Andy Jeffries

Bullying: Children and the martial arts.

I think most people that know me are aware I got started in Taekwondo because I was being bullied at school. I was bullied in junior school (6–11 years old ish) and was bullied from 11–13 years old at senior school (even though I was told that it would be a different group of kids, the bullies from junior school weren’t going to be there).

So, I have a deep understanding of what it’s like to be bullied and to be helpless. And because I started Taekwondo at the age of 12 I know what it’s like to over time feel more confident and be bullied less. So I wanted to cover some of the myths of bullying, the advice that people often give bullying victims and how martial arts training can help.

“Just hit them back!”

This is probably the most common piece of advice given by parents, older brothers, uncles etc of bullying victims. Their reasoning is that if you can hit them really hard, they’ll be in pain/embarrassed and the bullying will stop. The reality is that the victim may well agree with you, but likely won’t do it. The reasoning is simple; in their mind there are two outcomes for this — 1) they won’t hit the bully hard enough and then will get hurt even worse for trying, 2) they’ll hit the bully hard but in the wrong place (e.g. chest) and they will get hurt worse for even trying or 3) they’ll hit the bully hard, in a good place (e.g. face) but will hurt their hand and at a later point the bully will come back for revenge and hurt them even worse.

You see how in the victim’s mind, this is not a good strategy, all roads end in Morepainville! So why do people give this advice? The reason comes down to the mind set of the victim and how this is not understood by non-victims which leads me in to…

“Just act confident and they’ll leave you alone!”

In the same way as African Americans can get away with using the “N word” with each other, as an alumni of the Bullying Victims Association I’m officially allowed to say this — bullying is a joint endeavour between the victim and the bully. Bullies naturally pick up on the confidence level of victims, sensing who is least likely to fight back — and who they can use to inflate their egos (generally in front of others).

For there to be a bullying situation there needs to be at least two people — someone willing to bully another person, and someone who doesn’t have the self-confidence to not be a victim.

So, this seems like sound advice — right? Wrong! The reason is that unless the victim is an Emmy-nominated actor, they simply won’t be convincing. And this is even better for the bully because now they get to confront someone who appears to be strong and confident, but in reality will fold, the same as they have before (and remember no one gives this advice to people who aren’t already being bullied).

“Tell a teacher/an adult”

This is one of the more sound pieces of advice. The victim is inherently being hurt (mentally or physically) by someone else and the nature of telling an adult will stop the problem. But here’s the unwritten part of that sentence “…until that adult is no longer around”.

I can tell you from very emotional personal experience that bullies often don’t walk up and hit you in front of the “dinner ladies”, “teachers” or any other helpers. They do it when you’re walking between classes, or out on the field — or even worse on your way home. Once when I told the teachers I was getting hit on the way home (and kicked off my bike) the teacher’s response was “we can’t do anything about it, it’s not happening on school property”.

And then there’s the knock-on effect. Let’s say that it happens at lunch time at school, the victim tells a teacher. The teacher then comes over and speaks to the bully and the other children around. The bully denies it (of course, for someone whose general acts are physical violence, lying is a much more minor crime). The others around generally fall in to one of a few camps: the bully’s friends, independents who don’t want to become a victim or independents who simply don’t want to become involved. So there’ll be a round of “[the victim] started it” or “I didn’t see anything, I was looking over there…”. So now the bully got off scot-free and is angry that the victim got someone else involved — so yet more pain.

“You need to learn self-defence, here, let me teach you some tips!”

This is getting closer to good advice — but even from a highly qualified martial arts instructor this “teach you some tips” attitude won’t help. The reason is that the root cause of being a bullying victim is not the lack of knowledge on how to hit someone. Sure, there are plenty of ways of using the human body to hit or hurt someone in such a way that the effort required is magnified to a larger extent.

But we’re pretty much all built with the rough knowledge of how to clench a fist (there are mistakes, but it won’t matter for one punch on one day) and how to ram it in another persons face as fast as you can. No amount of “tips” will suddenly give a victim the confidence to do it — or the outward self-confidence that the bully can pick up on that will make them think twice about making them do it.

So, let’s say they learn a more advanced tip, but the nature of that technique working is that it’s done quickly and smoothly — which takes many executions of practice, not just a half an hour with an uncle/father that “learnt some martial arts a while ago”.

So how does martial arts under a qualified instructor help?

The primary way it helps is that regularly practicing the martial arts will give them the self-confidence to not need it. Martial artists feel an inner confidence from knowing that they’ve spent many hours practicing each move, that it’s powerful and swift. There may be better techniques (there’s always more to learn, even at my current Taekwondo 7th Dan level) but there comes a point where you know enough to think “I may get hurt, but I KNOW they’ll get hurt if they try it!”.

And having that inward self-confidence projects outwards. The timid/shy persona that bullies are attracted to like sharks sensing blood in the water gradually fades away.

The other side is that during most martial arts practice there is an element of contact and combat. This means that students have had to learn distance, timing and — most importantly for bullying — that taking a hit isn’t necessarily incapacitating. When you aren’t used to being hit, the slightest impact feels like the end of the world. When you’re the other side of at least 10 accidental kicks between the legs suddenly you realise that actually you can ignore pain temporarily.

This is one of the problems with most women’s self-defence classes (at least up until about 10 years ago, admittedly I haven’t witness one recently) — they advocate kicking a male attacker between the legs. The problem is that if it’s your first time at receiving that kind of touch, it feels like your world’s ending and your stomach’s on fire. A few times down the road you learn to think that “I’ve got about 30 seconds before that deep ache settles in, so I’m going to make you pay for it during those 30 seconds”.

So, which martial art should I choose?

The simple answer here is that my advice would be to do some research, consider which clubs are in the area, how much experience the instructor has — and then most importantly to visit the club and speak to them/watch a class.

Personally I try to be as highly qualified as I can, but there’s no substitute for seeing our students in action and experiencing it for yourself.

So, now I’ve put the seed in your mind and you’re tempted but worried about joining; remember that all beginners are nervous and that we’ve all been there. In fact I wrote a whole article about being a martial arts beginner!