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Are games for martial arts classes a good idea?

I know this article is looking at the question ‘Are games for martial arts classes a good idea?’ but you should know that I was going to name it ‘Here come the fun police: why are so many children’s martial arts instructors against games?’ Before we get started, I just want to reiterate a statement that you have probably heard me say many times before – ‘Children and not mini adults’. I thought I would take this opportunity to remind everyone to keep this quote front and centre whenever we are talking about coaching children. When it comes to developing students physically, psychologically, socially, emotionally and cognitively, children are in a very different place when compared to adults.

The question in the article’s headline has been asked by many children’s martial arts coaches before, especially over recent years as retention has become more important than ever. My answer to this question is always, ‘It depends’. If you are looking to build a 5 year old ‘Hit Girl’ (the female child assassin from the movie Kick-ass), games for martial arts classes may not feature heavily in your sessions, but to be honest I am pretty sure I could come up with some games that would turn Hit Girl into a more efficient assassin while still having fun.

Definitions: Games, fun and enjoyment

Before we investigate if games for martial arts classes are appropriate, we first need to define what we mean by a game. What is the difference between a game and a drill or a game and an exercise? Are we just talking about terminology here or do some instructors believe that their young members should not have fun or enjoyment in their training?

The definition of a game is ‘an activity that one engages in for amusement or fun’. Do you want engagement, amusement or fun in your kids martial arts classes? The definition from the Cambridge dictionary is ‘an entertaining activity or sport, especially one played by children’. While many people may have different ideas of what entertainment is, quite a few definitions reference enjoyment, especially where children are concerned.

One point to note is that sometimes the terminology on this subject area can change with age. When I carried out interviews for my Masters dissertation (looking at the motivation of 6-12 year old British Taekwondo students), I recognised that several parents stopped me on a question about use of the term ‘fun’ when talking about training. The ones with older children said that after a certain age, the children stopped saying that they had fun at training and started using the term ‘enjoyed’ instead. I hadn’t really thought about the importance of terminology when describing fun/enjoyment until performing these interviews.

‘The is no development without participation’

This is a mantra I have been using for the last few years to recognise that while the benefits of martial arts training for children may be great, you need them to want to participation if you are to deliver on the benefits. If a child repeatedly tells their parents that they don’t like attending their martial arts classes anymore, it is only a matter of time before the parent cancels their tuition payment and looks for a different activity that the child actually enjoys. Obviously, if the child stops training, you can’t help them with any development.

Nobody wants to teach someone that does not want to learn. It’s like having a football player that does not want to play for the team. It’s frustrating for the coach, child and parents. In fact, it’s now written into the code of conduct promoted by Sport England and UK Sport that children should not be forced to participate in sports or physical activity against their will. If you have read my article on Self Determination Theory, you will also know by now that squashing someone’s autonomy (by forcing them to do something) is the opposite of motivating.

Training isn’t fun anymore

If you have a decent sized martial arts club, you are pretty much assured that each month a few students will stop training with you. Often this is for reasons you have no influence over but sometimes when you follow up, you receive the dreaded message ‘He just didn’t find it fun anymore’. If possible, it’s always worth digging a little deeper if you can find out more information.

The feedback you get from people when they leave can be inciteful. That’s not to say that their perceptions are a true reflection of the situation. Your role is to take the feedback and reflect on it. If there is something that you think could help you implement some positive changes, great. If after reflection you decide their feedback does not warrant change…….. carry on as you are but at least you took the time to consider the feedback.

Martial arts students looking bored

While lack of fun or enjoyment may be given as the main reason that children drop out of children’s martial art classes, there are usually other underlying reasons that cause the students to stop having fun. Here are a few examples that I hope will help me illustrate some examples.

