We spoke with former Kung Fu World Champion Matt Lapidus about how learning martial arts benefits kids and helps them become more self-assured. A long-time Whitby WECCP instructor, Matt will be teaching martial arts and rock climbing during Whitby’s summer camp program.
Exclusive Interview with Martial Arts CT Instructor Matt Lapidus:
Whitby: Thank you for taking the time to talk to use today, Matt. Can you tell us more about the martial arts camp you’ll be teaching?
Matt Lapidus: During the summer camp, we specialize in kung fu training. Instead of just teaching kids punching and kicking skills though, we focus on mobility skills and learning how to move better. That means increasing flexibility, mobility and strength. We also work on basic punching, kicking and blocking. We teach lower acrobatics like how to roll, how to move on the ground better, and how to fall properly so kids don’t break any bones. Strength and coordination is a big focus. Punching and kicking comes after kids learn how to control their body.
Whitby: What kinds of martial arts exercises do kids learn during the summer camp?
Matt Lapidus: I stay away from the traditional martial arts workout routine. Typically instructors have students start with “high cardio” exercises such as boxing or jumping jacks, then make them go straight into stance work, where they work through isolated positions.
I've found in my years of teaching is that this can be stressful to kids' joints if they're not prepared properly, which can cause pain or injury. I've found a healthier way of approaching the exercise is to teach the kids how to squat properly, how to roll, and to have them practice wall walking.
Just the wall walking itself helps them build core strength, and teaching kids to support themselves on their hands gives them arm strength. We also teach kids to use their breathing to get through the push-ups, instead of just muscle strength. Those are the kinds of warm ups we'll do. It's definitely a more contemporary take on martial arts than the old-school style. I get the kids more active and have them doing some plyometrics or jumping to get warmed up.
Each day we have different skills. If our skill for the day is movement or evasion, we'll teach the kids how to breathe and relax to focus on the task at hand. This helps them if they have to evade a blocker, which is something I swing through the air. They have to do the movement smoothly and calmly— if they run around, they’ll get bopped on the head. This helps them learn how to move calmly.
We also spend a lot of time focusing on breathing and relaxation. A lot of school sports don't really focus on stretching. For my class, I start every day with a warm-up of breathing and stretching. This helps the kids calm down and get ready for the class.
Learning to relax can help in kids with their schoolwork as well. I tell them that they’ll be able to focus better if they bring that same mindset of "Take a deep breath, relax your body, and calm down."
If we're working on kicks that day, we'll focus on all different types of kicks and by the end of the day they'll learn a jump kick, how to kick from the ground and how to take their kick into the air.
I also like to challenge the kids to try upward movements like walking on their hands or learning to roll. This benefits them for all sports because it improves their coordination and improves hand-eye coordination, since they watch someone do it and then perform it.
Whitby: How do you see kids evolve as they go through the camp?
Matt Lapidus: The first thing I see is a confidence improvement, because after the first day, they’ve done things they've never done before. They’ve learned how to roll and how to do wall walking (where they put their hands on the floor and feet on the wall). A lot of kids are very surprised that they were able to do wall walking and hold their body weight up!
Whitby: Tell us more about how martial arts improves confidence.
Matt Lapidus: We teach all the kids that confidence is believing in yourself. I stress that a lot, especially when we're performing new techniques. The kids often have to come up and demonstrate skills with people watching, and they get a chance to conquer their fears and show confidence.
The class participation and the partner work all helps kids break out of that shy stage. A lot of them are already friends, so they have no problem working together, and by the time they're done with the program they're all pretty good friends. We often do races as part of the warm-up to get their blood flowing and their heart rate up. The kids really love to do races because it gets them to be competitive with each other, but it's a healthy competition. They all cheer each other on.
Martial arts helps kids feel more confident moving their body.
I incorporate some parkour movements in the camp to help kids learn how to move around an object very quickly and easily via the simplest route. So if there's a block in the way, they have to figure out how to jump over the block, roll on the mat, and then climb across the wall in the easiest way and fastest way possible.
