What are the Cognitive Benefits of Karate for Children and Adolescents?

Part 1 of the series

Part 2 of the series 

In addition to physical training, Karate provides your child with a mental workout as well.  We’ll be helping your child strengthen and develop their cognitive abilities as we work together in our lessons.

Your child’s Cognitive Abilities are how they learn and understand.  Being aware of our surroundings, learning, remembering and reasoning are all part of our cognitive abilities.  So are our abilities to use our judgement, make decisions, and solve problems.  We apply these abilities to think clearly and act effectively.

It is certainly true that some part of our cognitive abilities is inborn.  However, current research indicates that working to strengthen and develop these abilities is how we learn to apply them effectively.  Much of this is knowing how to best use the resources we have.  As your child studies and practices Karate, they’ll also be honing their cognitive abilities.

1. Specific, Clear Instruction:

All of our cognitive work starts off with how we approach instruction.  Your child perceives and understands things a bit differently than a mature adult does.  I’m sure you know this for yourself, from the experience of trying to answer one of the many “Why?” questions your child has asked you.  In our lessons together, we’ll work with your child in terms they can understand.

Most of our children are at what is called the ‘Concrete Operational’ stage of their cognitive development.  They most readily understand specific, clearly defined examples and instructions.  They tend to reason inductively – starting with concrete examples and then moving on to the general principle that ties them together.  They frequently struggle with abstractions and hypotheticals.

In our lessons together, we will work to meet your child where they currently are in their cognitive development.  We’ll work to make our examples, explanations, and instructions concrete and specific to help your child understand and learn more readily.  We’ll build together on what is already there.

As your child moves into adolescence, they’ll start transitioning to the ‘Formal Operational’ stage of their cognitive development.  They’re developing the capacity to reason inductively – working from a general principle to specific applications.  Their understanding is becoming more sophisticated.  At this point, your adolescent’s Karate lessons will shift into a more mature mode, appropriate for their ongoing cognitive development.

2. Attention and Mental Focus:

These are both aspects of Self-Control, one of our tenets and fundamental to the study and practice of Karate.  Your child is practicing and enhancing their powers of attention and concentration as we work to learn individual skills and extended kata in our lessons together.

With Attention, we’re talking about your child’s overall awareness.  We’re giving heed to what we see, what we hear and what we feel – all at the same time.  In Karate an example of this would be watching an opponent in front of you while listening for any movements behind you.  All our senses offer us useful information once we learn to heed them.  Your child’s work with individual partners, and as part of a larger group, both help cultivate this overall awareness.

Mental Focus is your child’s ability to concentrate on a task without becoming distracted.  We’re seeking to improve our sustained mental focus – the level of concentration that produces consistent results on a task over time.  How we manage this is learning to periodically reset and renew our focus on the same task.  Think of going to the theater to watch a movie.  Throughout that 90 minutes (or more), our focus on the movie lapses from time to time – and we renew it.

Your child is still learning how to reset and renew their mental focus.  In Karate, we use deliberate “reset points” in our lessons together.  As we work with our skills, we periodically return to a classic, neutral “ready position” in which we’re at rest for a moment.  This brief pause allows your child to relax, reset and then renew their mental focus on the task at hand. Instead of allowing their mental focus to drift away out of control, your child is learning to purposely recall and redirect it.

3. Improved “Working Memory”:

“Working Memory” is sometimes also called “Short Term” memory.  This is the system your child uses for temporarily storing information and then managing it.  We use the information in our working memory to perform more sophisticated cognitive tasks – learning, reasoning, and comprehension all rely on strong working memory.

Most of us can hold a maximum of 7 units of information in our working memory – the length of a domestic U.S. phone number (without the area code).  However, when we learn to “chunk” smaller units of information together to form larger ones, we increase the effective carrying capacity of our working memory.  To carry forward our phone number example, you probably find it easier to remember it in three chunks – 800-872-5327 – area code, first three digits, final four digits.

“Chunking” in this way is something that most of us do routinely without giving much thought.  Your child is still learning how to use their working memory in this way – how to chunk.  In our Karate lessons, we will be routinely breaking skills down into small, progressive steps when we first begin to learn them – small units of information.  Then we will add these together into a connected whole – a single, larger unit of information.

