How to help your child succeed in martial arts (or any activity)

I have been working with kids for over half my life. What makes my experience unique is that I have the opportunity to work with the same families for many years. When kids train in the martial arts they don’t move on to a new martial arts teacher every year or season. We literally get to see them grow up in our program.

Over these many years I have been on a mission to figure out the “secret sauce” when it comes to developing successful kids. Ultimately we know it is a team effort between the us and the parents. This is why take a "part of the village" approach with our students and remain on tap for the families in any way we can assist them. We also know our program must be one that is mindful in its approach and intentional with its path. It is a responsibility that we take very seriously and are constantly tweaking to set all our students up for success.

With that said, how a parent approaches their child's training has a massive impact on their success in our program. While every child is different, there are some key observations I have made about most of the successful kids I have ever taught and the relationship with their parents.

The definition of success

Before I get on to my observations, I think it’s important to define what I mean by “success”. Success, to me, means that the people we teach find positive personal growth within our program. Should they leave at any point they do so feeling good about their experience, that their time here was of value, and that they have a positive view of the martial arts in general. They may not stay long enough to attain a black belt, but the training still held value regardless of the color around their waist.

Be invested in their training

When I see that a parent is wholeheartedly invested in their child’s training their chances of success go up dramatically. This means that they do their part in developing and maintaining momentum. They make sure their child is attending class regularly, often early, and are excited to bring them - especially in the beginning stages. On the flip side, kids who are often late with sporadic attendance, and with parents who begrudgingly drive them to class, tend to fade out quite early in their martial arts journey.

Take an active interest

Kids whose parents take an active interest in their training will almost always get the most value out of their time at the dojo. The way I see it manifest itself the most is when parents are actively watching their child in a positive way. You can even take it a step further by helping them practice, allowing them to teach you what they learned in class, or even stepping on the mats to train yourself.

To be even more clear, the state of your presence at the dojo is important. If you are there but not present (i.e staring at your phone) then it may give the impression that you don’t really care. If you are watching with a critical eye and constantly criticizing their performance, then it can cause lack of focus and anxiety because they are always concerned on whether or not you approve of what they are doing. Just watch knowing that progress comes over time with consistent support. Simply saying “I love watching you train” can be extremely powerful for kids to hear.

I understand that we live increasingly busy lives. Sometimes taking the time to sit and watch your child between crazy work schedules, activities for your other children, or the time needed to run some errands may seem like a luxury you can’t afford. As kids get older they may even seek (and you may even want to give them) more autonomy. However, taking the time to be in tune with their experience at the school, even occasionally, will have a huge impact on their success.

Hold them accountable

Let’s be honest here — no matter how much your child loves something there are going to be times when they are not feeling super motivated. Regardless, successful kids have parents that hold them accountable for their commitments.

The key to getting over the “humps” is to understand that they are temporary with the right support. Just as your child may have challenging days, they will also have great days. When they have those great days you have to help them anchor in that feeling. This will make the challenging days fewer and far between, as well as lower in intensity. Also, they can only have those great days if they keep showing up.

On top of that - supporting them in their training so that they feel good about their performance when they are here goes a long way in ensure more of these great days. This ultimately goes back to being invested, which helps to pinpoint where they may need a little extra support.

Allow them to fail and help them learn from it

If there is one thing that every child needs to succeed in their martial arts training (and life in general), it’s perseverance and grit. Successful kids have parents that understand that grit is not something you just have, it’s something you develop.

I think most of us, deep down, know this to be true. It’s amazing, however, how quickly we can lose sight of this when we perceive our child to be struggling. That protective parental instinct kicks in and all we want to do is save them. However, if we can step back and allow ourselves to be objective, many times we are presented with an opportunity to help our child learn something extremely valuable.

An important observation I have made is that the experience of failure has to have a support network to give it value and teach a child how to bounce back. Successful kids have parents that help them learn from those failures, and then formulate a plan on how to eventually find success. This strengthens that grit “muscle” and gives them the tools to take on future challenges and bounce back quicker and higher in the face of adversity.

Help them take responsibility

Parents of successful kids understand that being successful is not a one way street. It takes investment from all involved to see results. Despite how cool it would be, I cannot just sprinkle magical Sensei dust on every student who comes in and turn them into an amazing black belt.

If I give a student 100% of my effort, it will only be 50% of what they need to be successful. This holds true for all relationships they will have in their life. Parents of successful kids help them take responsibility for that other 50%. This means that they are consistently encouraging their kids to be honest with themselves about the role they play in their martial arts journey. They help them take ownership for their successes and failures, as well as encourage them to take action in getting the results they want.

This is an extremely empowering lesson to teach any child. When they know deep down that they have the ability to affect their outcome, you will see their confidence and ability to persevere grow exponentially

Help them understand they are running their own race

Parents of successful kids do their best to make sure their child understands that their journey is unique to them. They don’t compare their child to anyone else in class, positively (“you’re the best in the class”) or negatively (“why aren’t you as focused as the other students”). While there is some value to friendly competition, make sure the main focus is on how they can try to be a little better than they were the day before.

This is important regardless of where a child may be in regard to their overall skill. If a child is fairly talented or more experienced than most of their classmates, they won’t become complacent. If a child finds the training to be especially challenging, they will be less likely to become discouraged. In both cases, the child is more likely to seek constant self improvement.

Understand that it’s a “long play”

We have all heard the saying, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. Well, successful kids aren’t created overnight.

All kids will have challenges that manifest themselves in different ways. It may be lack of focus, effort, or maybe it just seems like they don’t pick up techniques the same way as the other kids. Regardless, you have to know that making improvement in any of those areas takes time. You can’t force it. Instead, gently and consistently encourage them without expecting that it is going to happen right away. This is especially true in the beginning, when the main focus should be getting in a routine and finding a connection to the martial arts. After that, you can push a little more, but you can quickly demoralize a child by pushing too hard right out the gate.

Along the same lines, applying all of this advice does not guarantee a smooth, challenge free, journey. The path to success is a winding and rocky road. But it’s those challenges that make success feel so good and develops the grit to persevere.

I can tell you that I have seen amazing transformation in students over time. The key words there being “over time”. If you can commit to being consistent in your approach, I am confident you will see your child find all of the success I know you want them to have in anything they pursue.

See you on the mats!

Sensei Paul Castagno