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Martial Arts and ADD/ADHD

Martial arts and ADD/ADHD

I have practiced the martial arts for almost 35 years. In that time I received many useful lessons - self-defense, discipline, compassion, teamwork, humility and self-confidence among them. I've also learned some not so practical things --- the flying spinning jump kick (pretty, but ineffectual), how to break concrete slabs with various parts of my body (including my head) and even how to meditate while lying on a nail bed (oddly comfortable).

At 46, while I can still go toe to toe with 20 year olds and throw a passable back handspring, I've ultimately come to realize that, beyond the physical, many of the most valuable aspects of the martial arts are the lessons of social intelligence and mental discipline. That is what makes this particular activity useful for shepherding the development of skills that address the challenges of ADD/ADHD, for both children and adults.

All children crave structure and consistency. Adults, too, thrive on ritual. The arts that contain these elements of structure, consistency and ritual are the ones that would be most applicable to help bring an individual challenged by ADD/ADHD to develop greater organizational and executive functioning skills.

The variety of martial arts is tremendous, almost beyond comprehension. I have studied many different arts, and hold rank in several. And, being that it is something of an obsession with me, I also possess a fairly broad -- what Grandmaster would call "armchair" -- knowledge of the various traditional, modern, esoteric and commercial systems. With regard to the particular application that we are discussing, some arts are quite valuable, others not so much.

That said I recognize that martial artists, as a rule, are a rather territorial bunch, so I suspect this article may gather some rather strong reactions from practitioners, should they be reading. I would ask you, the reader, to bear in mind that we are talking about a very specific perspective with a very specific application in mind. We are not doing a critique, and neither bating, nor baiting, debate.

In my estimation, the Okinawan traditions and mainland Japanese styles are most beneficial for the purpose that we are considering. Aikido is also fantastic vehicle for creating structure, consistency and ritual, as is Kendo, Iai-do and Kenjutsu, but instruction in these disciplines is typically difficult to find. Let's consider applicability by contrast.

Although Tae Kwon Do is fairly ubiquitous in every community, TKD has few forms and the fighting style tends not to use those forms in combat. So, what happens is that students learn one thing within the context of the art and learn something else in the context of its application.

Kung fu relies more heavily on a balance between technique and application. The challenge here is that traditional kung fu typically does not emphasize forms to teach technique.

Modern Wushu, by contrast, relies heavily on forms, but rarely engages in combat application. There are exceptions to this, but they tend to be school-specific.

So, with the former, the technique side of Kung Fu falls short of creating structure and consistency, and with the latter the application side falls short of creating that self-same structure and consistency.

Aikido is the perfect blend of form and function. It is a highly ritualized discipline and technique is applied in combat exactly as it is taught on the mat. Sword styles like Iai-do, Kendo and Kenjutsu also offer a strict blend of form and function. The problem is that Aikido schools are few and far between, and sword schools are even more scarce.

The Wu Dan Kung Fu disciplines of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Ba Qu'a Zhan and Xing-Yi also rely on a strong balance of form and application, but the slow pace and general intensity of the styles make them rather unsuitable for kids in general. For adults, they may be more applicable.

The Japanese arts, particularly the Okinawan, and to some degree the mainland Shotokan, Seido and Oyama styles, are more balanced in terms of technique and application. In addition, the teamwork aspect that is found in the Japanese arts -- creating a single unit of separate individuals -- is not as common in the Chinese and Korean arts.

I have spoken here in broad terms. I have left out many ‘boutique' disciplines like Krav Maga, Capoeira and Kalariyapattu, and most all of the grappling styles, as well as some family-specific styles, like Ling Gar. That is more about the availability of these arts (hence, ‘boutique') than the arts themselves.

So, if you are considering adding martial arts as a support for the development of organizational and executive functioning skills, consider which art you are undertaking and whether or not it is best suited to that purpose.

© 2008 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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