It is now two decades since Kimber Hill (now Tyree) released her young kids martial arts programme (Lil Dragons) into the martial arts world. This programme was different to many others around at the time as it was written specifically for children. The Lil Dragon brand is still popular with kids martial arts programmes today, though most tend to just use the branding and deliver their own programme based on their particular martial arts style.
In 2008 I launched my own young children’s programme. Using the Lil Dragon structure as a reference model, I created something that would be a little more appropriate for the British culture. In 2009 we took on our first full time centre and by 2010 we had around 130 4-6 year olds training with us. I didn’t know at the time but this programme would go on to become the foundation of our martial arts centres for years to come.
The best time to start a kids martial arts programme is 10 years ago, the next best time is now
I am lucky enough to work with martial arts coaches, clubs and governing bodies and over the years it has become apparent that the average age of participants in martial arts is trending downwards. In the 70s, 80s and even into the 90s, it was unusual to find children under 10 years old taking part in martial arts classes. These days it is harder to find a club that does not have under 10 year olds in their classes. While it is possible to run an adults only club, having an offering for people of all ages gives you many more options for growth.
The challenge of teaching young kids martial arts
The difficulty instructors face in delivering martial arts programmes for children of this age group (3-6 years) is that the needs of a child are not the same as the needs of an adult or even a teenager. In fact, the number one rule repeated over and over again throughout coach education literature is ‘Children are not mini adults”.
If you have never delivered martial arts sessions to young children, the prospect of doing so can be quite daunting but just like any other skill, this can be developed with practice and an understanding of the needs of the children at different ages. Once you have a little experience under your belt, teaching this age group can be very rewarding. So much development happens in a child’s life in these younger years that you have a massive opportunity to contribute to giving them a great start in life.
Your young participants of today may be your club’s coaches of the future
Implementing a great children’s programme in your club can have significant benefits for the children, club and coach. When I started delivering Lil Dragons style classes back in 2008, little did I realise that over the next few years the programme would become the backbone of the club. We currently have just under 500 members between two venues and although we do get enquiries for all ages from our website, we only ever need to conduct any paid advertising for the young kids martial arts programme. Over time these students graduate and move through to the next programme and some eventually progress to take on coaching roles themselves. We are now at the stage that almost all of our 16 and 17 year old assistant coaches started training with us as under 7 year olds.
In speaking with many martial arts club owners from all over the world, once they know how to market and get new students through the door, the next problem they experience is generally staff related. Basically, they struggle to obtain and retain coaches. Often there is a miss match in values or the new coach has different ideas of what good coaching practice looks like. When you develop your own coaches from students that have grown up immersed in your culture and systems, it is much easier to mould them into future coaches for your club.
Knowledge and experience is built over time
Even though the Lil Dragon programme had been available for 7 years, by the time I delivered our first session, our club was still the first in the area to run age specific kids martial arts classes for young children (originally 4-6 years). To get tips on how to deliver this programme I used to travel to Colchester (about 450 miles round trip) to see a female karate instructor that was also an ex-school teacher. Obviously, this was quite time consuming but this was at a time when only a few people in the UK were teaching martial arts to young children and even then, very few understood the wants and needs of the children under their care. While it is a little easier to find information helping you set up your own kids martial arts programme, there are still very few authoritative sources.
Things were a little different back then and I didn’t have the formal coaching background and experience I have now. As I completed the enrolment process for my level 8 doctorate programme just a few days ago, it’s humbling to reflect back to 2008 where I started compared to where I am now. The funny thing is that while I have learnt lots over the past decade, the more I learn, the more I feel there is to know. While most clubs are now running kids martial arts programmes for the 4-6 year olds, the gap between the wants and needs of the children and how the children are coached still seems huge.
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What are the main elements of a young children’s martial arts programme?
The physical, social and psychological needs of young children are very different to that of older children while the rate at which they develop is also different.
As if you had not guessed by now, what makes these programmes different to regular martial arts classes is the need for the content and delivery to be age appropriate. Here are 7 quick differences that I use to classify these programmes:-
- The curriculum only contains basic martial arts techniques
- The programme rarely talks about applying techniques in an aggressive way (strikes etc) to other children
- There is a mix of age appropriate multi skills games that help build the ABCs (Agility, Balance, Coordination, Speed) and FUNdamential Movement Skills (FMS)
- They include basic academic skills such as learning colours, numbers, shapes, letters and the difference between left and right.
- There is a focus on developing the social skills needed to operate confidently in pairs or small groups
- The sessions are delivered in a way that enhances positive psychological traits
- The teaching methods and length of the classes are in line with the ability of the children participating in the classes
What are the specific benefits of adding a children’s martial arts programme to your club?
If you’re wondering how your martial arts centre could benefit from introducing a programme for this age group, here are a dozen great reasons:-
- It allows the clubs to isolate this age group and deliver classes specifically created for them
- The parents of this age group talk to other parents and refer more new students than any other group
- It provides you with a steady stream of new students for your other programmes
- If the coaches do a great job delivering the programme, many parents will automatically enrol younger siblings as soon as they are old enough
- With a focus on fun / enjoyment, retention is great
- It introduces young students to martial arts before they pick up mainstream sports
- It establishes a foundation of basic martial arts skills that you can build on in follow on programmes
- It creates extra income from a time slot not traditional used
- You will get additional second income from equipment sales, gradings, child & parent training sessions, all while giving your members want they want
- Coaches get the opportunity to have a big impact on the development of children at an age when they are most impressionable
- The programme helps build common social skills before they start school
- When the children move up to the next programme, it is often possible to get the parents involved in the classes too
If you decide to go ahead and add a young kids martial arts programme to your schedule, you have two main options; build your own or buy one. Building one from scratch gives you a totally bespoke programme but I know from experience its takes a LOT of time and effort if you want something that leverages current research, theory and practice. Buying one off the shelf will be a much quicker process but it will probably be expensive and use a cookie-cutter model based on outdated assumptions and a military style delivery. An alternative model that could give you the best of both worlds is to build a customised programme based on a modern coaching framework written specifically for coaching children.
Our own system is called MAPLE which stands for Martial Arts Physical Literacy Engine. The idea behind the system is to provide a framework that coaches can use as a template to build their own kids martial arts programme, adding their own techniques and tweak where necessary. We are currently using this system in our own martial arts centres but we are also working on creating a couple of courses to help people leverage what has taken me over 10 years, £50,000 and 1000s of hours researching and testing.