Lil Dragon vs Skillz VS MAPLE


Children’s martial arts programmes have been available since around the year 2000 when Melody Johnson (was Shuman) introduced her Little Ninja’s programme and Kimber Hill (now Tyee) released her Lil Dragon programme (2001). These two coaches created a new sector within the martial arts community by writing programmes specifically for children. While other instructors were teaching kids martial arts for years before these programmes arrived, many just ran the exact same classes for the kids as they did for the adults.

Though Kimber never updated the old Lil Dragons manual (that I know of), Melody continued to develop her programme, eventually renaming the programme Skillz in 2007. In 2013 Melody moved the Skillz programme to an online membership platform. This programme is still going strong today and at the time of writing this (Oct 2020), has over 1000 clubs on subscription. Although the majority of these clubs are based in the US, over the past couple of years Skillz has expanded in to many other countries too.

Lil Dragons Children’s Martial Arts Programme

The Lil Dragons programme comprised mostly of a manual and a few DVDs (which I think I still have somewhere). The manual was comprehensive at around 290 pages and contained information on suggested training times, instructor to student ratios, marketing, safeguarding, class management, discipline and rank advancement. There is a massive section on safety and then the remainder of the manual is dedicated to to ‘key skills’ such as balance, cooperation, coordination, discipline, exercise, listening, memory, nutrition and respect. The key skills sections are mostly made up of classroom drills, handout sheets for parents, drawings to colour in and puzzles for the students to complete. A lot of time and effort was obviously taken to produce this manual but as a ‘Complete instructors guide’ I would really have expected to see a little more theory and research to be presented. If coaches are going to be able to adapt this programme for their own clubs, they need to be able to understand why they are doing things a specific way.

Lil Dragon logo

This programme was ground breaking at the time and much of it is still relevant today. Looking back, it does have a little too much emphasis on using extrinsic rewards while it also neglects the physical aspects of training (see my article on FUNdamental Movement Skills). That said, we probably didn’t know as much about intrinsic motivation when this manual was created (see my article on “Do Stickers Motivate Children If Used As A Reward In Your Children’s Martial Arts Classes?”). There also is a useful section on focus anchors called “Attention getters” as well as some suggested physical drills and exercises.

Although the Lil Dragons ‘Curriculum Manual’ is definitely starting to look dated and of its era, I still think it has some useful content even in 2020. This is testament to the time and effort that was put in to the project. If you were to use this as a base for your current children’s programme, my suggestion would be to also read up on theory and research behind the positive physiological characteristics that you want to develop in the children and Physical Literacy / FUNdamental Movement Skills. This should help you fill in the gaps where the instructor training manual is a little light.

Having just taken a look across the internet, it looks like you can no longer purchase the Lil Dragons programme from the UK Century distributor or Century direct in the US but it does look like you can still buy it from Century Europe for just under 300 euros. This includes the original manual and the 6 DVDs that come with it.

Skillz Children’s Martial Arts Programme

Melody’s Skillz platform is comprehensive and as far as I know, is the biggest programme of it’s kind. I never saw Melody’s Little Ninja’s programme until my friend from a Taekwondo club in London showed me the manual and even then, I only had a flick through. Melody has always had a large following in the US but since she brought Mike Evans and John Salama onboard in about 2016, the growth of Skillz started to accelerate. Even though 2020 has been a challenging year for everyone (due to the Covid 19 pandemic), the Skillz platform managed to grow past 1000 subscribers for the first time.

Melody Johnson's Skillz logo

Based heavily around child development, Skillz does a great job of helping martial arts coaches understand the different stages of development children experience. Due to the sheer amount of information that Melody has built up over the last two decades, the platform can be a little overwhelming and you may have to dig to find what you need. My logical mind thinks that a purge of some of the older content (or at least an update) and then a new navigation system would make the content more relevant and accessible. We are no longer in an age where we are short of information but rather, short on time. When you have amassed as much information as Melody and her team have, the system you provide to deliver content becomes pivotal in getting the right information to the reader in good time.

The Skillz platform offers 7 different programmes and has different levels within each programme:-

Mini SKILLZ (18 to 36-month olds) 
Early SKILLZ (3 and 4-year olds) 
Basic SKILLZ (5 and 6-year olds) 
Core SKILLZ (7 to 9-year olds) 
Extreme SKILLZ (10 to 14-year olds) 
Elite / Signature SKILLZ (Black Belt + Teens)
Spectrum SKILLZ (+7 years children on the spectrum)

Each programme has a Bronze and Silver membership options and then you also have a Gold membership option which includes access to all areas for all age groups. At the time of writing, the Bronze membership was $39 per age group per month and the Silver $174.50 per age group per month. The all singing, all dancing Gold membership was $399 per month. While there is no arguing that you get access to a lot of content for your money, the average cost of martial arts training in the US is much higher than in the UK and as such, the number of students you need to cover the cost of the membership will be higher in the UK when compared to the US.

