Kids and MMA: Review and Commentary on ESPN's Outside the Lines Piece

David Mayeda@@davemayedaAnalyst IJuly 25, 2008

(Note: This article was originally posted on MMA: Review and Commentary on ESPN’s Outside the Lines Piece">

A Review
As many of you may know, ESPN’s Outside the Lines (OTL) recently aired a story on kids and mixed martial arts (MMA). Since this was a topic Dave Ching and I tackled in our book, I thought I had an obligation to comment on various aspects of the story and bring in perspectives from (1) some of the men we interviewed; and (2) some of the applicable background research we conducted.

To begin with, I feel the OTL story was very well-done and showcased a variety of methods by which instructors may teach children MMA (or certain aspects of it). The OTL piece is a three-part documentary (about 11 minutes), followed by a short debate between Dan Doyle and mixed martial artist Frank Shamrock. Both the story and the debate can be seen HERE.

The OTL documentary begins by showcasing a gym in Southern California that teaches children MMA, and by this I mean almost full MMA. The instructor reportedly allows the child participants to spar with small MMA gloves in only their second class. Children in his class are shown sparring, frequently with no headgear, and some kids are said to be as young as 6 years old.

Within this section of the story, MMA kids tournaments are also shown in which the “watered down” MMA rules only prohibit elbows, knees to the head, and punching above the collar bone.

Children were shown crying, being kicked to the mid-section, and being punched—again with small MMA gloves and no headgear. Yes, parents, coaches, and referees were present. I was appalled.

The second part of the story overviews an alternative method by which children are taught aspects of MMA in which the youthful students essentially play with each other and their instructor.

Again, for the most part, no headgear is worn, but that is because in this example, the youth participants are not allowed to strike each other at all. In striking drills, there is literally no physical contact.

Strikes, wrestling, and jiu-jitsu moves are taught, along with what appear to be fun reaction drills. However, when “sparring” takes place, contact is forbidden. The instructor in this portion of the OTL documentary states the children’s tournaments from the first part are abusive.

In the third part of the documentary (click HERE for written piece), a 14-year-old MMA sensation is profiled, named Drake Dudley, who has been learning various MMA disciplines since he was 4 years old through his father, Kirk, and schools where Kirk takes his son.

Drake has amassed a lifetime record of 403-63, including amateur wrestling, jiu-jitsu, boxing, and MMA matches. Drake is shown boxing, but with bigger boxing gloves and wearing headgear. And while I disagree with any boxing for children in which head strikes are allowed (even with headgear), Drake and his father appear to have a great relationship. It is clear Kirk takes a great interest in his son and spends quality time with him.


What Mixed Martial Artists have to Say about Kids and MMA
In our interviews for Fighting for Acceptance, we asked amateur and professional mixed martial artists whether or not they felt it was appropriate for kids in high school to learn and compete in MMA (we didn’t even think teaching young children full MMA would be an issue).

Overwhelmingly, the interviewees felt MMA would be inappropriate for high school students. Below are some of their perspectives (some taken from our book, and some that did not make it into the text).

Professional Mixed Martial Artist Bao Quach (Irvine, Calif.)
Interviewer: What’s your opinion on MMA becoming a high school sport?
Quach: I don’t think that’d be a good idea (laughs). In MMA, there’s a lot of joint locks and stuff, and I don’t think it would be too smart to put that in school, you know. People in high school are still young, and I don’t think they’re always smart enough to know like, you know...make (their) own decisions...some kid can probably kill some other kid on the street, and not know.

Mixed Martial Arts instructor Chris Onzuka (Aiea, Hawaii)

Onzuka: ... young kids that box very young, they think it’s safe ‘cause they wear headgear in the ring. They’re wearing big mitts. They can still get head trauma even if they’re wearing head gear. Anything that hits the head, it snaps their neck back. It’s gonna cause some damage. And cumulative damage is the key to anything. I mean Muhammad Ali would be the prime example. I mean that guy, he did the rope-a-dope, you know how much times did that guy really get hit in the head as much as he should have? I mean if that guy can have that, then anybody can have that. I don’t mind having kids fight, but at a certain age, definitely not very small children.