  1. “Freddie used to have fun training with his friend until Noah (his friend) moved to another class”. The reason the child gives for wanting to stop may be that they no longer have fun at training anymore but what you really want to know is why.
  2. “Emma used to have fun training but then moved up to the next programme”. In this scenario, the child may have been having fun while they were capable of performing the techniques the instructor asked of them but when they moved up, the jump was too much and their feeling of competence took a hit.
  3. “Michael used to have fun in the class but then the club changed the instructor for one that is much stricter that only criticises and never praises them, even when they are trying their hardest”. The child is not able to have fun in an environment where they have no sense of autonomy (control).
  4. “Jessica had fun in the classes for the first year or so but then she got a little bored due to the same content being delivered over and over again”. Children need variety to engage their brains and create a little excitement.
  5. “Jacob was only training because his dad wanted him to but he didn’t it and only continued to get the approval of his parent”. Not only is this child’s autonomy being squeezed but they also have a lack of understanding of purpose as to why they are training.

So, how do games for martial arts classes serve to help in any of the scenarios listed above? Using games to promote skill development can tick many of the underlying conditions listed above. Referencing back to Self Determination Theory again, many of the scenarios above cover autonomy, competence and connection (relatedness). All three of these areas can be developed by integrating skill development up in a game.

During games, you will see children come up with novel ways of problem solving that you may not have thought have previously. If you use differentiation in the games to make them accessible to everyone, their competence requirements will also be met. If the martial arts games you play are team or partner based, there is no better time for students to build connection and friendships than under challenges in the form of an engaging game.

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Purposeful games

Now we have talked about what fun and enjoyment is and how this fits in with intrinsic motivational theory, I feel we have now earned the right to dig into the question of  ‘Are games for martial arts classes a good idea?’. If you are adding games to your training session just for the sake of entertainment, I think you are missing the point. Adding or creating games for martial arts should start with the purpose and then have the fun/enjoyment built around the objective.

If you are looking at raising heart rates to prepare your students for the activities to follow and you also happen to be working on dodging/blocking, dodgeball may tick both boxes (though I would modify the game so everyone stays ‘in’). If they are working on agility and collision avoidance to improve their movement in sparring, it may be that the old fashioned game of tig (we use pad tig) may be a useful exercise. Why not make the activities even more relevant and have the children perform the games using round times? It’s innovations like this that will help you maximise the development in the time your students have with you.

Please, for all that is good in what we do, don’t just throw in a random obstacle course or a 20-minute game of dodgeball or football for no reason. This is what gives games in children’s martial arts a bad name. While I am a strong believer in creating games that will develop the children while also allowing them to have a little fun, I am against padding out a martial arts session with content that has been added just to run the clock down.

Summary

From my observations, it’s not usually the game (drill, activity or whatever you want to call it) that is the problem but the understanding of what you are trying to achieve with the game. We want to start with the objective and then build the game around the purpose. This way you not only get out of the activity what you planned for (development of the child), but the kids will be more engaged, have fun and build social links with the other members in the class.

If you want long term development for your young students, I suspect that most members will need to at least enjoy the training if they are to continue for a significant amount of time. As coaches, we are facilitators that craft an environment for our young ninja’s to thrive. We do this by setting the objectives, activities and parameters and then stepping back and letting the students take ownership of the process. Yes we are going to use questions to confirm understanding and we will also coach where necessary but we also need the students to take some ownership for their choices even from a young age. In my opinion, using games for martial arts classes can be a good way of creating engagement without sacrificing development, if done well. 


I know for many instructors, games in martial arts classes will be frowned upon due to how their instructors taught classes when they started their training but ………….. things have changed a lot since then and we know much more about how children learn. If you combine this with the fact that the average age of martial arts students keeps dropping, it’s easy to see why teaching classes today should be different to how they were taught a few decades ago. So to finally address the question ‘Are games for martial arts classes a good idea?’, my answer would be a big YES, as long as you make them specific to your session objective. If you want to know what these games would look like in practice, join our MAPLE Insider Newsletter to keep up to date on where we are at with Project MAPLE.

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