It’s an all too familiar sight: my two young children, exhausted after a long day at nursery, return home and proceed to jump up and down, bounce off walls and throw toys at each other’s heads in a rush of post-containment energy.
For a long time, I’ve wondered how to help them temper their over-tired energy levels — ideally without it ending up in tantrums, tears, meltdowns and switching on the iPad again.
One possible solution: martial arts. The idea of children attending martial arts classes has long appealed as a possible means of providing them with a useful tool to release their energy in a controlled manner, while also letting them roll around and have fun.
So one recent Thursday afternoon, I took my 4-year-old daughter to attend a Brazilian jiujitsu class at Carpe Diem in Tokyo’s Hiroo district.
A cross between judo and wrestling, Brazilian jiujitsu involves pairs of participants grappling close to the ground, but without striking one another. Like many martial arts, the practice goes beyond the confines of the purely physical, requiring intelligence, focus and discipline as well as strength.
Practicing jiujitsu can also help children develop skills relating to kindness, improve communication and help counter bullying, according to the instructor Thomas Mietz.
“Brazilian jiujitsu is great because it gives children confidence,” he explains. “It’s a sport where you have to learn how to deal with physical aggression using technique, movement and leverage.
“For children it is a great way to learn how to defend themselves, of course, but it also teaches them how to deal with a high-pressure situation without panicking. We also teach values to the children, such as helping each other, respect and discipline. We want them to have a good head and a solid body.”
Refreshingly, the sport also doesn’t just appeal to boys.
“It suits all kinds of children. We have a lot of girls in the 8- to 12-year-old program because it is great for self-defense, especially in teaching them how to deal with a larger opponent,” says Thomas. “Plus, practiced at a good level, jiujitsu makes children totally bully proof. We teach them what to do in case of bullying, what we call the 3T rule: talk to the bully, tell a parent or teacher, and tackle if it’s the only option available.”
My daughter, who currently obsesses over all things pink and ballet-related, did not seem immediately impressed when we walked into the gym-like studio with its padded floor mattresses, big punch bags and pop music.
However, her face soon lit up in the changing room where she declared herself a blue ninja after dressing in her uniform of martial arts-style jacket and rolled up pants, complete with a long white belt.
After patiently queuing up in front of Thomas to have their belts fastened properly, the 11 children — a mix of boys and girls aged between 4 and 7 — knelt in a row on the floor in front of the instructors, and the class began.
Following introductory greetings, the first energy-burning task was to simply run around the space in a circle, an exercise that morphed into side galloping and then running backwards, with the children soon warming up and relaxing.
The 50-minute class continued in a high-speed blur. Exercises ranged from forward-roll races and dragging one another by the arms or legs across the floor to attempting to lift up a partner who was hugging them from behind.
It was clear that Thomas and his colleague Yuki Ishikawa, the head instructor and founding director of Carpe Diem — who between them can speak English, French and Japanese — were masterful in commanding the respect of the children.
While the teachers were friendly, relaxed and had no need to raise their voices, they were completely on the ball in terms of maintaining the children’s focus. Their instructions were peppered with constant addresses to those whose attention wandered (as is often the case with young children), telling them firmly by name to “look this way,” “do this” or “watch that.”
The climax of the class was when the older, more experienced children were given time to “spar” in front of a row of wide-eyed younger students.
Perhaps best of all, however, was the atmosphere. Far from strict, the teachers are happy for parents and students’ younger siblings to sit at the edges of the mats. There were even some colorful bouncy animal toys plus some nearby punching bags to provide ample entertainment (and energy release) for my lively 2-year-old, too.
Carpe Diem teaches Brazilian jiujitsu at its Hiroo, Aoyama and Mita studios. Each studio teaches children on three days a week, with fees from ¥10,000 a month. For more details, visit www.carpediemkidsbjj.com.