How old do you have to be?
I was approached by an adult student recently, who voiced a very salient and often misinformed question, “ How old should you be to start martial arts?” I looked at her and took a moment to think before responding. “That’s a very good question,” was my immediate response. What is the ‘best’ age to start? Does this depend on the art? Does this depend on the school? Just how do you decide if you or your children are ‘old’ enough to begin learning?
A simple google search on this question brings up over 3 million hits. There is a massive range of opinion and no definitive answer to the question. The ultimate decision is largely down to the parent (in the case of children) and whether the specific school offers a syllabus for the development of children. Many martial arts school do open their doors to children, happily accepting all ages and make modifications to their teaching approach to accommodate the differences in learning patterns between children and adults. However equally there are those schools whose approach is based on ‘traditional’ teaching methods, or indeed consider their syllabus to be something that children simply shouldn’t learn. Often these schools have a closed door policy to under 16/18 years old.
The bottom line is that the best age to begin, is that age when you believe you are ready. Adults clearly can make this decision for themselves, can investigate styles and schools to find the correct fit for themselves. (It is a worthy side not here that there is a massive variety of ‘styles’ and approaches even within the same martial art. Without getting away from the point, when choosing the best fit of martial art to practice, research all options available within all styles.)
In regards to the development of children, there are some quite distinct qualities that a good martial arts school should provide. Great child friendly martial arts academies should offer:
"Family" classes where parents and children of varying ages may train together.
Has plenty of incremental rewards. Small children can't just look at the change in their body mechanics and know they've made progress -- they need to be told.
A program well-suited to the youngest students uses badges, coloured belts, achievement rewards or some other concrete indication to a child when progress has been made.
The instructor/coach is patient and pays attention to the individual children.
The syllabus teaches not only martial arts skills. Mindfulness and value education is a central aspect of all good martial arts syllabus.
The games are incorporated into classes that include small children.
Students are primarily grouped by progress, so that everyone is challenged at their own level.
The point here is that in reality there is no ‘best’ age to begin learning martial arts. Whilst both physical and cognitive understanding develop with age, there are fundamental benefits to health and wellbeing that martial arts can provide irrespective of age. The functional/practical application of the art learned may be best reserved to older age groups, however this is only one aspect of the art. Most importantly the teaching methods that an academy uses should be flexible enough to provide for all ages, allowing all ages to experience the unique benefits that lifelong martial arts practice can provide.
The question then becomes not "What is the best age?" but "Is this the best academy?"