Today we will tackle the burning question tormenting many a parent: “What martial art should my kid learn?”
Some may be asking, “Wait a minute, what does this have to do with personal finance?” (You parents who have experience with kids’ martial arts, stop laughing.) Well, martial arts classes are often expensive. Really expensive. I know families who are well into five figures of spend, and counting.
What’s particularly concerning is that most parents can’t even tell if they’re earning a good (or any) return on that investment. Sure, they’re posting cool pictures of the kid advancing through belts and breaking boards and stuff, but is the little guy or gal actually learning any self-defense?
Not all martial arts are created equal. Not by a long shot. Today I’ll analyze the best martial art for a child to study.
Before we begin, though, I will say that studying ANY martial art is better than sitting around eating chips and playing video games. If your child ever gets in a fight with no training, it will likely be the most stressful, adrenaline-filled event of their life. Studying any martial art will give a child some confidence and a battle plan. Having the first few moves of a potential fight (especially on defense) already programmed in one’s mind and muscle memory is huge. That will not only lower their stress in a fight but also increase the chance they can avoid a fight altogether. A calm and confident opponent is not the ideal target for a bully.
To structure my analysis, I’ve developed 3 Criteria to evaluate a martial art. It should:
- Teach Effective Self-Defense;
- Include Full-Speed Sparring / Simulated Fighting; and
- Minimize Harm.
Criteria 1: Teach Effective Self-Defense
Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? But the problem is that some martial arts, including some of the more popular ones, are not as effective as others in a fight. In addition, some arts may be effective (eventually), but it takes a long time to get to that point. If one art can teach self-defense more quickly and effectively than another, it’s the better art.
Criteria 2: Include Full-Speed Sparring / Simulated Fighting
The best way to prepare for a fight is to fight. Memorizing complicated forms and fighting air doesn’t prepare you well for a live-action brawl. And you may find that a real-life opponent doesn’t do what a cooperative and scripted partner does in training.
This criteria is really just an expansion of Criteria 1, but it’s critical. Some potentially effective martial arts lose a lot because they don’t stress full-speed sparring. And some fairly simple martial arts, which lack complex techniques or advanced moves, dominate because they do.
The closer you can get to simulating a real-life fight, the better the martial arts training will be. Training against other students who are trying their hardest to beat you does just that. The intensity of full-speed sparring can turn some parents off – “So violent! So sweaty! What if they get hurt?” But those same concerns apply far more to a real-life fight.
Criteria 3: Minimize Harm
This is harm, broadly defined. You certainly don’t want kids to scramble their brains or suffer some other serious injury in training. But it goes well beyond that. Ask yourself, “If my kid uses this martial art successfully in a fight, what would that look like?” Even if your kid is being bullied mercilessly, it could be very bad for them (and you) if they end up sending a bully to the hospital. Some arts might require you to hurt someone else – perhaps badly – to defend yourself. Winning a fight but getting suspended, expelled, or arrested isn’t actually a win.
This Criteria also ends up excluding some martial arts that might be quite effective for adults and for adult-like situations (Krav Maga, for instance), but I’m evaluating for kids right now. And it’s just my view, but I’m more worried about teaching my sons basic self-defense for bullies and 1:1 fights than them learning how to disarm a gunman or take out a terrorist.
And of course Criteria 3 can work against Criteria 2. Full-speed simulated fighting poses greater risks of injury than dancing around and fighting air.
Wait! What about Belts and Stuff?
There are a lot of other benefits to martial arts training that these Criteria don’t consider. They’re typically good exercise. Your kid can often advance through a belt system and learn a lot about setting and achieving goals. They can teach discipline, leadership, and respect for others. A good instructor will provide all sorts of life lessons and teach kids to avoid fights. You’ll be supporting the economy. However, all of these benefits are secondary, and they can also come from activities other than martial arts. The primary goal of a martial art is to teach self-defense, so that’s how it should be judged.
So let the judging begin. I’ll start with the striking martial arts and then consider the grappling / throwing ones. I’ll pick a best few and then we’ll declare a winner.
