KICK AWAY THAT STRESS

(originally published in the Winter 2007 issue of ATA World magazine)

By John Geary

Charles Mayo, founder of the world-famous Mayo clinic, is credited with saying, “Worry and stress affects the circulation, the heart, the glands, the whole nervous system, and profoundly affects heart action.”

He’s not just blowing smoke. Statistics back up his convictions that stress has a definite impact on a person’s health, disturbing or interfering with the normal physiological physical, mental, and emotional health of a human being.

Adults face constant stress in the workplace. The website www.poweroverstress.com, estimates that stress can cost industry more than $200 billion dollars annually; it can also account for up to 85 per cent of workplace accidents.

Youngsters also deal with day-to-day stress. A survey on www.kidshealth.org shows that they routinely worry about at least five different aspects of their lives: grades, school, and homework, 36 per cent; family issues, 32 per cent; issues about friends, 21 per cent; sibling concerns, 20 per cent; and mean or annoying people (i.e., bullies), 20 per cent.

Given the statistics above, it is apparent that everyone feels stress, from the oldest adult, down to the youngest, smallest baby.

So what’s a youngster to do in order to maintain a healthy, happy life? While it may be easy to find information demonstrating the negative influences stress can produce, finding appropriate ways to deal with stress can be a much more difficult task

If you’re reading this magazine, there’s a good chance you’ve already taken positive steps to deal with your stress: you’ve taken up Taekwondo.

Study after study indicates that many forms of physical exercise go a long way toward de-stressing your life. People use jogging, swimming, cycling and other forms of exercise to help de-stress their lives.

Victoria Moran, motivational speaker and author of Fat, Broke & Lonely No More, says doing a physical activity like Taekwondo is almost like “standing up to the stress.”

“Instead of sitting around worrying about something, you use your body to get rid of that stress,” she says. “Your outlook is better, your thinking is clearer, and you can function better.”

Many of the activities listed above only provide physical outlets, however. While many people experience a certain “feel-good” aspect after participating in physical exercise, there is evidence that martial arts like Taekwondo take it a step further, by providing a type of training that goes beyond the mere physical.

In a study presented at the 2003 International Conference on Education in Athens, Greece, the authors reported that they found martial arts training contributes to mood enhancement in significant ways. They speculated that this came about as a result of the physical exercise that releases endorphins (hormones present in human bodies that reduce the sensation of pain and affect emotions) combined with the mental training that helps empower martial arts students.

Taekwondo teaches discipline, respect and confidence. Having confidence, both inside and outside the Do-jahng, can go a long way toward reducing stress.

“If they believe they can overcome any challenge, they may worry a bit, but they won’t be afraid they can’t do it, because they have the tools to deal with it,” says Pablo Lopez, instructor at the Charlotte ATA Black Belt Academy, and a fifth degree black belt.

“There are two aspects to the training: the physical part, self-defence and physical fitness. When a kid knows self-defence, it gives more self-confidence. The physical fitness helps with self-discipline.

“The mental part helps teach focus and concentration.”

Combine the two, he says, and a youngster can develop a winning attitude, not just in the Do-jahng, but in every aspect of life.

CONFIDENCE A KEY

Confidence, he says, can go a long way toward eliminating worry. One of the best ways to gain confidence is to approach something new one step at a time. If you practice it gradually, learning to perform one aspect before moving on to another, you will build confidence that you can accomplish it.

This applies to something like trying to break a board.

“If I ask a kid to do break a board, using a high kick, let’s say, a blue board,” says Lopez, “but the kid says, ‘No, Mr. Lopez, a blue board is too hard,’ he has not enough confidence.

“He may not break it at first, but if he keeps trying, if he practices, he will eventually break the board and build his confidence, and he will believe he can do it.”

In other words, you don’t start out trying to break a blue board, or several boards, or a brick, all at once. You start out learning how to break one board, and build up both the skill to do it, and as that skill increases, the confidence to perform that task increases.

That same approach applies not just to Taekwondo, but also work in other aspects of life, such as dealing with school assignments, concerns about family, friends and even other people who may not be so friendly. Approaching any problem gradually can help bring about a successful and positive resolution. And if you approach any situation with an inner confidence developed through the practice of Taekwondo, you will feel less stress about any new or unusual situation.

“The same confidence you build learning to break a board, you can transfer to other areas of your life,” says Lopez.

He has seen that happen in many of his students, who have found Taekwondo has helped them deal with stress.

Nine-year-old Tristan Broome, started practicing Taekwondo in the summer of 2007, says, “It helps take my mind off (upcoming school) tests so I don’t worry about them.”

Ka’Rin Long, an 11-year-old who also started doing Taekwondo in 2007, says practicing is a good stress reliever for her.

“When I get home with something bad on my mind, and I don’t want to think about it any more, I do some Taekwondo moves, and it helps relax me and get it off my mind.”

Ilana Gendelman has been practicing Taekwondo for a little more than one year, and she applies what she has learned in the Do-jahng to many situations.

“I know now when I set my mind to something, I can really do it, rather than worry about it,” she says. “If I don’t get something right away, I’ll just sit down, take my time and learn it.”

CONFIDENCE AIDS COMMUNICATION

Building confidence can also help not only in performing individual tasks, but also in the way we relate and communicate with people. It can turn what might be a negative interaction or experience into a positive one.

“For example, if we have 30 spots on the floor, maybe someone always likes to go to one particular spot,” says Lopez. “But maybe one time someone else will go to the spot you want, and you’ll say, ‘Hey you took my spot!’ and get very upset about it.

