In most fields, there are different divisions for handling grown people than there are for children. Schools, doctors, dentists, etc. all have separate specializations depending on the age of the populous that is to be their focus. Unsurprisingly, most well run martial arts schools have a separate curriculum and trained instructors that are geared towards teaching their adult population and another for their younger students.
One of the most obvious differences between adult and adolescent martial arts students is physical. “When a child grows, their arm and leg range change, their body weight and weight concentration changes, boys’ shoulders broaden and girls’ hips broaden,” notes instructor Ida Dolce. “This may cause moments of time when a child’s body movements are a little awkward, which makes the child have to relearn their own body mechanics.”
Instructor Tomjo Soptame agrees, “Even though it might be more physically demanding for adults, I think it’s actually easier for them to analyze and learn a technique that’s being taught to them.”
Most instructors also agree that the way they speak to their classes varies greatly depending on the maturity level of the students. “With children, I have to break techniques down and explain it in a way they’ll understand,” says Dolce, who mentions that she is fond of team sports references that kids are already familiar with. “I also ask throughout the class for them to repeat the instructions back to me so I know they understood me. With adults, I can be a little more direct when I speak. If I spoke to them like I do with the kids, I’d be afraid of coming off as condescending.”
“I think the biggest change would be how much information is given,” adds instructor Christena Devany, “with a [child 3 to 5 years old] when I tell them to do a cross it is pivot and shoot. They have no concept of shifting weight so I don’t tell them to do it. For older kids from 6 to twelve I can tell them to shift their weight. Not all of them get it at first since it is new to them but it will come with time. For adults, I of course give them everything pivot, shift, shoot, bend knees, turn over fist, etc.”
The pacing of a class for children will also differ from those that cater to adults. In addition to kids’ programs offering shorter classes, the instructors need to be extra alert and on their toes. “The classes have to be moving full steam ahead for sure!” agrees instructor Sue Lohman. “Not too much talking by the instructor and the minute eyes start wandering the students need to be roped back in.” Instructors also need to be aware that they’ll need to schedule quick and multiple exercises for a kids class. “Kids need to be engaged constantly, where as adults can practice a remote drill on their own for a much longer time period while still recognizing the benefit of doing it a million times. Kids do it until they are bored and then they stop and are ready for the next thing.”
Both children and adults will gain obvious benefits from participating in martial arts classes and a good teacher can handle students of any age, when they bear in mind the differences. One of the main differences is that adults make a conscious decision to enroll, while children, (although in some cases they are inspired by movies or television) are generally enrolled in martial arts because their parents believe that it will benefit them.
Soptame has experienced both perspectives, starting martial arts at age 4 and continuing to teach at Chicago’s Degerberg Academy now in his twenties. “My parents are the ones who enrolled me in martial arts,” he says, “and to be quite truthful I didn’t like it until I was eight or nine years old. My parents just kept bringing me in, and after a while things clicked and I started enjoying it.”
Soptame further illustrates the difference between a child taking martial arts and an adult when he puts it plainly that even after he began enjoying martial arts, “I didn’t necessarily understand what it was I was doing.” As an adult and now and instructor of martial arts, Soptame obviously came to understand and enjoy the benefits of martial arts. “The point is that as a kid, I didn’t know what I wanted and my parents gave me no choice” he continues. “I spent my first year of classes not paying attention and always being on the sidelines crying (I was one of those kids). As an adult you can critically think and you choose to enroll in a martial arts program for various reasons. So, because you are trying to achieve your goals you are definitely going to be paying attention, and focusing on details. Even though, it might be more physically demanding for adults, I think it’s actually easier for them to analyze and learn a technique that’s being taught to them.”
Soptame may have just hit on the main difference between teaching martial arts to an adult rather than a child; the adults have already decided that this program will benefit them and come ready to apply themselves, whereas the children, especially the very young, must be continually engaged by their instructors and reinforced by both them and their parents until they are able to recognize the benefits on their own..