By Jennilyn Nelson
Stepping into a martial arts studio is one of my earliest memories of exercising self-confidence. I was nine, very shy, and not athletic. My mother had to coax me through the doors, reassuring me it wasn’t as scary as it seemed. Everything about the place seemed alluring and alien; shaking the instructor’s hand, donning a uniform, stumbling my way through the motions of first class.
Right off the bat, I discovered the beautiful repetition of martial arts. If I didn’t catch on to the motion the first time, that was okay; we were going to do that same motion several times before moving on. Each time I repeated a technique, I felt a bit more comfortable in it, more confident. As I continued in classes, I found myself moving more readily, displaying solid confidence within the studio walls – within months, it began to seep into other areas of my life. I was talking more to peers and adults, making confident eye contact, even raising my hand in the classroom.
My testimony isn’t the exception when looking at how martial arts affects a young person’s confidence. The majority of kids enrolled in martial arts classes show leaps in self-confidence and self-esteem, often within the first half year of training. What might lead to this positive evolution? Subtle but constant aspects of the martial arts class; a respectful atmosphere, eye contact, body posture, goal-setting, positive mentors and peers, testing, example-setting and leadership opportunities all play into a young martial artist’s confidence. Let’s look at a few of these in some detail.
First, environment. A good martial arts studio is set up very carefully to allow each student a feeling of safety while they learn. This is done in many ways, one of which being uniformity– consistency. Uniformity in dress, in class pattern, and in showing respect. Bowing is an example of showing respect. No matter what you think of your partner, you show them respect. Every practitioner is guaranteed a place where they are treated as an equal. With this assurance in mind a new student feels confident, knowing without doubt their endeavors will be respected.
Eye contact and body posture are things supported from the very first class. At the beginning of most martial arts classes, students line up by rank in front of their instructor. They stand tall and still, waiting for their teacher to initiate a bow; both a sign of respect and gratitude for teaching, and practice in standing confidently. Eventually this practice becomes habit, habit turns innate, and the stance alone can bloom a student’s confidence, even in difficult situations.
A good tool for confidence-boosting used by martial arts instructors is what my first Sensei termed “example-setting.” He would take note of which children obviously worked on a particular technique and then ask them to “give the class an example” of the excellent way they executed the specific technique. This was scary at first, of course, but soon enough we would feel great pride in being called upon to show the class our accomplishments. Soon, we were practicing all our techniques that diligently, until we forgot the nudge and starting noticing our own improvement. Our confidence ceased being external, instead coming from our own sense of pride borne of the hard work we invested.
By being asked to set a good example, we were being subtly encouraged to allow attention to be on us. We were slowly becoming more confident in letting others watch our movements and learn from them – the first step in being comfortable with the idea of teaching. From there, confident students are asked to help with lower-ranking students, to lead small groups by example first, and then left to work curriculum in these groups with gentle supervision. This gradual ladder of responsibility helps the student’s confidence grow steadily, with proper support and easy guidance.
The consistent practice of martial arts helps to nurture in the student a confident expectation of success. Young martial artists began to feel that no matter what the obstacle, with enough work and practice, they can confidently overcome it. With this solid foundation of confidence, youth grow into individuals capable of creating positive change in their lives; both within the studio walls, and without.
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