suntimes
ALOOF 
Weather Updates

Martial Arts 101: Parents’ research offers best defense

You fear that your daughter has strayed onto a bully’s radar — or that your son is turning into a bully.

Martial arts training can solve both situations. Yes, students learn self-defense techniques. More important, they learn confidence, discipline and respect, according to operators of martial arts schools known as “dojos.”

But how can a parent — whose knowledge may be limited to having watched an old Jean-Claude Van Damme movie — choose among the plethora of schools and martial arts styles?

Martial arts, in various forms, began to achieve mainstream acceptance in the mid-1980s with the Karate Kid movies that featured Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita, says David Wahl, of Oklahoma City’s Century Martial Art Supply, a major supplier.

There are now 25,000 martial arts schools and programs nationwide, he says. The number dropped slightly during the recession, but is beginning to rebound.

Also fueling interest is the popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA), which combines wrestling, boxing, jujitsu and other combat styles. It’s showing up in cage contests increasingly popping up on sports TV.

Most instructors say it’s not appropriate for children to participate in MMA.

Many people begin exercise programs in the new year. Those who teach or run schools for martial arts such as judo, akido and karate offered insights into long-term contracts, hidden fees and other pitfalls.

Steven Franz, who owns five martial arts schools in Indiana and Ohio, urges parents to be wary of dojos with numerous preteen students who have attained the advanced certification of black belt.

This, and high-pressure sales techniques, can indicate a school known derisively as a “McDojo” because — for a hefty fee — it churns out black belts as fast as McDonald’s produces French fries.

Make sure you’re dealing with an established dojo with a track record, experts advise. Ask how many years the school has been around.

Judan Judo in Toledo operates as a nonprofit run by Gary Monto, a retired police officer. It offers memberships at $45 a month, and nearly half of its 35 students have scholarships to reduce their fees.

At for-profit schools, comprehensive memberships let students participate in multiple lessons per week and typically run about $100 a month. There can be undisclosed fees for accelerated programs and testing to advance to the next level of proficiency in the belt system.

Tom Nehring, who operates Kempo Martial Arts Centers in the Toledo area, tells parents to ask — in a casual, non-accusatory manner — about advanced programs and any associated costs before signing up.

With rare exception, schools are for-profit businesses that must produce sufficient revenues to support owners and employees.

“We’re all salespeople,” Nehring says. “We know the right thing to say.”

So, don’t automatically accept the sales pitch delivered on the first visit, he advises. Catch an instructor in a candid moment, he says. “Drop in and watch a class, then you’ll get a feeling for what is really important to that instructor.”

For parents concerned about exposing their children to eastern religious beliefs, Nehring recommends asking “what spiritual belief the dojo subscribes to and what it asks of students regarding spirituality and religion.”

His school, like many others, doesn’t push any particular religion, he says.

Another way of identifying well-run schools is to ask parents with children in martial arts — as well as teachers and principals — for recommendations, Nehring adds.

Once a child and parent find a school, the student should be able to participate in at least one class for a free or low-cost trial period, instructors say.

Make sure that instructors are certified. Senior students often are instructors, but they should be complemented by sufficient certified martial arts instructors.

Jeff Gears, president of Premier Martial Arts in Toledo, took up karate as a child to deal with bullies.

While his curriculum teaches children self-defense, “our goal is to help kids be more socially assertive,” he says. “We teach them... to communicate effectively with confidence and a strong voice.”

Adds Nehring: Bullies “don’t pick on confident children.”



© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit www.suntimesreprints.com. To order a reprint of this article, click here.