If you sign up for the Silver membership, as well as the drills from the Bronze membership you also get access to a generic children’s striking based curriculum, set up guides, a belt structure, grading system, class planners, equipment list, a pre evaluation process, an anti bully programme, a birthday party programme and a staffing programme that includes guidance for building a STORM team. All in all, this is the most comprehensive children’s martial arts programme available while also being one of the most expensive.

MAPLE Children’s Martial Arts Programme

Although I started coaching young children in martial arts back in 2008, MAPLE is a more recent revision of my programme. After studying a BSc and MSc at Leeds Beckett University in the UK focusing coaching children, I knew I could do make big improvements in our own children’s martial arts programme. In 2019 I started rebuilding my own systems and guidance from the bottom up and this eventually morphed in to project MAPLE (read more about my journey). For those of you not familiar with MAPLE, it is an acronym that stands for Martial Arts Physical Literacy Engine. The aspiration is to build an ‘engine’ that professional coaches can add their own martial arts specific techniques to and then rebrand under their own club / programme name.

MAPLE Children's Martial Arts logo

I am still in the early stages of the project and I am trying to share as much information as I can to help other martial arts coaches get a better understand how to leverage coaching research and theory to improve their own children martial arts programmes. As well as the regular blog posts I have also released a Session Planning Framework. I hope this free guide will not only help coaches plan physical content that is age appropriate, but also create more variation in their sessions. I am currently working on a course to help coaches build their own children’s martial arts syllabus and hopefully this will be out by the end of the 2020. After receiving feedback from some coaches only just started to dip their toe in the water coaching pre-school children, I have been asked to produce a beginner’s guide. I will put this on my list of ‘things to do’ for later this year.

MAPLE is minnow compared to the likes of Skillz and the Lil Dragons programmes and was not created to compete with these heavy hitters. In fact, I have some really good constructive conversations with Mike from Skillz in the past and this will hopefully continue in the future. As the saying goes ‘A rising tide raises all boats’. The more research led content we can put out in to the martial arts community, the better we can serve our members and the more seriously martial arts coaches will be taken by the general public.


The Lil Dragons brand is instantly recognisable and merchandise like uniforms, blockers, pads, colouring books, badges, bags etc are easily available. Although the ‘Complete instructors guide’ is comprehensive, it is also starting to show its age. If you were to go down this route, I would suggest you have a little work to do in terms of filling in the gaps in the programme to bring it up to date. The branding of the Lil Dragons programme is one of its strongest assets and while child friendly, will also have the parents whipping their phones out to take and post photos of their children on social media.

The Skillz programme is the biggest and most up to date of its kind. I have no doubt that it will have all the information, systems and guidance you need to produce a really comprehensive, up to date children’s martial arts programme. In fact, the amount of information maybe a little overwhelming to start with but dedicating a chunk of time to this endeavour will pay off in the long run.

Melody has done a great job of expanding the Skillz offering to include a vast array of different programmes while also building her workforce. While Skillz tends to focus on child development and neuroscience (brain science), MAPLE is more focused on coaching children with an emphasis on psychology (behaviour science). There is obvious cross over between the two different specialisations but the difference allows us to distribute information and guidance that is complimentary rather than contradictory. It’s also worth mentioning that Skillz will have a bias towards the US culture and market where as MAPLE will be built more around the culture and customs of the UK. This is not to say that either offering wouldn’t be a good fit for any country but I am just highlighting the origins and biases of each.

MAPLE is still ‘work in progress’ and I hope that little by little, it will ultimately make a significant contribution to this sector. Although the content I am producing at the moment is focused on the ‘what’ to teach, my area of specialisation is in the psychology of ‘how’ to coach children. My research also seems to have a bias towards motivation, decision making and habits. I plan to leverage this knowledge and my passion for this field to help coaches get a better understanding of what it takes to motivate students to become life long martial artists. After all, the only way we can continue to develop the children physically, psychologically and socially is for them to continue to participate in our programmes. You can expect my future work to be well thought out and researched but i will focus on quality rather than quantity. My next article will be due on Thursday the 29th but that will be a little dependent on work i am doing with our centres and the work i am doing with other coaches and governing bodies. 

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