The striking martial arts involve hitting someone with some part of your body. They typically try to avoid grappling or throwing. There are countless striking martial arts, so I’ll just cover some of the best known below.
Simply learning to throw a punch and avoid being punched will make your kid a better fighter than most people. However, a lot of the folks who look for fights know how to throw punches too, and trading punches is no fun. Plus, any opponent who has added kicks or grappling to their arsenal can give a pure boxer fits in a fight. Boxing is nice, but there’s an easy way to seriously upgrade the skills you learn in boxing – by adding kicks…
If punching is good, punching and kicking is better. But then there’s…
Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) says, “I’ll see your punching and kicking and raise you elbow and knee strikes.” In terms of the arsenal of strikes that are taught, Muay Thai may be the most complete striking martial art.
Karate and Kung Fu
Speaking of kicks, punches, elbows, and knees, there’s Karate. Karate is what many people think of when they hear “martial arts.” It is an excellent all-around striking martial art, but it is a bit more complex than Muay Thai and therefore may have a longer learning curve. I lump Kung Fu in with Karate not to anger the gods or people who have studied one of them for their whole life, but just to say that when observed from afar (and compared to other arts), they are quite similar.
One big warning about Karate: for whatever reason, a lot of Taekwondo schools call themselves “Karate” schools. If you want to study Karate, make sure the school you’re eyeing actually teaches it.
Taekwondo is one of the most popular martial arts for kids in the U.S. It may not seem that way from scanning local schools, but many Taekwondo schools market themselves as Karate (which is weird and some cause for concern).
Taekwondo focuses more on kicks than other martial arts. That’s bad on multiple counts. First, connecting a kick is typically harder than a punch. Second, if you miss (and you might, a lot) you open yourself to all sorts of counters, especially from the grapplers (below). Third, you may not be ready for these counters because Taekwondo sparring, to the extent it happens at all, is often limited only to Taekwondo – two kids keeping a respectful distance and kicking each other, blissfully unaware of an entire universe of other attacks. Finally, if you do happen to get lucky and connect a super awesome textbook roundhouse kick to someone’s head, it might explode like a watermelon, making it hard to position yourself as the victim (back to my Criteria 3).
Considering the above, the finalists for best striking martial art are Muay Thai and Karate (real Karate, not Taekwondo).
And Muay Thai is the winner. Karate has more moves and a more complex arsenal, but that’s to its detriment. For a striking art, Muay Thai teaches everything that’s needed, and its simplicity means a shorter learning curve.
Also, the Muay Thai shin kick, which is largely unique to it, is a REALLY painful and effective attack, especially on those who are not used to defending it. After receiving a few of them, some bullies may lose the stomach for a fight altogether. However, a shin kick to an opponent’s legs might not do serious damage (at least the first couple of times), which gives Muay Thai a nice edge on Criteria 3 (“Minimize Harm”) against other striking arts.
One drawback to Muay Thai is that it traditionally doesn’t have a belt system. But the belt system is a distant second to actually learning self-defense, and some western schools, smelling the revenue opportunity, are building belt systems anyway.
Best Striking Martial Art for Kids: Muay Thai
Runner Up: Karate
GRAPPLING / THROWING ARTS
The grappling martial arts involve grabbing an opponent and fighting them close, either standing or on the ground. They include throws and submissions, which is where you do something to an opponent that makes them want to (or be forced to) “submit,” or give up.
No. Just no. Aikido has some problems. First, Aikido, by Aikido’s own admission, is quite complicated and takes a long time to master. Second, many (all?) Aikido dojos don’t practice full-speed sparring. Instead, they practice highly choreographed moves. It looks great, but it doesn’t prepare you for a real fight. Third, Aikido, while technically a grappling art, largely focuses on seizing the opponent while standing up. Closing with an opponent to grapple but not emphasizing a ground game is risky and impractical.