I encourage kids to work out their own way over the obstacle, not just to follow the scripted way that I've shown them how to do. I’ll teach them movements they can use during the class, such as wall walking, rolling, jumping or vaulting. At the end of the class, I gives kids a chance to put it all together and allow kids to decide where to use each technique and what's best for them.
For the younger kids, this type of movement helps take the clumsiness out of their walk. For kids who are always tripping or bumping into things, this teaches them to be more focused and attentive to their environment and their own body.
Whitby: You’ve told us that martial arts also helps kids in real-world situations too. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Matt Lapidus: One of the things I focus on during the camp is ground mobility, which is lower acrobatics. I always say this is good for crowd control: if there's ever a situation where a kid accidentally ends up on the floor when people are running around, that kid will know how to react and how to get themselves to a safe spot.
Muscle memory is important. It helps kids know what to do in a situation.
One of the main things that happens in panic situations is that people hold their breath. Just for a second, or a couple seconds—but people typically stop breathing and tension comes into their body. What I'm teach kids to do is to breathe through it. That stress reaction is developed and learned, it's not as natural as we may think.
We teach kids, “This is when you turn on the breathing. Relax your body, think about what you're focusing on.” We constantly have kids apply the breathing and relaxation techniques to more intense situations.
Whitby: What benefits do you see from being calm and breathing through stressful situations?
Matt Lapidus: Whether it’s a dangerous situation or a non-dangerous situation that just brings on the same level of stress (such as taking a test), if we breathe and relax our body, we automatically think better. Our mind is focused and more blood flows when we're relaxed, so we can make better decisions.
This reaction comes into play in as simple a situation as stepping into the street at the wrong time and have to decide, “Which direction do I move in?” If you're tense, you might not move at all. If you're scared, you might move in the wrong direction.
It’s important to learn to be calm and breathe as a natural reaction to fear. It's a weird thing to say, but naturally you do the right thing if you’re relaxed. Your brain takes you to the right place.
Whitby: When kids leave the summer camp, how have they changed?
Matt Lapidus: Their confidence level has definitely increased. They're better communicators, just because they feel more comfortable. Sometimes we actually work on communication skills in class. We teach the kids how to make eye contact, speak clearly and stand tall.
We teach kids that there are three ways to show confidence when you're meeting somebody:
- Stand tall
- Look them in the eye
- Speak clearly
I stick with those three key actions because they're very easy for kids to pick up. During the camp, we tell kids, “If you're talking to an adult and you're whispering and looking down at the ground, do you look confident or unconfident?”
It's a quick way for the kids to see, "This is what I have to do to be confident."
Whitby: How did you decide to include communication skills in martial arts camp?
Matt Lapidus: Martial arts is all about having confidence. Nowadays we don’t use martial arts to fight and defend ourselves—we use it in our everyday lives. We want to teach the kids how to make friends and how to avoid bullies or to avoid conflict in a non-violent manner.
One of the things we see when kids are being bullied is low confidence. When we help them learn to speak clearly, have eye contact and stand tall, that automatically eliminates a lot of the chance of being bullied.
Bullies don’t want someone who looks them dead in the eye and stand up to them. It automatically disarms the bullies. It takes them off guard, because they're looking for the person who is looking at the ground or looking away.
Whitby: Are there any other skills the kids pick up during martial arts camp?
Matt Lapidus: They also come away with a better sense of self-discipline. I teach the kids what to do, but after a few classes, I expect them to know what to do. Self-discipline is doing what you know you should do without being reminded, whether you like it or not. When they have to respond quickly to a situation, there's not much time to think. You just have to go. Respect is another thing. Respect for each other, respect for adults. Courtesy and discipline are key lessons of martial arts.
Whitby: Matt, thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate you telling us more about how kids benefit from learning martial arts.
Matt Lapidus: You’re welcome.
Matt Lapidus will be teaching a martial arts and rock climbing program during Whitby School’s 2018 summer camp program.