Professional Mixed Martial Artist Travis Lutter (Fort Worth, Texas)
Interviewer: How do you feel about MMA studios training kids?
Lutter: I’m not in favor of it at all. There’s no reason for a kid to train MMA. You know, it’s like, kids don’t have the control. Granted, they don’t hit very hard, but those gloves are really little. And you don’t know, it’s like the effects of soccer. Those kids using their head, you know the brain trauma that happens to those kids’s like, I go to jiu-jitsu competitions where they have kids, and I won’t take my son for the simple reason, losing is such a big deal. And these kids cry and they don’t understand.

Professional Mixed Martial Artist Jason “MayheM” Miller (Hollywood, Calif.)
Interviewer: Do you think it should be a high school sport?
Miller: I think jiu-jitsu could be a wrestling type combination, like tappin’ each other out and that kind of thing ... But like, it would be harder to have MMA with like kicks to the head and that kind of thing. Man, you’d hurt each other.

Professional Mixed Martial Artist Quinton “Rampage” Jackson (Irvine, Calif.)
Interviewer: What do you think about mixed martial arts becoming a high school sport?
Jackson: I just don’t feel like it should be a high school sport. You know, it’s still kind of like fighting. Wrestling is kinda like fighting without punches, but MMA is fighting with punches. Parents won’t be able to, won’t want to see their kids come home with black eyes, and it shouldn’t be a high school sport. It should be something you choose after you turn 18. Cause you can’t be a professional fighter unless you (are) 18. So it shouldn’t be a high school sport at all. That’s ridiculous.

Professional Mixed Martial Artist Dan Henderson (Temecula, Calif.)
Interviewer: So how would you feel about MMA becoming a high school sport?
Henderson: It would probably be a little tough to make it a high school sport. The way it is, I think it’s more of an older person’s sport as far as the striking goes. I think if you can structure it to somehow change the rules a little bit, it could be a high school sport.
Interviewer: What type of rule changes?
Henderson: More of a submission wrestling, but maybe you can add strikes to the body.

Mixed Martial Arts instructor Michael Frison (Irvine, Calif.)
Interviewer: What are those values that you really promote? And how do you promote them (for kids classes)?
Frison: Well, we have what we call a “Star Program.” It’s integrated into their belt ranking. So, they do things like, they have to do chores at home. They have to get good grades. They have to read a certain amount of books. If they don’t, they don’t get promoted. And one of the things is, a lot of the kids will do anything for the belt. And, plus just the attitude, every single day we talk about the class. We spend 10 minutes of the class talking about what it is to be a martial artist. And not only what it is to be a martial artist when you’re in here boxing and when you’re competing, but also in your day-to-day life. You know, respect, respect for your elders. You know, just generally how to be a good person.
Interviewer: Do you feel the MMA community should have a responsibility in promoting that kind of education?
Frison: Yeah, I do. I think it’s an easy task to take responsibility.

Professional Mixed Martial Artist Antonio McKee (Lakewood, Calif.)
Interviewer: Do (MMA) gyms teach kids the right values?
McKee: ... when I’m teaching (kids), and the way that I’m working with them, I let them know that hey, this is serious. This ain’t no joke. You can hurt somebody. If you put somebody in a headlock, and you’re squeezing and choking and laughing and kidding around, and you put this kid unconscious, and he has a brain spasm, he has a seizure and dies, now you got a murder case on your hands.


Some Brief Notes from the Sports Medicine Literature

As can be seen, the interviewees felt full MMA was inappropriate at the high school level, and if adolescents were to partake in MMA training and/or competitions, interviewees noted substantial precautions would need to be implemented—precautions far greater than the minor ones shown in the first part of the ESPN OTL documentary.

Another pattern in the interviewees’ quotes was the danger of striking to the head. As Chris Onzuka mentioned, “cumulative damage is the key to anything.” Onzuka is absolutely right. Medical research has shown that repetitive blows to the head over time cause chronic traumatic brain injury. It is a problem far too many adult boxers, footballs players, and hockey players must cope with as they get older. If children are starting to sustain head shots (with or without headgear and gloves), they are simply beginning the degenerative process earlier.