Aikido’s philosophy of not hurting your opponent is lovely, and perhaps it is a fine martial art, but in a race to teach your kid self-defense, it’s going to lose versus the competition. Cool outfit, though.
Judo is an incredibly effective martial art, and experts of it are downright scary. Instead of hitting your opponent with a punch or kick, you hit them with the Earth. In Judo, you learn to throw people. A lot. As part of the deal, you also learn to be thrown. A lot. Students learn (quickly) how to fall effectively without getting badly hurt, and they’re thrown onto padded mats.
But you want to know who doesn’t know how to be thrown without getting hurt? Most everyone else, including people your kid might fight. And in a real fight, there is no padded mat. So if you can imagine your child picking someone up and slamming them down, hard, on concrete, you can see the problem. Judo fails my Criteria 3 (“Minimize Harm”), but ignoring that Criteria, it might be the best art of all.
Judo does focus a lot on submissions, often right after an opponent has been thrown. Submissions are an outstanding tool for self-defense as they can neutralize an attacker and stop a fight without seriously injuring anyone. If only there was a martial art that took all of the awesome submissions from Judo but de-emphasized throwing and slamming. Oh wait…
Jiu Jitsu / Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
While there are different forms of Jiu Jitsu, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) is the most popular and influential (I’ll use Jiu Jitsu and BJJ synonymously here). Jiu Jitsu may well be the least elegant-looking martial art. Two fighters are often tied up in a knot, rolling around. But that’s by design – Jiu Jitsu accepts and embraces that most fights will “go to the ground” and trains its students accordingly. While it does teach throws like Judo, its main focus is on the fight after two people are grappling on the ground.
Grappling off your feet already neutralizes some of the advantages of size and strength, and Jiu Jitsu teaches defensive positions and submission techniques that further even the score. The result is an art that can allow a smaller, weaker person to prevail against a bigger, stronger opponent.
Most Jiu Jitsu schools will include significant full-speed sparring (“rolling”), which is great by itself, but the nature of the art further enhances the effectiveness of sparring. Since sparring partners are seeking a submission, and the sparring stops immediately when someone gets one, there isn’t a high risk of injury, and students of widely different skills can still roll.
One interesting advantage of Jiu Jitsu in the world of YouTube is that you can break down specific moves and submissions and practice against almost anyone, anywhere – unlike most arts, you don’t need a trained partner to have a partner to train.
Wrestling doesn’t seem to have a lot going for it. It hasn’t advanced much in terms of technique in a few thousand years. It doesn’t have as many complex moves as other arts, and it lacks the submissions of arts like Jiu Jitsu, Judo, and even Aikido (Aikido!!!).
And yet, it is probably one of the most effective martial arts of all. Wrestlers train by wrestling, and when they’re not wrestling, they’re typically doing insane conditioning.
Because of the constant contact wrestlers make while fighting, they end up with incredible balance in a grappling situation. Against non-wrestlers, that gives them a huge advantage, and it’s often very easy for a wrestler to engage and take down (tackle) a non-wrestler. Once on the ground, it becomes very difficult for a striker (either a martial-arts-trained striker or a bully who just knows how to punch) to do much damage. Even though wrestlers might not have “finishing moves” like elegant submissions, there is a much more basic way a wrestler can submit an opponent: exhaustion. After about 30 seconds of fighting, most kids will be completely gassed, while a wrestler is just getting started. Though other martial arts could train conditioning as hard as Wrestling, they often do not. That gives Wrestling a consistent advantage versus the competition.
Wrestling does have an Achilles’ heel against people learning Jiu Jitsu, though. Whereas wrestlers do everything possible to avoid being on their back due to the way wrestling is scored in competitions, Jiu Jitsu practitioners are very comfortable on their back with their legs wrapped around their opponent – a position (called the guard) from which they can achieve a variety of submissions.
Wrestling is typically taught at schools, which is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it means Wrestling is almost free, but a curse in that you need to wait until it’s offered. It’s often only taught at middle or junior high school and above, so it may not be a good option for younger kids. In addition, if the Wrestling team requires a tryout, your kid may not even make the team. Wrestling taught outside of school will obviously cost more and probably won’t involve as much sparring and conditioning as a school program – at that point, it would make more sense to study a more complex martial art.
