martial arts

“The gentle art”: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and self-defense for kids

Chris Wilson, a student at Integração Jiu Jitsu here in Austin, joins us on the blog to explain the benefits of this Brazilian form of self-defense and how it differs from some of the better-known martial arts. IJJ is offering a free self-defense workshop designed for homeschooled kids this Thursday, Nov. 3, from 10:30am to noon.

What does it say about our society that many, if not most, parents don’t place self-defense skills very high on their list of important things to teach their children?

Perhaps we should see it as a good thing, an indication that today’s world is safer and less threatening, so spending time on self-defense seems unnecessary. I can see that perspective, certainly here in Austin. An article in Texas Monthly last year placed Austin as number 21 of the 24 most dangerous cities in Texas. That’s fairly good news, but it doesn’t mean self-defense isn’t important as a life skill.

The fact is that kids need to learn self-defense not so much to protect themselves from crime as to protect themselves from other kids. We all know the damage that bullying does to a person. I certainly do. I was bullied for several years growing up. The thing is that I was only attacked physically two or three times. But I was intimidated daily. I was afraid of other kids, even kids my own age, who were just bigger and meaner than I was. How I wish I had been taught to defend myself when I was growing up!

But I’m really not sure that it would have helped. In my day, if you wanted to learn to defend yourself, you took Karate or Tae Kwon Do. So, that’s what I did with my kids. I put them in Karate by the ages of 8 and 6. Sitting on the bench in the dojo one day, after both boys had been at it for over a year, it hit me. They had learned nothing. They punched and kicked at the air. They blocked imaginary attacks with gusto. But they had no actual skills that would protect them from someone who wished them harm.

Sure, they had the confidence that came from breaking boards and getting a new belt every 9 weeks, but they would not survive their first real fight. Why? Because most fights end up on the ground, where Karate and Tae Kwon Do have nothing to offer. Moreover, kicks and punches prolong fights and make them more dangerous—exactly the opposite of what I wanted for my children. I struggled with this realization and eventually concluded that I had to find something else to prepare them for the bullies and jerks of the world.

Then I discovered Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The words mean “the gentle art” in Portuguese. Ironically, while it professes to be gentle and almost entirely defensive, Jiu Jitsu is, hands-down, the most effective approach to fighting and self-defense that exists on the planet. Don’t take my word for it. The Ultimate Fighting Championship was started in 1993 to showcase the superiority of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu over all other fighting styles.

The UFC in its early days was brutal. No gloves. No holds barred. Anything goes. It was bloody and often hard to watch. We saw giant men in overalls (street brawlers) face enormous chiseled wrestlers and black belts of all types, representing everything from Kung Fu to Boxing to Karate. And who won? The little Brazilian guy using his Jiu Jitsu. He won again and again. Even today, Jiu Jitsu skills are essential to success in mixed martial arts on any level. It’s just that effective.

But this is not about what it takes to become a top-level mixed martial artist. This is about what kids need to protect themselves from other kids. It turns out that the gentle art is superior for this, too. Here’s why:

  • The focus is on defense and on de-escalating conflict. To punch is to attack. To kick is to attack. Even if you’re counter-punching, you’re counter-attacking. That is not de-escalation. Kids who practice Jiu Jitsu do not spend time punching and kicking the air. They spend time learning how to stop or redirect punches and kicks as they gain control over an attacker. They spend time learning how to get the other person to simply walk away.
  • The objective in Jiu Jitsu is to get the aggressor to stop attacking. If a bully knows he cannot win, he will stop. Or, if she knows she will suffer injury if she doesn’t quit, she will stop. This is the fundamental premise of Jiu Jitsu.
  • Training in Jiu Jitsu is real. Students spar against one another in every class. A kid who trains in Jiu Jitsu knows what to do when a fight breaks out, and he or she knows what to do when it goes to the ground (which it almost always does). The mental preparedness that comes from regular sparring is a very big part of the self-defense equation. Being mentally prepared for a fight causes a kid to exude enough confidence to stop it before it starts.
  • Jiu Jitsu equalizes size and gender. This is because Jiu Jitsu relies upon leverage-based control holds to neutralize threats without violence. Students learn to use their opponents’ size and strength against them. These days, when a smaller kid stands up to a larger, meaner one, the big kid should be worried. There’s a good chance the smaller kid knows Jiu Jitsu.
  • Jiu Jitsu is intellectually stimulating. When kids realize the principles of applying leverage using their bodies, a world of possibilities opens for them. They start to recognize that every sparring scenario is different and what they can do is limited only by their creativity and experience. Practitioners of Jiu Jitsu often refer to it as “human chess.”
  • Jiu Jitsu is FUN! While there is certainly some structure to a Jiu Jitsu class, there is also a great deal of room for play. Kids can get great exercise while rolling around on the mats, competing with one another in a peaceful and friendly way. They often don’t even realize how much they’re learning.

All in all, Jiu Jitsu has been transformational for me and for my two sons. I only lasted about two months on the bench watching before I signed up and started training myself. That was four years ago, and now I have the privilege of owning a Jiu Jitsu school with a world-class Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt. It is such a pleasure to watch my kids and the other kids at the school grow through Jiu Jitsu.

It has given them all the confidence they need to stand up to anyone who wishes to push them around or intimidate them. It has given them the skills to not only look after themselves, but to defend those around them when no else can or will. Most importantly, it has taught them how to turn a potential conflict into nothing, which is the ultimate in self-defense. If you haven’t considered Jiu Jitsu as a self-defense/fun activity for your kids, I highly recommend it. Just google Jiu Jitsu in Austin. There are schools all over town. If you want to visit ours, just check out our site at for class times.

Stay safe, Austin!

Chris Wilson

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