Yes You Can Learn Karate!

By Katherine Engstrom and Joyce Brekke, JK Martial Arts

Ages 6-60+ can do Karate. There are huge benefits to learning this sport. And just like school, when the teaching is customized and adapted to meet a karateperson’s needs, success happens. The goal of learning karate is not what the normal person thinks - to be a good fighter. The goals are much, much more than that. It is to learn self control, build self esteem, improve body control and much more. The additional end result is the ability to know when and how to defend oneself.

There is scientific evidence showing the amazing mental health benefits of doing karate. In his book SPARK, Dr. John Ratey says that karate is the best stimulant of the neuro-chemicals feeding the pre-frontal lobe of the brain. This part of the brain is where executive function occurs. It controls moods, anxiety, self-control, judgment, motivation, prioritization, and organization. We’ve seen it happen. Sometimes, it is like a switch gets turned on. A child’s mood changes in class. They can focus in school. They do what their mom asks.

JK Martial Arts will customize and adapt to your learning challenges. Our structured curriculum, methodical teaching, and accommodations assure the wonderful sensation of success! And for some kids, to be successful at something is like a miracle; A life changing experience; A door opening event.

Success Through Learning and Communication

First, we understand how you (the student) learn and how you communicate. KarateWe acknowledge you (or your parent) advocating to help us teach you more effectively and adapt to your sensory requirements. You’ll be surprised how beneficial karate is for your mental health and physical health. With a normalized teaching environment you will learn with a variety of students and be rewarded with success in every class. The values learned will be used in other parts of your life.

Learning Styles

Everyone learns either

  • visually
  • audibly
  • kinesthetically (tactile learning)

Most of us have a dominant way of learning, but use a combination of the learning styles.  When we understand how we learn we can apply it to our lives to be successful. Understanding how you learn is our first step in creating our working relationship.  We use all three styles of learning as we teach. For example, if we know you are a visual learner, we have an instructor stand in front of you so you have someone to model. If we know you are an audible learner, we repeat the same key words to help you remember the moves in karate. If we know you are a kinesthetic learner we may use a pad for you to hit to enhance the mind body connection. Repetition is part of the routine to create muscle memory.

Self Advocacy

Becoming a self advocate is helpful for everyone. For those of us with special learning needs, becoming a self advocate helps others be successful in teaching us. For example, knowing your dominant learning style will allow you to self advocate for yourself by sharing with your teacher how you learn so the teacher can adapt to your needs. Another example is if you are sensitive to noise, and respectfully ask your instructor to be positioned in the quiet part of the room, you will likely be moved to the quiet area. If you are a hyperactive individual and respectfully ask to be placed in an area where you can move without distracting others, you will likely have your request granted. Ask for an accommodation respectfully, and you will likely receive it! We encourage self-advocacy. The success experienced in karate will increase self esteem. With high self esteem, a person is better prepared to be a self advocate.

Sensory Needs

We are sensory friendly, accommodating when there is a sensory processing disorder, sensory integration dysfunction or vestibular or auditory dysfunction. For example, asking, “May I touch you to guide your hand into position?” Other examples include: asking other students to yell quieter, positioning sensitive students in quieter places of the class, providing tagless T-shirts, and using weighted wrist bands.

Karate is great exercise for the proprioceptive input needed by children. When we observe a student not paying attention or fidgeting, we offer additional bear hugs or frog jumps. Joint compression occurs when we have students strike pads with their hand, creating the stimulation to their wrist, elbow and shoulder joints. It is also positive mental feedback that they are hitting the pad correctly.

We seek to understand student’s body cues and adjust to what they are telling us.  Like the hyperactive child who spins in class, so we give them more input. Anxiety stops so many from moving.  We watch intently for signals of increasing anxiety and adjust so they do not shut down. This may include placing them in the front of the classroom so they don’t see other students, or in the back where it is quieter, slowing down, or modeling for them….it all depends on each student’s needs. We’ll adapt.

Mental Health Benefits

“Aerobic exercise with complex movements in a rigid schedule [Karate] is the most important intervention” to stay on task, pay attention, and alter our moods, according to Dr. Gary Johnson of the C.A.L.M clinic and Dr. Ratey in Spark. This activity stimulates the neuro-chemicals in our pre-frontal lobe. This part of the brain fully matures at about 27 years old.  It is where our self control, mood control, organization, prioritization and judgment is centered.