Best Grappling Martial Art for Kids (Pretty Much a Tie): Wrestling and Jiu Jitsu
THE BEST OF THE BEST
So how do we decide the best martial art for a kid?
Muay Thai is the best striking art, but it is still a striking art. That may limit its interest to some (Muay Thai has struggled to attract girls / women in the U.S.), and that also makes it slip on my Crtieria 3 (think of elbows and knees to the face) versus grappling arts. But a short amount of time studying Muay Thai should give a kid very effective self-defense skills. It’s an outstanding choice and a close runner up.
If Wrestling is a good option for you, I’ll declare it as the best. It’s cheap or even free if done through school (this is partly a finance decision, after all), and it’s incredibly effective – more because of the intensity of the training and the extensive full-speed sparring than the brilliance of its techniques (but that counts too). However, Wrestling may be on limited offer and of limited interest to girls. It may not work with your child’s class schedule or other athletic pursuits. Your kid may not even make the wrestling team! And there may not be any options for wrestling until middle school or above – and some schools may not have Wrestling at all. One final flaw is that as a pure sport, Wrestling may not teach ways to avoid conflict that you’ll find in other arts. All of these caveats hold it back from being a clear winner, but it is an extremely effective martial art.
Jiu Jitsu is the best overall martial art if Wrestling isn’t an option. Jiu Jitsu performs the best on all of my Criteria – it is extremely effective, it uses full-speed sparring (rolling), and its focus on submissions means it might be able to end a fight without either person getting seriously injured. It’s hard to compete with free, which gives school-taught Wrestling an edge, but Jiu Jitsu can start at a very young age and has very broad appeal, including to girls. If you had to pick a single art as the best for kids, it’s Jiu Jitsu.
Best Overall Martial Art for Kids: Jiu Jitsu
While many may argue with my conclusions, I’d like to finish with some thoughts that hopefully no one can dispute. First, I’ll reiterate that ANY martial art (even taught at the local McDojo with lots of dancing and board breaking) is better than no training at all. Second, there is no martial art that completely dominates all others.
The rise of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) as a sport offers a valuable lesson on self-defense – and it’s in the name itself. The champions of MMA have mastered a mix of martial arts to become the best fighter possible. While an MMA fighter may favor striking or grappling, every successful one has very strong skills in both. If a Jiu Jitsu or Wrestling expert (or your child…) gets caught by a hard punch or kick as he tries to take down an opponent, all of his grappling skills may be for naught. The best striker in the world may be wrapped up like a pretzel if he falls into the grasp of a great grappler. And so on.
So whatever art you choose, stay away from a paper / rock / scissors debate of “my martial art is better than yours.” Don’t assume – and definitely don’t let your child assume – that achieving a high level in a specific art makes someone invincible. In a perfect world, strikers will at least know some grappling defense (like how to avoid a take-down), and grapplers will at least know some striking defense (like don’t get punched in the face).
Many parents approach martial arts training as if they can tick a box and be done. They’ll go with whatever martial art school is best at marketing or is popular in their circle. They won’t have any basis to question the instruction, and they’ll figure that years of training + thousands of dollars must = self-defense.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. There is a big difference in the quality of self-defense taught across different arts, and even among effective martial arts, the way of achieving self-defense will vary. Martial arts training is expensive, so parents should seek to maximize the return on their investment by choosing one that really works. The best way to do that is to choose an art that is proven effective, includes full-speed sparring, and minimizes harm to your child and others.
Has your child studied a martial art? How did it go?
Did I exclude your favorite martial art? I haven’t included some less popular arts (which may both do well on my Criteria and offer a good mix of grappling and striking) to avoid recommending something that may not be an option for most. But feel free to sing its praises below.
Have you studied [enter name of martial art] for years and could totally beat me up? Let me know in the comments.