Hamilton Best Start is a community collaborative supporting families by offering a broad range of services for children from birth to 12 years of age that will ensure children receive the best possible opportunities. Learn more about Best Start, programs and services near you, and information on child development. As an instructor I regularly get phone calls from parents of children as young as three enquiring about Taekwon-Do classes for their child. Bruce Lee, probably the best known and most highly acclaimed martial artist ever was 13 years old when he began his training[1] as was female martial arts film legend Cynthia Rothrock who holds Black Belts in Tang Soo Do, Taekwon Do, Eagle Claw, Wu Shu, and Northern Shaolin[2].
From this it would seem that attaining a high level of success in martial arts is not dependant on a very early start, all these people being above 11 years old. The starting ages of these martial arts greats ranges from 6 or 7 to 22, but there is little evidence to be found of success by children starting below the age of 6. However, the survey did not asked the current age of instructors, so the same could be true as with the 'famous' martial artists, was there less popularity or availability of classes for young children when they were below 6 than there is now?
To investigate further we need to skip to the next generation, the students of these instructors. More interestingly though, I discovered that of 30 instructors who had taught 5 year olds, nine of them (almost a third) had had children go on to achieve black belt. A 3,4 or 5 year old child has really no concept of future success, they just know what they want now.
One instructor surveyed, pointed out that it was the teenage years when students were most likely to give up, often after having achieved back belt.
The opinions of instructors as to the optimum starting age in order to avoid drop out were mixed, with over a third saying that they didn't think age was relevant, the other two thirds gave ages between 6 and 11+, with most favouring ages 10 or 11+. By the age of 3, the average child can jump off a step and stand very briefly on one leg, so they could take part in some aspects of a TKD class. When deciding on the starting age, you need to establish what the aim is, which brings me back to my two favoured measures of success. Regarding my second measure of success, staying into adulthood, it seems that a later start gives a better chance. Some parents like to think their child is the exception, and believe that they will not only continue as long as the parent would like them to, but also be much better for having started earlier.

The survey was limited, and didn't take into account numbers of students that individual instructors had taught or succeeded with, or details of whether those students had continued as adults. My own feeling as a parent, teacher and instructor, has always been that this is far too young. Jean Claude Van Damme was around 11 or 12,[3] whilst film legend Chuck Norris was older at 18[4]. The lack of evidence could be because this is indeed too young, but there may be other reasons.
Research suggests that some Chinese children begin their Kung Fu training between the ages of 4 and 10 years[11] although the senior successful monks my research turned up began when they were around 8 to 11 years old [12] making the evidence inconclusive. Of thirty seven instructors, nine had taught children of 3 or 3? but none had had a 3 year old starter reach black belt. For example, a child's head is proportionally large and their arms and legs short compared to an adult, thus for example, making the formation of a correct rising block almost impossible, (see photographs - the child on the left is 3, the one on the right is 6). However, emotionally at this age children are often clingy, showing fear of separation from parents, and they may show anger or violent outbursts, which would clearly be a problem. Firstly, achieving a black belt; none of the instructors surveyed have succeeded in taking a 3 year old starter through to black belt and I can find no martial arts 'greats' who started that young. Evidence gleaned about famous martial artists and current Masters and instructors, indicates that starting at 6 or above gives a better chance of continuing into adulthood than a younger start, but starting at 10 or above gives a better chance still.
In fact if they did succeed after starting at 3 or 4, evidence shows that they would not be any better than if they had started at 7 or 8.
However parents seem reluctant to believe me and I know that no sooner have I hung up the 'phone than they will call another Taekwon-Do school to ask the same question until they find someone who will accept them, so I decided to do some research. It may be that in the 1960s and 70s martial arts training was not so widely available for young children and not as popular with parents as a chosen activity for their child, certainly in western cultures.
Some of these children may still be training but only one instructor had managed to get a 3 year old starter to at least green belt.
In the survey I suggested you might consider reaching green belt as a measure of success and asked if instructors had other ways to measure it. A majority of instructors felt that the involvement of parents or older siblings was an important factor in a younger child's ability to continue and succeed.

If you want them to get black belt and continue the activity successfully into adulthood, 6 at the youngest, but wait a little longer to improve the odds i.e.
Twenty out of twenty two 4th to 6th Dans were 13 years old or over, while two were between 10 and 12. Fifteen instructors had taught 4 or 4? year olds, three of whom had had a child go on to achieve a black belt (in no cases were children the offspring of the instructors).
Some suggestions were that a child's self esteem is raised, or that they enjoy it for at least three months or other named periods of time.
The length of lessons, structure and activities of the class and qualities of the instructor were also cited as relevant factors. For example, changes in the relative size of the head in childhood affects the balance of the body during movement. Between 4 and 5, they can skip and jump and by 5 they can show responsibility and guilt and feel pride in accomplishments.[13] This sounds more like the level of development needed for a martial arts class, and although the exact age depends on the individual child, instructors may find such milestones a useful guide when setting a minimum age. I would suspect that if someone is reading this and thinking 'I know someone who started at 3 and got a black belt' that one of two things applies, either the child is the offspring of the instructor (which may put a different slant on things) or the 'black belt' is not from an association with proper standards. Looking back at the evidence, the famous names in martial arts had all begun above the age of 6, yet the evidence from the instructors' survey clearly shows that 5 is a good age to begin in order to progress to black belt. These factors can slow down the progress of the younger child and although they catch up eventually, they may become bored in the process and give up.
A contemporary starting a year or two later would achieve the same standard much more quickly without time for boredom to set in. A significant amount of success in reaching black belt was shown with 5 year olds, (similar to that of 6 and 7 year olds).
Could it be that a slightly later start, above 6 or 7 would give a child a better chance of continuing into adulthood?

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