Our students say it best:

  • A 14 year old boy with PDD-NOS who earned his Black Belt:  “Through out my time in karate I have learned to control my anger, how to keep bullies at school away, and how to take responsibility for my actions.”   Now he is a successful college student.
  • “The biggest impact [of karate] has been my self confidence. Ever since I started karate I have been willing to take on new challenges and risks better than ever before.”  17 year old boy with ADD.
  • “Learning a new kata [series of 12 or more karate moves] is hard but I learned to be patient about things.”  15 year old boy with ASD.  Some students require us to teach with more specific details.  Accommodations allow for success!
  • “Karate has also taught me that 40 or 60 or 120 Japanese jumping jacks will chase away a bad mood better than anything else.”   Mother of two, who all achieved their black belts together.

Physical Health Benefits

The physical benefits of karate are many:

  • increased strength
  • increased flexibility
  • improved balance or vestibular regulation
  • increased core strength
  • understanding of body in space
  • cardiac and pulmonary stamina

Many people have tight muscles. Anxiety tightens our muscles. Doing karate movement takes the stress out of our muscles, stretches them and gets the blood flowing to them. Everyone has different flexibility. We accept and acknowledge that and work with each student’s starting point.

Balance is very important in movement. It is essential to doing a karate kick. It requires, and thus improves, core strength, leg strength and concentration. We do exercises specifically to improve strength and concentration. The concentration translates into other parts of life like the student who finally passed a math test after starting karate classes!

Normalized Learning Environment

At JK Martial Arts, our classes are organized by karate belt level; beginner, intermediate and advanced. All ages, all learning abilities are in the same class of beginners, for example ages 6-60, typical learners, folks with ASD, ADD, dyslexia, etc. Everyone is the same in a normalized environment. I remember a time in class when Sensei  (the teacher) was pausing to help a student. Thus, I had to struggle to hold the position. I thought to myself, “Thanks for giving me extra time to get stronger!”

Success in Every Class

Because we understand how each student learns, we accommodate our teaching to assure they are successful! For example: Alan is distracted by others. He is also sensitive to noise. He loves learning karate and being with other students, but it is not the best learning environment for him. He switched to private lessons every other week, and group classes every other week. Sensei gives him new material in his private lesson in a manner that works best for him. He learns very well with the use of pads and fewer distractions. In class, he sees his new friends and enjoys being able to do what everyone else is doing. This week he received his first intermediate level belt. When his mother asked him how he felt, he said, “Like a winner!”  Isn’t this a wonderful statement to hear from a 12 year old with ASD?

Values Learned Apply to All of Life

Respect, discipline, honor and humility are the basis of our teaching. Our structure requires these values. When Sensei gives a command, the students respond by yelling, “Yes Ma’am!”  A student showed respect when a mother told us how surprised she was when she requested her son pick up his clothes and he said respectfully, “Yes Ma’am!!”

Each student is expected to apply these values to their life in the dojo (school) and outside of the dojo. Students gain humility so they do not brag about knowing karate, develop the self-respect to not be bullied, the discipline to not initiate a conflict, and act with honor all of their lives.

About the Authors

JK Martial Arts Director of Instruction, Sensei Katherine Engstrom, is dedicated to giving back to the community who helped her successfully move from a person with a learning disability into Black Belt with her own dojo (school). She is now a mother of a child with learning challenges, so she can truly empathize with the student’s and parent’s struggle. The mother of Alan said this about her, “Your talent, time and dedication make such a difference in our lives.”

JK Martial Arts Director, Joyce Brekke, is the mother of Katherine. As parents, our dedication to our children is a huge gift to them, and to society. Thank you to all parents and professionals for supporting our young ones through their challenges.

JK Martial Arts was started specifically to benefit those with ADHD in 1993. In 2007, we altered the curriculum and our teaching style to accommodate all learning challenges and many physical challenges.  We customize and adapt our teaching to assure you are successful!

You can learn more about JK Martial Arts by visiting their website or by calling 763-253-9016.  Classes are offered at their Woodbury and St. Louis Park locations, and they are currently offering classes with Valley Friendship Club in Stillwater.