Teenagers are the hardest group of people to please, it seems. They are going through a tough transition in life – hormone changes. They feel too big and know too much and don’t have the life experience to deal with all of it. They need support, guidance, and most of all, independence and respect. What martial arts can give to a teenager is probably more valuable than what it can give to adults or children. I spoke to some teenage martial artists and asked them for their opinions. Beyond discipline, focus, confidence, here are some compelling reasons why martial arts is wonderful for teens.
Martial arts is a safe space for teens, a place where they don’t feel pressure to be anyone they aren’t, feel no pressure to succeed academically, they aren’t working for grades, or to please third parties. They feel safe in the martial arts community to be unapologetically themselves.
Martial arts is alternative. It’s a non-academic environment, it’s a non-traditional sport, so teens who feel like they don’t fit into either of those communities – they aren’t the smart kids or the athletes – can feel like they are succeeding in another avenue. They aren’t feeling boxed into a label, because martial arts doesn’t give a damn about your label. Or your newest iPhone, or video games, or cool shoes and cool clothes. Teens feel free from the stigma and the societal pressure that follows them around near constantly in their lives.
Respect. Teens are always barked at about “being respectful” and are constantly told to check themselves and make sure they are being respectful, while sometimes not being respected themselves. They are expected to treat adults with respect, but that adult might not even treat them like a person. Teens are constantly trying to navigate “authority versus respect”, and what “respect” means, and they get caught into this social trap of “If you don’t treat an authority figure with respect, they won’t treat you like a person” all wrapped up into this guise of “respect”. Teens. Need. To. Feel. Respected. At martial arts, they can find and thrive in that mutual respect.
Role Models. Let’s face it, teens are beginning to rebel against their teachers and – even more – their parents. They are entering a phase in their life where they are feeling trapped by the structure they are subjected to day in and day out. Getting pressure from their parents, from their teachers, from their peers. Martial arts provides that safe space, but within that safe space, they find role models and other adults who are outside their school and home environment. Adults they feel they can confide in, adults who aren’t breathing down their necks to do chores or do homework, but are also looking out for their best interests. And teens who have stable adult role models turn into stable adult role models themselves.
Teens not only need the confidence boost that comes with martial arts, but they need the push. They need to be active, they need to be pushed into the ground, they need to be ground down and worn down and tired and hurting, and then they need to be lifted back up and told they are worth something. It’s how teenagers learn how to regulate themselves, how to regulate their hormones and their emotions. They need the discipline and the structure that’s different than home or school, and then they need to be validated. They need to feel the success of hard work that doesn’t come from staring at a computer screen or a paper test. It still needs to be more physical for them, not unlike children. They need to feel their muscles hurting, and still be told to push through, and feel the muscles loosening up, and see their technique improving. They need to feel the sweat, the pain, and then see the reward at the end of all of it – be it a new rank or a shiny medal in competition. They need to push hard and push far… only to meet the other side with failure. They need to be held accountable for their failures. Because there is grace to be had in the failure, and teens need to rise up and know how to forge themselves from fire and failure.
I’ll deviate and tell a story. When I was a teenager involved in martial arts, we were told we were going to do 1000 jumping jacks one night. We all thought our instructor was mental. 1000 jumping jacks! We started small – we started at 250. But we did it. We tried it, and then the next night, we did 300. Then 350. Then 400. So on and so on. Until we reached 1000. It took us 20 minutes, and we banged out 1000 jumping jacks. A lot of that came from trust – we trusted our instructor to not let us do something he didn’t know that we were 110 percent capable of doing. And that trust, that rapport that he built with us as teenagers came from beating us into the ground, then yanking us up by our belts and dusting us off and telling us we were good at what we did. It came from feeling worth something, it came from feeling respected. Validated. And independent. And because he gave us that, we trusted him, and gave him 1000 jumping jacks because he asked. All teens need this. They need this and martial arts gives them this.
Disassociating age and authority. I mentioned respect earlier, because teens need to feel respected. All their lives, they’ve lived with “the adult is the authority” – their parents, their teachers, their older relatives. Martial arts separates age and authority. In the martial arts, they are mutually exclusive. What matters is rank. A teenage black belt outranks a 40-year-old dad yellow belt. That teenager is boss in that situation. They are the authority, the expert. It’s a change of pace for teens, to feel like they are in a position of power and authority. It goes in the same vein as respect – in that situation, the teenager feels instantly respected for their knowledge, their expertise. Adult colored belts will ask the teens for help and assistance, and that disassociation of age and authority is a powerful tool in the development of a teenager’s self-esteem and self-worth. It gives them a chance to feel a sense of independence and authority. It holds them accountable for their knowledge and their ability to pass that knowledge onto others. And martial arts just naturally checks the ego, so it’s not like they get high on their own power. And most teenagers don’t anyway, I’ve found.
Like the list I wrote a few days ago about why martial arts is good for children, this list is nowhere near conclusive. Share your thoughts – why do you think martial arts is beneficial for teenagers? Teens – give me your opinions; what does martial arts do for you?
Peace, love, Kamsahamnida.