“But we have plenty of spots – it’s no big deal, if someone takes the spot you wanted; there are still plenty of other spots, and one’s just as good as the other. So instead of getting upset, a confident person will either go to another sport, or be courteous and respectful and ask politely if he can have that spot.”

In other words, in the long run, worrying about a spot on the floor is not something to be stressed about, not worth causing difficult feelings with another person.

This is an example of how the use of clear, courteous communication keeps stress levels lower.

“They need to learn how to communicate, and confidence is very important when it comes to communication,” says Master David Berry, of ATA Martial Arts of The Woodlands/Spring, Texas. “The more confidence they have, the better they’ll be at communicating.”

STRESS CAN BE USED POSITIVELY

Not all stress is “bad.” Take peer pressure, for example. There is always a certain amount of pressure from friends at school, or in social situations. And although we always hear about how peer pressure can influence youngsters to behave in undesirable ways, it can sometimes do the opposite, if handled properly.

“For example, if I have 40 kids in a class, no one in that group will want to be the only one to do a particular task, or try a new move, and say, ‘Sir, I don’t believe I can do it,’ when the other 39 all say, ‘Sir, I believe I can do it’,” says Lopez.

Practising positive skills development - whether it’s in Taekwondo, schoolwork or the way we relate to people in our lives - involves developing good habits. Once confidence is built, bad habits – like quitting if a task is more difficult than originally thought – often disappear.

 BREATH CONTROL

Another feature of Taekwondo that can help control stress is breathing. Proper breathing and control of how and when you breathe is an important part of martial arts training. It can be even more important if you’re feeling too much stress.

“When you get really wound up, you need to think before you act, if you learn how to breathe, you can calm yourself down, and not get stressed out,” says Berry.

Just like building confidence, learning how to breathe as part of martial arts training can become an unconscious part of your life, something you do without thinking, “I’m going to breathe, now.”

Melyssa St. Michael is an Arkansas-based personal trainer with experience training mixed martial artists as well as the author of a number of fitness books. She says breathing can play a huge role in controlling stress.

 “Kids tend to breathe more shallowly,” she says. “Learning diaphragmatic (deep, slow, controlled) breathing - the kind you need to do to kick properly - helps lowers blood pressure.”

One of the things young ATA students can do that will help them with their breathing - and subsequently help them deal with stress - is to learn body and mind awareness.

If you are more conscious of your breath, you will be able to control it better and learn to sense when you’re getting tense by realizing you’re breathing is becoming shallower, often a sign of increasing stress. That awareness can also help you to learn to recognize your body’s tension when it starts to build, and defuse it before the stress becomes too much to handle.

St. Michael also says the use of your voice to expel your breath when you perform a kick or a strike helps relieve stress, in a controlled manner.

As for mind awareness, that involves knowing what is going on inside yourself in a situation, rather than worrying about what is going on inside someone else.

This all helps you learn to act, rather than react in a stressful situation.

“Reaction is an uncontrolled response, and it’s important to develop controlled response to situations,” says St. Michael. “It’s important to use a five-second rule: before you say or do anything, take some deep breaths, count to five and check inside to see what you’re feeling inside.”

All this comes with the discipline of repeated practice.

Due to its combination of both physical and mental exercise, participating in Taekwondo is itself a good stress reliever. Focusing on martial art practice helps develop an ability to focus and concentrate, which can certainly pay dividends when it comes to schoolwork. When the kind of focus needed for Taekwondo is applied to schoolwork, success usually follows, and with it the reduction of worry.

St. Michael says exercises like Taekwondo, that use large muscle groups and require high levels of oxygen, are huge natural stress relievers on a biochemical level.

“When you’re practicing martial arts, you’re forcing your body to get rid of stress, because your body has to focus all its energy and effort into moving the way you’re required to in the activity,” she says.

Techniques and practices aside, just being part of something like an ATA school can also help.

“It helps a kid who may feel stressed out that he or she belongs,” says Berry.

RISE TO THE LIFELONG CHALLENGE

The techniques for dealing with stress are not short-term solutions. Learning them and practicing them regularly is a lifelong process.

“Something is always stressing you,” says Moran. You can’t get something that’s stressing you out of the way, then go back to ‘normal’ – because what’s normal is to always have something stressing you.”

Life is full of challenges, and challenges can be stressful. But dealing with them can be a positive experience or a negative experience, depending on your attitude.

“You can see the challenge as an obstacle, or you can see it as an opportunity to succeed,” says Lopez.

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(SIDEBAR) WHAT CAN PARENTS DO?

Parents can help children deal with stress in some very simple ways.

Be supportive. Encourage your children to do their best. If they give their best effort, praise them for that, even if they don’t get a perfect score, write a perfect essay or have a perfect tournament. It’s important they understand that an honest effort is appreciated – not just the end result.

 “If they don’t get 100 per cent, they can still feel good about their effort and shoot for it the next time,” says Lopez.

“You have to compliment your kid, praise them for positive behavior,” says Berry. “They have to feel like they’re making some accomplishment. If they don’t get that from the parents, they may look elsewhere.”

If a family is a “split” family – the mother and father are separated – Berry says he “encourages both parents to continue to bring the child to class, to help do away with the stress.”

Because parents have their own stress, it is important they learn positive ways to deal with that, so their adult stresses are not transferred to their children.

“If parents don’t know how to handle their own stress, it seems like it would be impossible for them to try to teach their kids how to handle it,” says Berry.