With more children punching and kicking each other in the name of mixed-martial arts, the results are inevitable: More kids are getting hurt, doctors say.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — With more children punching and kicking each other in the name of mixed-martial arts, the results are inevitable: More kids are getting hurt, doctors say.
Mixed-martial arts, or MMA, is a sport that includes boxing, judo, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, muay thai and grappling. Whether they just want to learn self-defense or emulate the pros they see fighting on TV, kids are taking on two or more of the disciplines at one time, which demands a wide variety of skills and can lead to wear and tear, says Dr. Jeremy Frank, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital in Hollywood, Fla.
"It's a matter of knowing when enough is enough and not overtraining," Frank says.
Frank, a former wrestler, said he's not against mixed-martial arts. He just wants parents to make sure their kids aren't doing too much, too soon, whether it's MMA or simply vying for the next color of martial arts belt.
"It doesn't matter what sport you're doing, it needs to be a gradual increase in practice and intensity and skills learned," he says. "In baseball, basketball, soccer, whatever, you're going to get injured if you do too much, too soon."
Children's participation in martial arts has grown about 10 percent since MMA came onto the scene, says Mike May of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. The group has not logged MMA participation, but will do so in this year's survey, he says.
"It's definitely growing, that's why we'll start tracking it," he says.
The learning curve for MMA can begin as young as preschool-age. At this age, very few have their eyes on becoming the next Brock Lesnar or other MMA star. They're more likely to be doing martial arts to learn about respect, focus and self-defense.
Starting young is key because children are "empty vessels," says Howard Davis Jr., boxing coach for American Top Team, which is headquartered in Coconut Creek, Fla., and has 33 locations nationwide.
"You teach a child to hold their hands near their face for protection and the next lesson the hands are still there," says Davis, a gold-medal winner in the 1976 Olympics. "A 30-year-old man will have preconceived notions, so they tend to do what they think more, rather than follow instructions."
Kate David's sons, Chris, 9, and Nathan, 6, learn karate, judo and jiu jitsu three days a week at American Top Team. They are among the 20 kids who line up in front of their six instructors and bow before and after class. They learn about posture and how to fall without hurting themselves.
The course is called "mixed martial arts," but it's nothing like the cage-fighting that's shown on TV. It's more about self-defense skills that can be used for a lifetime, she says.
"Sometimes the neighbors don't understand when I tell them my children take MMA, but if they'd watch the class for an hour, they'd understand," says David, of Coral Springs, Fla. "Neither one of my sons could name a single MMA fighter."
American Top Team owner Ricardo Liborio points out that Florida law bans anyone younger than 18 from participating in a mixed-martial arts cage bout, though there are martial-arts, grappling and other competitions for kids. So there is a natural progression that prevents children from doing too much, too soon, he says.
"You'll see kids doing (these) events, but not kids punching each other in the face," he says.
Older kids start upping their game, adding more facets of MMA as they approach legal age.
"As the kids get older, MMA keeps martial-arts kids involved," says Rob Hartman, co-owner of USA Kenpo Karate in Coral Springs. "It's the next step, the bridge into adulthood."
Nationwide, there has been an increase in children injured from overtraining — whatever the sport, says David Sandler, director of education for the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
"More participants are getting engaged at a younger age and their level of sport is increasing," he says. "They're working at a much higher pace that they're not ready for. Other than trauma, the injuries are coming from overtraining and over-expectation.
"And with mixed-martial arts, by nature, what's happening is you need 12 days in a week and you only have seven and you can't have one for recovery because you can't afford to miss a day of training."
He advocates strength, power and speed training "to learn to overtake an opponent rather than being a punching bag."
While the sport obviously has traumatic injuries with the mature athletes, such as fractures, Davis argues that younger children usually don't hit hard enough to cause the instantaneous damage you see in TV fights. But Frank, the pediatric orthopedist, warns that trauma injuries can have a greater effect on kids.
"If they break a bone, that surgery is different than what you'd do on adults because of growth plates," Frank says. "And if a child tears a ligament, say an ACL, you can't do the reconstruction on adults that you'd do on a kid. It would affect their growth."
But Frank wants to be clear: MMA is OK, if ...
"It's just a matter of being well-instructed, careful and cautious," he says. "Just like anything else you do."