This is especially true as your child learns and practices kata.  We start with individual skills, and then build them up into connected sequences – into bigger chunks.  We then put the bigger chunks together to make up our entire kata.  Your child is developing the strategies to strengthen their working memory, and to use it effectively.

4. Self-Monitoring:

This capability is also strongly related to Self-Control, one of our fundamental tenets.  Self-Monitoring involves our awareness and understanding of our own behavior.  We have a good sense of how others perceive what we say and do, and how they are likely to react to it.  We learn to assess our words and our actions against accepted social norms.

Your child begins to work with Self-Monitoring on a physical level, as they learn and practice their skills.  Our emphasis on careful, correct mechanics gives your child useful “touchpoints” to assess and improve their own efforts.  We also use a mirror in our lessons together.  Using their reflection in the mirror, your child can readily practice monitoring themselves.

The simple, formal etiquette of Karate also plays a role.  This provides your child with a concrete, definite standard of acceptable personal conduct in the dojo.  For example, we bow to show courtesy and respect.  When someone bows to us, we always return their bow.  Neglecting or refusing to do this is a clear breach of an accepted social norm.  But we also understand what we did wrong, how to fix it, and why it is important – all critical understandings to allow us to Self-Monitor.

Self-Monitoring involves both cultivating a habit of mind, and developing a sophisticated, nuanced awareness of our own behavior and how others perceive and react to it.  It takes time, practice and patience to develop this cognitive ability.  Self-Monitoring is an essential element of Karate, a capability your child develops further as they study and practice.

5. Cultivate a “Growth Mindset”:

Mindset is our understanding of how our basic personal abilities work.  With a Fixed Mindset, a person believes their abilities are fixed – they are strong, or they are weak; they’re smart, or they’re stupid.  These are fixed, and no amount of effort will ever change them.  Success is a matter of personal entitlement, and failure is a mark of personal unworthiness.

Karate is the opposite of this – it is a Growth Mindset discipline. We understand that we can improve our abilities with time, effort and energy.  Many of the skills we work with are difficult at first – our first few tries with a kick, we may stagger off-balance or even fall down.  But we persist – and as we practice, we kick more powerfully and accurately.  Your child proves to themselves by personal experience that they can develop their abilities through dedication and hard work.

The challenges your child faces and overcomes in Karate, the goals they set and then accomplish, help them develop a Growth Mindset.  The experience of overcoming obstacles is critical – your child learns they can overcome them.  In the process, they learn the value of persistence, hard work, consistent practice, asking questions and when needed getting help from others.  These are all strategies fundamental to the Growth Mindset.

*If you would like to find out more about the Growth Mindset, a good place to start is Mindset:  The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck.

6. Preferred Learning Style:

Your child’s preferred Learning Style is the way they most readily take in and learn new information and skills.  In our Karate lessons together, we will work to accommodate a variety of different Learning Styles.  Your child’s preferred Learning Style may be Visual, Auditory or Kinesthetic – we’ll present skills to them in the form they grasp most readily.  All the skills we work with, we will first demonstrate, then explain and then perform together.

If your child is a Visual learner, they do best when they see a skill performed.  They will learn most readily by watching the instructor perform a skill – and then by using the mirror to watch themselves performing it as well.

If your child is an Auditory learner, they do best when they hear a skill described.  They will learn most readily by listening to the instructor carefully explain how a skill works and how it is applied.  They also learn by naming skills out loud, asking questions of the instructor, and answering questions as well.

If your child is a Kinesthetic learner, they do best when they perform a skill themselves.  They will learn most readily by “getting the feel” for a skill – they need to start doing it.  They are “hands on” learners – they want to jump in and get started, working things out as they go.

While our children usually have a preferred Learning Style, they’re not limited to just that one style.  Their preferred style is their door into understanding a skill.  Once they’re in, they can incorporate information presented in other ways much more readily.   For example, once a kinesthetic learner has had the chance to work “hands on” with a skill, they can better follow and understand the instructor’s verbal explanation of that skill.  This ongoing practice strengthens your child’s ability to use other learning styles more effectively.

To find out more about getting started as a student at Broadway Family Karate, please follow this link:  3 Lesson Introductory Course.

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© T.R. Booker 2020

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