In the early years of martial arts in America, training was the realm of men - typically military trained men coming back from being stationed in Asia. Military arts taught to military men trained in a militaristic way.
Culturally, martial arts remained a male-oriented fringe activity for many years. As a pastime, it only began to receive major attention in the seventies with the emergence of Bruce Lee - and was awarded a surge in popularity with the 1984 release of The Karate Kid. Suddenly, martial arts schools - with wooden floors, hard-nosed instruction, and that pervasive smell of feet - were flooded with kids.
And worse than kids... GIRLS! Ewwwww!
At ABD Norwich though, the "boys only" thing is not in effect - which is great for a few reasons. First, girls need martial arts training as much as boys... ask any father of a teenage daughter. Secondly, girls at that age take training seriously. If there are boys in class that aren't working hard enough, the girls let them know about it. In terms of maturity, girls that age generally seem to be able to focus better than their scabby-knee'd counterparts.
Often, there are more girls in our classes than boys. But it wasn't always like that.
When she came back, she was an early teenager in most senses of the word; quiet, shy, less than outgoing. Though she had a good amount of martial arts experience already, she opted to start over at white belt, believing that her skills had accumulated too much rust. Pretty mature decision for a thirteen year old, if you ask me.
What she lacked in confidence, she made up for with hard work. At thirteen, she was just a little too old for the kids class, so was thrust into the no-nonsense adult program. Honestly, I don't think I heard her speak during her first four years of training. She'd just show up, train hard, and leave. Many of the teens in class were there to socialize, but not Kayla. If she had a personality, I had yet to glimpse it. But her work ethic was obvious.
One story I still love to tell involves a youth-only tournament we attended as a school. Kayla signed up for the female division but we were told no other girls had shown up. The director was on the verge of refunding her parents when I requested she be placed in the boys division.
"Are you sure? Advanced teenage boys is a very competitive ring."
"Yes, totally. Boys division is fine."
If Kayla was nervous (or happy, or anything else) about it, I couldn't tell. She just said "Yes Sir", and put on her gloves. Twenty minutes later, she had won the sparring division with her direct and aggressive punching style - leaving at least one of her male opponents in tears. Not proud of it, just saying.* She took her trophy and left immediately.
I was happy to see that she had a voice, but was a little reluctant. Teaching kids is a verbal job, requiring public speaking and dynamic communication ability. If you're shy, you need to get over it quick. I had no real insight on Kayla's personality... but she had that work ethic. If she could apply herself to teaching as much as she did to training, big things were possible. I asked her to start Monday at 3:30.
That was almost five years ago. It wasn't easy. She was as natural to public speaking as Chuck Norris was to, you know, acting. Which is not very. But the work ethic... you can never count out those willing to work for it. It wasn't quick and not always fun, but sheer persistence pays off. Before too long, she was teaching classes by herself. I think being in front of an audience came far harder for her than, say, fighting a bracket of teenage boys, but there she was, controlling and teaching up to thirty kids at once. It was a great victory.
"Sensei Fritz", as she's known now, has transformed the kids classes. She'll tell you, as any good sensei would, that teaching martial arts is 20% ability and 80% leading by example. And she has lots of little eyes on her, little girls' eyes, watching her be a strong and confident leader. It's no fluke that nine-year-old girls in her classes become self-assured and empowered after training for even a short amount of time. They don't need to look to the movies (i.e. Lindsay Lohan) or TV (i.e. Britney Spears) for role models. They have a real-life one right in front of them, here in Norwich.
Is martial arts training for boys? Yes. For girls? Yes! And there is living proof right here in Norwich, Connecticut!
*okay, a little proud of it.