Young martial arts children showing ready stance while kneeling

25 tips to build engagement and fun in your kids martial arts classes

Every now and again I get a request from a martial arts instructor asking how to build engagement and fun in the classes they deliver as part of their kid’s martial arts programme. This one thing is obviously top of the list when it comes to increasing enjoyment and retention.

I thought it would be worth doing a bit of a brain dump of things that have helped me in the past. You may already do many of the following but there may be at least one or two points that will help you enjoy the classes before you have no hair left to pull out.

1. Minimise downtime. If you are spending more than 30 seconds describing the objective and coaching points for each drill, you will be exceeding the attention span of most of your young ninja’s.

2. As in the snappily named ‘MAPLE Session Planning Framework’ (I joke), plan your sessions so they switch activities every 5 minutes. As well as keeping the interest of the kids it will keep the coaches on the ball moving from drill to drill with a matter of urgency. The pace of the class matters if you want to keep the enthusiasm going for the full duration of the class.

3. If you have a massive training space (bigger than say 100 square meters), consider making it artificially smaller. I only realised this was a problem when we moved to a larger venue with a bigger training space. I have also come across this issue with several other clubs I work with.

4. Be energetic and animated when teaching. They say that when you perform in front of a camera you need to exaggerate everything you do. This is also the same with young children. With children this age, you get out what you put in.

 5. Don’t leave any equipment out that does not need to be there. That is unless you want them to start banging it on the floor, throwing it up in the air or prodding the person next to them with it to get a reaction.  Always explain the drills BEFORE you hand out any equipment.

6. Design variety into your sessions. This comes in the way of some form of a content rotation system that varies not only the technical elements of your session but the physical, social and psychological too. Jump online and find different fun drills / games to train the areas you are focusing on in that session. It helps if you have already built a library of categorised drills.

7. Alternate between technical and physical drills. This not only helps keep their attention easier but the physical element releases chemicals into their body that helps them focus and process your instructions easier. There is a good reason that you feel refreshed and motivated after exercise.

8. Make sure your expectations are aligned with the age of the kids you are teaching. You will never have all the kid’s attention 100% of the time and this is ok and even expected.

Building engagement and having fun in your children's martial arts classes

9. If you have you have Martial Arts Leaders or a SWAT team (or whatever you call your leadership programme) members helping out, get some of them joining in enthusiastically with the kids. Modelling like this can go a long way. To be honest, it’s usually fun and engaging for the assistants too.

10. Try and remove queuing from your drills as much as you can. If they start in lines, make sure they have additional activities or exercise to do before they return to the line so they are not waiting around. There is a saying in coaching circles ‘No laps, no lines, no lectures’. Obviously our previous instructors never received this memo 🙂

11. Have your own personal ‘anchor’. My better half tends to use a countdown from 10, some have a whistle while others have a specific clap that they do and the students repeat it. Whatever you use, having a focus anchor can help get the children’s attention so you can move on to the next activity quicker.

12. Give the drills fun names the kids can relate to. Sometimes letting them know what’s coming can help them focus again. If you can’t think of any great names, ask the children. Not only will they provide some good suggestions (and some bad too) but they will also love having some input into the creation of session content (think autonomy from Self Determination Theory)

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13. Plan your sessions in advance. I thought twice before including this point but i am always amazed at the number of coaches that don’t plan their sessions in advance. You don’t need as much new content as you think if you have 3-6 months worth of great session planned out. You can always tweak these sessions are you replay them again.

14. Ask the kids to demo different sections during the session. It may not be perfect but non of the children’s technique will be. Even if a kid is distracted, it’s amazing how fast they re-engage when you ask them to show their skills in front of the class. If you have some children that are a little shy, ask them for their help before you put them on the spot.

15. Use Proximity Praise and Highlighting. Try not to compare one child to another but feel free to praise groups or individuals for their effort. This is in line with Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset and can help the children develop the belief that with effort, they can improve their skills and abilities.

16. I am always surprised at how eager children can be to help tidy equipment away but much of this motivation is down to them seeking approval from authority figures. My partner usually says ‘Ok, who is sitting the smartest’ and then rewards them kids by letting them help tidying stuff away. Inevitably all the kids often end up helping out but again, it just keeps them occupied, on task and engaged.

17. If all that fails and you feel they are just having one of those days, pull them into a huddle and ask them for their help. Tell them you need their help to make you look good in front of the parents.

18. We have already highlighted the need to keep your descriptions of drills to short snappy bullet points rather than lectures. What you say is just important as the amount of time you take to say it. Only use language that the children will understand based on their psychological stage of development.

19. Whenever you are addressing a specific child, use their name and give them a genuine smile. This is even more important when you have had a crappy day and don’t really feel up to teaching. Putting a smile on your face and pretending to be happy will actually make you feel happier. Don’t believe it? Give it a try. If you look like you are having fun, the children will mirror this back to you. 

20. Create opportunities for the students to feel like they are making progress. This means setting the difficulty level in the goldilocks zone (not too hard, not too easy) for the group and then differentiating for the outliers. Don’t forget, person-centred coaching means putting the child at the centre of all you do.

21. Let the children make some decisions during the session. Build points into your session plan where they get to exert some autonomy. This can be as simple as them selecting an animal to move like or choosing between two kicks. If you can give them even a basic level of control over some elements, they will be more engaged.

Martial arts friends smiling and having a good time

22. Lay off the extrinsic punishments. I can’t think of anything that will kill engagement more than getting a whole class of children to perform 50 burpees or laps around your hall. If you need to bring the excitement level down a little, get them doing something that is a little slower pace but still enjoyable.

23. Don’t be too serious. I know in the past martial arts instructors have tried to maintain an almost guru-like persona while teaching classes but you are teaching a room full of little ninjas that are there to have fun. Loosen up a little and you may even find that you have fun yourself. 

24. Connect > Acknowledge > redirect. There will be times when little Billy wants to chat about his new pet bearded dragon called Rex named after his favourite dinosaur Tyrannosaurus. This is an opportunity to acknowledge Billy (and his existence), connect with him by commenting on what he said and then redirecting him to the task at hand. I know this sounds like a bit of hard work, but it will maintain little Billy’s engagement while still preserving the pace of the class.

25. Create the opportunity to connect. Many people start martial arts for many different reasons (though with this age group, the decision is mainly led by the motivations of their parents). The reasons that children continue to train is often (partly at least) due to the social bonds they have built with the people they train with. Letting the children pick their partners and groups will build engagement in your sessions though it is also a good idea to ask them to change partners on a regular basis so they are nudged into building new friendships.

I hope this list helps. I know if you are a regular reader of my posts you will already be doing at least some of these. Once I get to one year of posting on this blog I will switch to adding new articles three in every four weeks and then refreshing one of the older articles in the week that is left. I am saying this now because I know I will come back to this article and add more points.

As is usually the case, feel free to drop your comments below or drop me a message on social media. I reply to every comment and I appreciate everyone that takes the time to get in touch 🙂 

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