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Part 2- Taekwondo: The Right Activity for My Son With ADHD

The Stars All Lined Up

By the time we had completed our 1 1/2 - 2 year "afterschool activity mission," leading us into the JTF Taekwondo School in Hendersonville, NC, we were ready. Actually, my son was ready. I'm sure the maturity gained between ages 5 1/2 to 7 made some of the difference. So did the welcoming environment

and great instructors. And maybe he was just plain worn out from trying all the other activities! But whatever the magic combination was, he thrived in it from the very beginning.

We Were in Good Company

I was (and still am) amazed by how many other parents I spoke with who went through a similar trial and error process of finding an after school activity that "fit" with their own kids with ADHD and/or Autism! From my own informal observations, I would say at least 50% if not 75% of the boys enrolled in our Taekwondo classes (and the earlier Jujitsu) had ADHD and/or Autism according to their Moms. I really began wondering why such a large percentage of kids clicked so well with Taekwondo after having tried so many other types of activities, including many other sports, but now I think I know why.

"Team Sports" vs. "Individual Sports"

We all know that soccer, baseball, basketball, and football have been the go to choices for generations of kids wanting to participate in sports. They are all "team sports." Most experts agree that individual sports are better for kids whose ADHD isn’t well controlled. Team contact sports are felt to be the worst for these kids. I had no idea. But now I do.

“They have a hard time grasping the ‘play system,'” explains Robert Giabardo, athletic director at Summit Camp for Youth with Attention Deficit Disorders in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. “In order to participate in a game such as football, the player must always be focused not only on his or her role in the game, but must also be aware of the actions and physical placement of other players at all times.”

Maintaining keen focus and acute awareness is challenging for any child. For kids with ADHD, it’s almost impossible. “Often they do not look around at other players and get hit or hurt during plays,” Giabardo says. “Basketball may be even worse," says Patricia Quinn, M.D., a developmental pediatrician specializing in ADHD at the Pediatric Development Center in Washington DC. “They have to learn the plays, anticipate moves, and strategize. These are exactly the things people with ADHD don’t do well.”

Giabardo agrees. “They have trouble understanding zones and how defense works. ADHD children just want to get the ball and dribble it. And they get frustrated because basketball requires the player to exercise several skills at one time, such as jumping, passing, dribbling and running. So they keep the ball and do all the shooting, or they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Quinn, who has watched many a painful scene from the sidelines. People are yelling at them. The other parents start telling teammates to keep the ball away from the kid with ADHD. It’s terribly deflating, exactly the opposite experience you’d want your child with ADHD to have.”

Martial Arts, Just What the Doctor Ordered

One activity that Dr. Quinn promotes for nearly all kids with ADHD, though, is martial arts such as Taekwondo.

“Martial arts are all about control. You learn to control your body. The movements are smooth. There is an element of meditation (internal self control) in Taekwondo.” In addition, she says, teachers instruct rather than coach; when the child is shown step by step how to do something, there’s little opportunity for distraction.

A lasting benefit of martial arts comes from its use of rituals such as bowing to the instructor, Quinn believes. “Rituals are good for kids with ADHD) because they make behavior automatic,” she says. “For most of us, daily actions such as remembering to take your medicine are automatic. But without rituals such as ‘every time I brush my teeth I take my medicine,’ people with ADHD don’t remember.” Martial arts rituals can help teach kids with ADHD to accept, develop and use rituals in other areas of their lives.

Beyond what Dr. Quinn points out, what else about the martial arts makes it such a great fit for kids and teens with ADHD?

  1. The focus is on individual growth, not team competition. Direct competition with others can be very difficult and uncomfortable for kids with ADHD. With martial arts, the focus is on self-improvement and advancing oneself, so there is no concern with "letting down their team members."

  2. Working toward Individual Goals. It's common for kids who learn and think differently to feel like they never “win” at anything. With team sports, even if the team wins, it may not equal "winning" in the mind of a non-neurotypical child. In martial arts, kids work at their own pace and achieve for themselves. They get to see the tangible evidence of their own achievement and growth with a different colored belt each time they reach a new skill level. This can be a real self-esteem boost and motivator to keep going.

  3. Routines are broken down into bite size pieces. A technique or form in martial arts can contain dozens of different movements. But learning is cumulative - kids add steps as they go, gradually resulting in knowing all of the patterns and movements. They learn to anticipate which step comes next and eventually everything is put together into fluid movements. If they need or desire even more practice with their patterns or movements, they can receive private one on one instruction, which is something team sports cannot offer.

  4. Self-control and concentration is emphasized. Attention and focus are central to martial arts. Kids have to pay attention in order to learn the movements. When a child’s focus drifts, instructors will gently point it out or ask them to take the “ready stance.” This lets them reset and get ready for what’s next.

  5. Body Awareness and coordination. The physical performance of the martial arts movements helps kids get a better feel for their body in space. This is really good for kids who struggle with motor skills. It also helps kids understand the power of the mind over the body.

  6. Structure is key. Good martial arts instructors have clear rules and constantly reinforce them. They also emphasize good behavior in and out of class. Some even send kids home with behavior charts for parents and caregivers to sign.

  7. A natural channel to express frustration. It’s not true that martial arts encourage violent behavior. In fact, instructors often say that fighting is a last resort. At the same time, kicking and punching let kids work out frustration or anger while practicing self-control. This can be evidenced in the Taekwondo Oath itself.

  8. It’s an accepting environment. Respect is a core value in martial arts. All students have to demonstrate respect for their instructor and their peers. Negativity is generally not tolerated in class, and students are encouraged to support each other.

  9. It has the "cool factor." Kids who learn and think differently sometimes feel awkward or out of the loop. But lots of kids think martial arts are cool. It’s hard not to feel special when you’re wearing martial arts gear and breaking boards in half.

I've Seen it in action

I have seen for myself how Taekwondo helped my son in terms of focus, attentiveness and self confidence. He has gained a real sense of achievement with each subsequent belt/rank advancement. He feels like he can protect himself from bullies now. And I know from having talked with with countless other parents of kids and teenagers with ADHD (primarily), that it has made a huge difference in their lives as well. If you or your children suffer from ADHD, I seriously suggest that you find a Taekwondo school and embark on this amazing life-changing adventure that is Taekwondo. I have a feeling you will be amazed at the results.


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