Aude Depp, 6, pins Etienne Ancelet, 6, as judo instructor Justin Stern looks on

Martial arts help children achieve fitness AND focus

    New Orleans is an exciting place for children to learn martial arts and achieve fitness, focus and discipline.

            Ella Szalai began taking karate lessons in the first grade to learn self-defense and preserve the peace of mind of her parents. While karate is good exercise for his daughter, her dad, Imre Szalai, says he has also noticed Ella, now 12 and a sixth grader at Lusher Charter School, is more relaxed because of the sport.

            “I do see that when she comes home, she is calmer and more prepared to study,” Szalai says. “I see now as she’s getting older, it’s a great way for stress relief.” The physical benefits of martial arts are widely known, but sports such as karate and judo can also bring discipline, focus and coordination to children, according to local parents and martial arts instructors. 

            Ella and her two younger brothers, Ethan, 10, and Evan, 9, who also take karate, have gained confidence in public speaking and performing because of their time spent before instructors and other students at belt presentations and competitions, Szalai says


            Judo brings ‘calming effects’

            Martial arts build confidence, self-awareness and “a healthy kind of toughness,” says Justin Stern, a judo instructor at Hayashi Sports Clinic in uptown New Orleans. 

After a long break from his childhood judo lessons and a foray into soccer, Stern searched for a sport he could participate in long-term as an adult. 

            Stern, 31, returned to the dojo and noticed right away the calming effect judo had on him, he says. Younger students also benefit from this calming effect, he says. After a few months of judo training, kids don’t react to little things that normally would have bothered them, Stern says. 

            Judo teaches students to center themselves and breathe, Stern says. The sport also teaches discipline because students must sit quietly, respectfully listen to the instructor and learn to be aware of their own bodies and actions, he says.

            Katy Ancelet’s son, Etienne, 6, a kindergarten student at Audubon Charter School, is an orange belt in judo at the Hayashi Sports Clinic. Ancelet, who is a black belt in judo, said Etienne has developed more self-discipline and has more spacial awareness after taking judo lessons.

            He also has developed a better respect for his elders after listening to renowned New Orleans Sensei Nobuo Hayashi’s lessons, Ancelet said. The individual aspect of the sport is also challenging, she says. “When you are doing an individual sport, you only have yourself to rely on,” Ancelet says.


            Connecting the body and the mind   

            Dimitri Papadopoulos, 34, teaches karate with the New Orleans Shotokan Academy and offers instruction at several locations including the Broadmoor Arts and Wellness Center, the Jewish Community Center, Isidore Newman School and Lusher Charter School.

            The Szalai children are encouraged by Papadopoulos, an international karate competitor and champion, because they have seen his success in the sport, Szalai says. Martial arts teach students both self-defense and the art form’s aesthetic movements, says Papadopoulos, a fifth-degree black belt who has competed at national and international levels, and still represents the U.S. at world championships.

            John Henry Schoenbrun, 10, a fourth grader at Trinity Episcopal School, started taking karate at the Jewish Community Center when he was 5 years old, says his mother, Patricia Schoenbrun. Though he is interested in other sports, like lacrosse, basketball and soccer, John Henry always has taken karate, which has helped his coordination and concentration, she says. 

            “It’s just something where it really helps him focus and kind of anchors all his other sports,” Schoenbrun says. Papadopoulos, John Henry’s instructor, agrees. For children, “a big thing they’re going to improve on is concentration,” Papadopoulos says. “They have to focus in order to learn these moves.”

            As students improve their physical abilities, they are also improving their mental abilities, he says. “The mind and the body are very much connected,” Papadopoulos says.

            Kate Stevens is a journalist and mother of two whose work has appeared in Nola Family, the Times-Picayune, the Advocate and the Charlotte Observer.

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