Get Your Kicks

5/1/2018

Spring/Summer 2018

Mother of three Sarah Rentschler describes the many benefits her children receive from participating in non-contact martial arts.

Each week, millions of families across the country load up the SUV, pick up the neighbors’ kids and drop the troops off at karate, kung fu or tae kwon do. But the benefits of participation in a martial art are more than meets the eye. 

Anyone who’s seen The Karate Kid is aware of some of the potential mental and health benefits of practicing a martial art. Unlike Daniel, though, kids these days don’t need to prepare for fisticuffs. Recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, non-contact martial arts programs are a growing trend that emphasize their disciplines as a way to stay in touch with your body, similar to yoga or dance, rather than as an art of combat. We spoke with Sarah Rentschler, a mom of three in Brownsburg, Indiana, about her kids’ experiences with Crouching Tigers, an Indiana-based non-contact martial arts program. 

“Growing up, I watched both my brothers go through traditional martial arts programs, and I knew I wanted to let my kids try one. When my oldest son, Gibson, was 3, I noticed a flyer at our public library for Crouching Tigers’ weekly 30-minute non-contact martial arts class for kids ages 3 to 5, called the CUBS program. It sounded perfect, so we signed him up. That was back in 2014. Now Gibson is 6 and working with their leadership program for older kids, and my middle son, Arlen, is 4 and in the CUBS program. From what I can tell, our 20-month-old can’t wait to get involved himself!

Clockwise from lower left: Arlen, Vance, Nathan, Sarah and Gibson Rentschler
Clockwise from lower left: Arlen, Vance, Nathan, Sarah and Gibson Rentschler

“On Thursday evenings, in a room at the library, Arlen and the other students in the CUBS program file in and sit down on their own vinyl spot. Class starts with a mindfulness exercise, when an instructor chimes a singing bowl and asks students to close their eyes and empty their minds. It’s amazing to see a group of wiggly preschoolers totally silent and still as they get rid of ‘monkey mind’ and prepare to focus on class. The kids count to 10 in Japanese – how cool is that?! – and then warm up their bodies with a fun little activity.

“Next, the instructor takes them through some moves they’re working on for a particular unit. All Crouching Tiger programs, from CUBS up, slowly cycle through different forms of traditional martial arts. Right now, they’re on jujitsu. But they’re punching and kicking foam targets, not each other, so we know they’re practicing those skills in a safe environment. In many ways, it feels a lot lower-risk than if they were in a sports league. They’re exercising and learning important self-defense skills from highly trained, really great instructors – I call them ‘professional ninjas!’

Gibson (left) and Arlen (right) start class with a mindfulness activity.
Gibson (left) and Arlen (right) start class with a mindfulness activity.

“After working on moves, Arlen’s group might play a game that reinforces a class objective, like sportsmanship, teamwork or standing up to bullies. They spend a few minutes learning a life lesson through a story – the classic, ‘How should Suzie handle this situation?’ idea. And they close each class by reciting the Crouching Tigers creed, which talks about respect, kindness and looking out for the world around them. Each semester culminates in a promotion ceremony, during which the students demonstrate everything they’ve learned over the last three months – and even break a real board using their new skills!

“Now that Gibson, our 6-year-old, has graduated to the leadership program, he attends a weekly hour-long class for kids up to age 11. They start with a mindfulness activity and a brief warm-up, and then work on the skills they need to progress to the next belt rank. Like the CUBS, they’re still learning through fun, but they’re expected to be even more self-motivated and attentive.

“A couple weekends ago, my 4-year-old came up to me at a family event and announced, ‘I just used my integrity!’ Apparently, some of the kids he’d been playing with wanted to head down a path we’d deemed off-limits, and he remembered that integrity means doing the right thing even when no one is watching – no grownups, in this case. His class finished the integrity unit more than six months ago, and he still made that connection.

Sensei Steve Zogbi (left) and Gibson Rentschler (right) practicing with a hand target.
Sensei Steve Zogbi (left) and Gibson Rentschler (right) practicing with a hand target.

“For my oldest son, some of the biggest benefits have been self-control and building confidence. I’ve seen him in settings where he and his friends are involved in rough play, and he scales it back and uses self-control well beyond what I’d normally expect at that age.

“I’m not exaggerating when I say my sons love going to Crouching Tigers. They look forward to it all week. Last summer we took a break to let them try other sports; we figured we’d let it fade away and see if they brought it up. Well, it wasn’t long before they started asking when they could go to class again. The leadership program goes through age 11 or so, and, at that point, it can provide a transition into a traditional program if we decide to pursue that. But for the interim, our kids are having so much fun – their smiles say it all!”

There are dozens of styles of martial arts classes available. Learn more about the differences between the disciplines.