Mixed martial arts has been called “the sport of the future” so much recently that it's taken on the air of an undisputed truth. But if you’re truly going to be the sport of the future you need to capture the children. For the first time, there’s evidence that that’s exactly what’s happening. For every kid that used to try out for baseball or hockey or even band after school, another is throwing on a gi and signing up at his local MMA gym.
A few months ago, ESPN quoted a major market study that found America’s 30,000 MMA schools were training approximately 3.2 million kids. That’s exactly the same number U.S. Youth Soccer--which bills itself as the country’s largest youth sports organization--says it registers every year.
The stories about these kids now popping up on the nightly news in Orlando, Denver, Seattle, and elsewhere tend to follow a familiar script: Young athlete who never had much interest in sports until he found MMA, parents who insist they make sure their kid knows that there’s an appropriate time and place for a guillotine choke, and a few tongues derisively clucked by disapproving locals. We have enough problems with bullying in schools without teaching pre-teens how to tear the tendons apart like so much Laffy Taffy, they say. And MMA proponents cluck right back: Taught correctly, MMA can actually teach kids the fine art of leaving each other alone.
Dr. Jay P. Granat is in the second camp. A sports psychologist who specializes in young athletes, Granat has appeared in The New York Times, Sporting News, and on ESPN and the BBC, even Good Morning America. Golf Digest once called him a “top mental guru.” He says that while he can understand the concern that teaching kids to fight will only serve to build better bullies, teaching kids to fight properly will actually have the opposite effect.
“If there’s rules similar to what we have in karate and jiu-jitsu, I would think those styles do a good job discouraging bullying,” Granat says. “And, you know, even boxing, with the proper equipment, isn’t any more dangerous than stickball.”
If anything, Granat says, kids who train MMA are more likely to be well-rounded, confident people and less likely to need to re-enact scenes from Roadhouse on the playground to feel good about themselves.
“It’s an individual sport. You’re in the ring by yourself. You have to learn how to handle yourself and the right level of aggressiveness,” Granat says. “That can benefit fitness, body awareness, agility, confidence.”
Some youth-MMA detractors would probably make the case that traditional martial arts classes already provide this service, and when it comes to body awareness, fitness, and confidence they’re probably right. However, as a former 10-year-old Tae Kwon Do student who went through his own awkward young years as the target of a guy with an overdeveloped pituitary gland, I can say that you find out pretty damn quick that those kinds of martial arts aren’t worth much a real fight.
Granat says one of the biggest concerns surrongding youth MMA, aside from making sure proper equipment and rules are in place to avoid serious injury, should be the level of parental involvement. “You probably have kids watching [MMA] with their dads,” he says. “Dads probably think that it’s a great for their kids. You have to make sure boundary lines are set properly.”
Which is one of the reasons at least one MMA coach refuses to take on kid grapplers.
“I would not want to take on anyone that young,” says Matt Derosa, who owns and operates Pure MMA NYC in Manhattan. “I’d have to deal with the parents. They’d be worried all the time; they’d be wanting to control how you teach the class. It’s not worth it.”
Though he won’t be involved with training the next generation, Derosa concedes that with fighters getting involved in MMA younger and younger, the sport in 10 years is going to see better athletes than have ever stepped into a cage before.
“MMA’s young, and this is going to be the first group of fighters that have trained specifically for MMA,” he says. “That’s going to completely change the sport. You’re going to see higher and higher levels of ability. The athletes are going to get incredibly good.”
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