Who are we fighting, again?

When I got to the dojo the other night, kids class was in full swing. About 10 kids were on the mat, studying katate-kosa-tori kokyunage, otherwise known as an across-the-body wrist grab with a timing throw. I watched, as I often do, with a bit of sadness. Since I started working at Microsoft, my schedule doesn’t let me get on the mat in time for kids classes very often. I miss it–their energy, their enthusiasm, their smiles, all are very rewarding.

Whenever I enter the dojo during kids class, I take a moment to say hello to some of the parents. This time, one of the parents of one of the newer students came up to me.

“Have you heard about how they’re teaching ultimate fighting to kids?” she asked.

In fact, I had just come across this article about this growing trend. “Yes, I have,” I answered.

“Does it bother you? I mean, that UFC stuff is brutal!”

I thought for a minute. “If you mean do I worry about them learning mixed-martial arts fighting,” I began, “I would have to say no. I honestly don’t see how MMA-style training could be much different from wrestling or football. The only problem I do have is that they don’t answer the question: who are they training to deal with?”

“At our dojo, the kids study techniques that work no matter how big or small their attacker is. Sure, this may mean that we teach only a subset of the total number of available techniques, but I see no reason to teach a child tsuki kotegaeshi (a wrist-based jointlock that is in response to a punch) when, in fact, there is no way they’re going to pull off that techinque against a larger attacker. To be sure, there’s value in studying techniques from a conceptual or principle standpoint, but for the most part, I want to know that the kids are studying movements and strategies that they can apply today, in physical and non-physical situations, regardless as to whether their opponent is a class mate, someone’s older sibling, or a stranger.”

“I see pictures and videos of kids doing MMA take-downs and armbars. And I’m impressed at their ability to focus and apply technique–it’s something that I’d like to see our kids do more of during class. But as I see these pictures and videos, I can’t help but wonder: how would that work against someone three times their size? Can a six-year-old put an adult into an armbar? Somehow, I don’t think so. But I do know that a six-year-old can turn tenkan (a pivot with a step) and take someone off balance. I know this, because when we do our presentations at the end of class, each child has to throw a senior student. Often, those students are adults, and they don’t give the throw away for free.”

I could see that the parent (as well as several others who had been listening) agreed with me, so the conversation ended there. But I thought I’d take a few more moments here to think through the issue. As adults, we know who our opponents are: other adults. We train and study techniques so that we know how to protect ourselves from other adults. But what about kids? Who are we training them to deal with?

I remember clearly a young woman who came up the ranks at the same time as I did, many years ago. This woman started training as a kid, and as she got older moved into the adult classes. She confided to a few of us after class one day that she was really frustrated. “All the techniques I learned as a kid don’t work on adults,” she said. And it was probably true. The techniques she was learning were watered-down versions designed to be easier to do and safer to study. I felt bad for her, because she felt like she had to start over. Worse yet, she was studying techniques that really weren’t going to work should she need them to.

When the dojo started offering kids classes, I made a promise to myself that I would do my best to focus on techniques that were safe for the kids to practice, but also effective. After all, I reasoned, there are over 250 thousand possible techniques. Surely some of those fit into that category? Over the past year, we’ve built up a curriculum of techniques that focus on simple movements and turns that fit these requirements. The result? We have kids studying techniques that work, and they won’t have to relearn them as they get older.

This curriculum was validated the other day when another parent relayed the following story. Apparently she and her family were having dinner with two other families. The subject of self-defense came up, and this parent mentioned that her two older daughters (9 and 12) were studying aikido. One of the parents asked the mom if she thought her older daughter was able to defend herself. Her response: “I don’t know. Maybe.” Her daughter overheard this, and took offense. (“Good for her,” I thought.) So one of the other parents tried to come up behind her and grab her in a classic ushiro kubishime kokyunage. In a heartbeat, he was on the ground, looking stunned. The other dad, who had been watching, wanted to try this out for himself. Same result–in a flash, he was on the ground.

(It should be noted that this student’s father, who often tries to test out what they learn on the mat, figured how things were going to go and wisely stayed out of it.)

Needless to say, the mom was impressed, the daughter felt vindicated, and I felt pleased that our curriculum was doing what it was supposed to do.

One thought on “Who are we fighting, again?

  1. Hey Dave,

    Great story!

    Can you list the techniques you teach in your kids classes? How closely does it follow the old PNBA/Kokikai Seattle kids curriculum?

    Take care,

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