When is a sport not just any old sport? What about trying the Korean martial art of taekwondo for size? ‘Martial arts are a good complement to teaching children discipline,’ explains Master Sharifi from the Dubai Karate Centre, where we watch as taekwondo is taught alongside six other different other martial arts disciplines, included aikido, karate and muay Thai.
The benefits of taekwondo for kids are well-documented: the complicated movements improve coordination, concentration and memory; the regular training teaches discipline, respect, courtesy and commitment; and the increased fitness and agility over time improves strength and endurance, as well as building character, self-confidence and self-esteem. As kids work their way through the belts system – which goes from a beginner’s white belt through to a black belt – they’re tested for their progess throughout the year, a good exercise in setting and achieving their goals.
‘Taekwondo has a very simple system behind it, it’s not complicated, and fits all ages, which is why it is so popular around the world,’ says Master Sharifi, a 3rd Dan and six-time UAE national taekwondo champion, who has been passionately involved in the sport since he first saw it on television, aged eight. ‘There’s different systems – the advanced training, for example we’d only use to instruct the military or the police – but for the children, we focus on flexibility, coordination, discipline.’
The kids lining up on the mats range in age from around five up to about eight, but Master Sharifi and his colleagues teach kids all the way up to their teens and beyond, as well as children with special needs. ‘It’s about behaviour, rather than age or ability,’ he says. ‘Sometimes we’ll take a child slightly younger, but good behaviour both in and outside our lessons are very important. We try to make sure that they can understand that whatever behaviour we expect in our class, they should be taking that with them for home, or school too. We need the kids to realise that it is not acceptable to go home and hit each other or their siblings just because they’ve learned a move in class.’
For children, taekwondo instruction isn’t just about turning up, learning some kicks or routines, then leaving until next time. It’s about learning focus and discipline – the kids in Master Sharifi’s classes are expected to commit to up to three classes each week, which takes some dedication but it clearly pays off. ‘We have some more experienced blue belts in this particular class, and quite a few beginners too. On the whole, the kids take to it naturally, they don’t over-think it – when they spar against each other, it’s so impressive to watch, almost like the professionals in action.’
For the older kids and teens, it’s about calming them down, helping them focus. ‘Teenagers always like to challenge us, they want to be the best, but it doesn’t happen all at once. We give them breathing exercises, try to challenge their overconfidence.’
While taekwondo is a contact sport, safety is of the essence. The instructors also use taekwondo to teach pupils about the importance of self defence, should the need ever arise. ‘Sometimes we’ll ask the smaller kids to spar against the larger ones, the point is to challenge them and push them to their limit to fight against their opponent, so that if something did happen in real life, they’d be more prepared.’
As an all-round conditioning technique, taekwondo has myriad benefits too, explains Master Sharifi, who also works as a sports conditioning instructor. ‘We used to have a student who was really good in our class, but when his mum took him to a tennis academy, he was the best. They asked him how he became so good, where he’d played before, and he said, ‘No, I’ve never played tennis before, I did taekwondo.’
The Dubai Karate Centre is located in the training hall at Al Raizi Boys School, Al Safa 1, Jumeirah 3. For more information, go to www.dubaikarate.com (04 344 7797).