It’s practically a rite of passage for American kids to don a white robe and belt and karate chop a board. Martial arts are known to improve muscle strength, flexibility, cognition, confidence and self-awareness. But research from the American Academy of Pediatrics warns that the 6.5 million kids in the U.S. who participate in sparring forms of sports like karate and taekwondo are at a higher risk of serious injury, including concussions.
Other sports studied included judo, Muay (moy) Thai, mixed martial arts, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and kung fu. Injury rates varied based on age, gender and experience level, but all involve kicking and punching, and the recommendations that came out of the study were relatively the same.
Head protection such as face guards and soft helmets haven’t been proven to prevent concussions, according to the AAP. In fact, wearing headgear may give kids a false sense of security, causing them to push their own limits and injure themselves.
So what’s the parent of a karate-kicking kid to do?
The academy recommends keeping young children out of sparring forms of martial arts and for parents to consider whether he or she is physically and emotionally mature enough to handle the sport. Also, limit the amount of training. One study showed that kids under 18 doubled their risk of injury with every two additional hours of practice per week after the first three hours.
As for the sports themselves, the study suggests organizers no longer award extra points for head kicks in taekwondo. Better blocking skills also should be stressed.
With some reforms, martial arts can continue to be character-building, but less dangerous for young participants.