As a martial arts instructor in the frum world, I have had many concerned parents ask how they can help their children develop confidence. Logically, if I was a rebbe teaching Gemara or any other academic subject, the answer would be inherently simple and self evident… practice. However, as I get asked this question very often, it would seem the answer is not so clear.
What exactly is this confidence that concerned parents are referring to? What are we practicing for? And what would this practice even look like? Lastly, is this thing called confidence actually achievable?
Defining Confidence for Boys and Young Men
Sometimes it is easier to define something by what it is not. A boy who lacks confidence will be withdrawn, unable to readily express his ideas or join a group for play, discussion or collaboration. He will not stand up for himself, which can lead to his being bullied. A child who is not assertive and accepts bullying is in danger of growing up to be an adult who is not assertive and accepts bullying. This, of course, has negative ramifications for shiduchim, business, professional circles and even family life.
What Are the Goals of Martial Arts Training?
When I am asked if I can increase a young man’s confidence, it typically means social confidence. But how is that achieved through martial arts? It appears that skill acquisition at a high level leads to confidence in children. For example, a boy who aces his math exam has confidence in his mathematical abilities and will view anything mathematical as a fun challenge. Likewise, a boy who does well in science or computer programming is confident and tends to enjoy problem solving in those areas. Unfortunately, I see many young men who are academically successful, but lack confidence on a social level.
I believe the psychological aspect of confidence has physical roots. I have never met a boy who is physically capable and lacks confidence in social interactions with his peers. In fact, this type of boy tends to take on a leadership role during any social interaction. And if he does not take on a leadership role, at least he is comfortable in his own skin and is an active participant in the activity.
This week, we will focus on the physical, specifically on self-defense and bully prevention, making it as fun and realistic as possible.
What Would This Training Look Like?
I believe that every parent in our community wants their son to be trained in a Torah-centered environment with classmates and instructors that come from our community. Clearly the Torah should serve as the reference point and middos should be emphasized alongside skill acquisition.
Grappling-Based Martial Arts
In addition, I believe that the best way to teach young boys self-defense is through a grappling-based system rather than a striking-based system as it allows them to safely train against a fully resisting opponent. In grappling-based martial art a student can spar with a training partner at 100% resistance and “tap out” if he feels pain or is uncomfortable.
For the record, I have seen more injuries in basketball than I have in martial arts. If a student is too new to understand when he is in a dangerous position, the teacher has the ability to step in and prevent injury from occurring. A key point here is that the tap out or the teacher stoppage is never framed as a potentially confidence-eroding loss, but rather as a learning experience despite the outcome. A student either wins or learns. Every experience is valuable for growth.
An additional benefit to this type of training is that a student’s personal 100% effort increases with exposure. Beyond the fitness augmentation that naturally follows any disciplined athletic regime, a student’s exposure to uncomfortable situations coupled with the need to make decisions under pressure serves as “stress inoculation.” Most of us face stress reluctantly. Those with confidence in their ability to deal with stress are the ones who become leaders or key players in organizations and have the tools to be better fathers and husbands.
The third reason is that martial arts that focus on punches and kicks and does not allow strikes to the head (as is the norm for most kids martial arts classes), is setting your child to get knocked out in a real physical confrontation where the majority of the punches or kicks will focus on the face and head. Yes, the ability to competently defend one’s self when fists are flying is critical. However, when it comes to young boys, whose brains are still developing, I find it unwise to train in this manner.
A grappling-based system will enable a young man to take a punching or kicking opponent to the ground and work a strategy like a physical chess match. A takedown leads to control. Control allows for a de-escalation of force. The ability to control an attacker or bully without punching or kicking is an important life skill within the confines of the yeshiva or outside in the real world.
The conversation with the rebbe who is considering suspending your son from yeshiva after he defends himself from a bully or the jury who is, chas v’shalom, contemplating legal action after your son defends himself from an attacker, will be very different when your son states that he never punched or kicked the attacker. He simply neutralized the attacker’s punches and kicks by taking him to the ground and holding him there until help came or the attacker agreed to stop.
So, is confidence in social settings actually achievable through martial arts training? From my experience training many young men over the years, the answer is a resounding “Yes.”
Be sure to stay consistent, train safely and realistically and seek out high-level training from instructors who represent our values. The confidence that is developed through physical struggle and hard work will in fact permeate into the social confidence that we as parents want to instill into our boys and young men.