As parents, educators, and mentors, we all have times where we wish a certain kiddo had a little more, well, FOCUS!
Focus is a particularly salient problem for children who are diagnosed with ADD/ADHD. Countless anecdotes will tell you that martial arts are good for kids (& adults) with ADD/ADHD.
But no one really knows WHY martial arts help work to control ADD/ADHD.
But as someone who’s been teaching martial arts for over 15 years, I have some thoughts. For one thing, it is well known that ALL children focus better in school when they are given ample opportunities for vigorous exercise! Vigorous exercise also contributes greatly to physical health. Martial arts certainly covers that category!
But in my opinion, there is something else. Traditional martial arts are different because they include something called forms, sets of movements that are memorized and performed. The difficulty level usually increases with rank, and forms are evaluated as part of a student passing from belt to belt.
So, what is it about forms that help cultivate skills for focusing–not just for ADD/ADHD kids, but ALL children?
In my opinion, the discipline of forms, kata, poomsae, patterns, that provides an opportunity to practice focus in short chunks. Because forms demand focus, students learn HOW to focus, and this awareness carries over in other places, like school.
In other words, focus can be learned, cultivated, & grown through the regular practice of forms.
Forms are much more than just a set of moves. You cannot memorize the “dance” and perform it CONVINCINGLY without cultivating certain mental aspects: what could be called a “warrior spirit” or a “fighting mindset.”
In my mind, there are two levels of knowing forms:
- The “base” level. This is a level where you know the form, the sequence, the techniques. “What comes next?” is an easily-answered question. You know the form, from the outside in.
- The “life” level. This is a level where your attitude and spirit overtakes the form, convincing me that you’ve just won the fight. At this level, not only does your technique have to be near-perfect, but you also have to cultivate a sharp focus, using a mental presence in the form to make it realistic.
As students go after higher and higher levels of performance, the amount of focus required vastly increases. Martial arts practitioners make sure each limb and muscle is in the right place at the right time, and that takes a lot of focus: internal focus on the movements and how they feel, as well as external focus & making sure the gaze and facial expressions convince viewers that a battle was just won.
As we work on, say, front stance in class, I help students realize when their bodies are out of position. With time (and lots and lots of patience), the students start to fix their own mis-alignments! Not only is this evidence of deepening body-awareness, it is also evidence that the students are focusing on where they are in space.
If you’ve ever learned a song on an instrument, the process for performing a form is very similar. You have to practice over and over again to get it just right. When your intention is on getting better, the practice comes easier, the learning goes quicker. Motivation is key.
Obviously, it’s not just ADD/ADHD kids who benefit from this process of learning to focus. All kids have to learn how to set their intent on something, to function intentionally despite distraction.
I think it also bears mentioning that, of the kids I’ve seen with ADD/ADHD, the most successful ones are the ones with parents who set clear boundaries and consistently help their children find ways to be focused. Focus truly starts at home, where kids spend most of their time, and martial arts training can only complement what parents have already begun!
So, there you have it: a bit more anecdotal evidence and some pondering on why martial arts help children focus.