra Government to make self-defence training compulsory for all the students from 5th standard onwards”.
Bibliography and references (in order of appearance)
- ‘This Number Shows Why ‘Cobra Kai’ Could Be Netflix’s Most Popular Show Since ‘Outer Banks’ And ‘Tiger King’’. Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbean/2020/09/23/this-number-proves-why-cobra-kai-could-be-netflixs-most-popular-show-since-outer-banks-and-tiger-king/
- ‘Netflix’s Cobra Kai making karate more popular in Edmonton: dojo owner’. CTV News Edmonton. Available at: https://edmonton.ctvnews.ca/netflix-s-cobra-kai-making-karate-more-popular-in-edmonton-dojo-owner-1.5257790
- ‘9 Benefits of Martial Arts for Kids Who Learn and Think Differently’. Understood For All Inc. Available at: https://www.understood.org/en/friends-feelings/child-social-situations/sports/9-benefits-of-martial-arts-for-kids-who-learn-and-think-differently
- ‘Taichi becomes a compulsory course in Henan primary school’. CGTN. Available at: https://news.cgtn.com/news/3d3d414d3155444f32457a6333566d54/index.html
- ‘French MP calls for schools to have compulsory martial arts’. The Local Europe AB. Available at: https://www.thelocal.fr/20160822/french-mp-calls-for-compulsory-martial-arts-in-schools
- ‘Self-defence should be compulsory in schools: Martial Arts expert Tiffiny Hall’. 3AW News Melbourne. Available at: https://www.3aw.com.au/self-defence-should-be-compulsory-in-schools-martial-arts-expert-tiffiny-hall/
- ‘Maharashtra government to include compulsory self-defence classes in school curriculum’. India Today. Available at: https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/news/story/maharashtra-government-to-include-compulsory-self-defence-classes-in-school-curriculum-1457713-2019-02-16
- Have a great week of teaching everyone! Don’t forget to comment below or contact me if you have any questions or comments – your feedback is my lifeblood!