Furthermore, medical research has shown that youth are more likely to sustain a concussion when struck in the head because their neck muscles, brains, and bone structure (including their skulls) are not finished developing. In other words, the younger a child is, the easier it is for him or her to sustain a concussion from a blow to the head.

Moreover, after a child (or adult) has sustained a concussion, it is easier for him or her to sustain a subsequent one, even from a less acute blow, and subsequent concussions will have a greater chance of being more severe. The fallout of concussions are called “second-impact syndrome,” which can include residual concussive effects, such as being depressed, irritable and unable to concentrate (see here).

And it is not just concussions. Injuries to joints via submission holds are particularly precarious for children. Dr. Johnny Benjamin is Chairman of the Department of Orthopedics, Director of the Joint Implant Center and Director of Medical Specialty Procedures Surgery Center in Vero Beach, Florida. According to Dr. Benjamin, both joint and head injuries are especially dangerous for children. Says Dr. Benjamin (click HERE for full interview):

When we’re born, our skeleton is mostly cartilage – very, very plastic. Over time, the cartilage can ossify or those cartilage models turn into bone. I call that ossification – turning to bone. That becomes very, very strong. Then adolescence – 13, 14, 15, 16 years old – various cartilage models around the joints start turning into adult bone, which makes them much stronger. But, in little kids, that’s not the case.

So, what can happen is that you can snap that cartilage off of the interface where the bone is still cartilage – that can be snapped right off and that’s a growth plate.

The other thing I’d be very concerned about with kids – other than armbars and heel hooks, anything that can put pressure on a joint where you can snap the cartilage off of a joint or hurt the growth plate – is accumulation of blows to the head. Because, we really don’t understand concussions very well in adults. We definitely don’t understand it very well in a growing brain – a child.

Parents, coaches, and state legislators/sanctioning bodies need to know these facts regarding MMA and its dangers for all potential participants, but especially for children.

Social Considerations in Teaching Kids MMA

As Bao Quach noted, children are less apt to have the emotional maturity to learn full MMA. MMA is the closest thing to the complete sport of fighting. Obviously, it is not street fighting. MMA includes rules, a referee, and a sanitized structure that make it substantially different from street fighting. Still, there is obvious overlap.

In any sport, whether it be a team or individual sport (including combat sports), children need to learn the value of respect and the skills to effectively use peaceful conflict resolutions (see also newspaper editorial by David Mayeda, Chris Onzuka, and Mike Onzuka).

As Michael Frison and Antonio McKee advise, there is a bigger responsibility that comes with teaching MMA, and that lies in teaching positive values and preventing injury. When parents argue that by learning a combat sport, their child is learning to defend himself, the parents are missing a far more important perspective.

Parents, coaches, and mentors should be teaching children prevention, how to avoid potentially violent conflicts in the first place. Just as injury prevention is critical in sport, prevention from violence in the street or school is equally important.

I support MMA as an adult sport and the teaching of combat sports to emotionally and physically mature youth, provided the instruction is offered with major precautionary measures and in tandem with the development of pro-social values.

Let kids be kids, have fun, and not have such an extreme macho attitude that influences children to view violence as their primary outlet for problem solving.

David Mayeda, PhD, is lead author of Fighting for Acceptance: Mixed Martial Artists and Violence in American Society, a sociological and politically-based book based on interviews with 40 mixed martial arts athletes, including Antonio McKee, Randy Couture, Guy Mezger, “Rampage” Jackson, Chris Leben, Travis Lutter, Toby Grear, Cleburn Walker, and Frank Trigg. The book’s Foreword is written by Jason “MayheM” Miller.

(Photo by David Mayeda, of an adolescent being treated by emergency personnel after sustaining a roundhouse kick to the head in an amateur kickboxing competition. He was wearing headgear and still was knocked unconscious for several minutes).


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