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Mid-afternoon at Park Circle Jiu Jitsu’s spring break day camp, instructor Joseph Coker issued a challenge to a young fighter in the room.
“Max, I want you to pick a bigger guy to go with,” Coker said, singling out 5-year-old Max Kearse. “It can be a boy or a girl, anybody.”
Coker teaches Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a ground-fighting martial art that’s catching on as a youth sport in the Charleston area. Some studios, like Coker’s, start with students as young as 3 years old.
The discipline allows even the smallest competitors to subdue larger opponents with strategically placed holds rather than kicks or punches. In other words, Max could have a fighting chance against the 10-year-olds in his class — if he learns the right moves.
“It’s like pretending to fight, pretending there’s a bully,” Max said between sparring sessions.
Jiujitsu is useful for self-defense against bullying, Coker said. It’s also an opportunity to build character.
He pairs younger students with older ones for a reason. For the smaller partner in a grappling duo, it’s a chance to learn fearlessness. For the larger one, it’s a chance to learn empathy.
“Some of these kids need to lose in order to grow, and some of them need to try in order to grow,” Coker said.
Brazilian jiujitsu first entered the American imagination through the bare-knuckle spectacle of the Ultimate Fighting Championship in the 1990s, when mixed martial artist Royce Gracie used techniques from the discipline to defeat larger competitors from better-known disciplines such as kickboxing and karate.
Today, martial-arts studios specializing in jiu-jitsu have sprung up around the Charleston area, and many offer training for young students. Some place an emphasis on training for competition, while others like Coker’s lean more toward self-defense. For the youngest students, he’s teaching the bare basics — like how to fall properly and avoid an injury.
Trena Walker of North Charleston signed her son Myles up for Park Circle Jiu Jitsu when he was 3 years old “because he wanted to tussle so much,” but she said he ended up learning a lot about himself in the process. Myles is 8 now, and she sees the results when he goes to wrestle a girl in his class.
“He is able to handle the crowd cheering the little girl on, and even I do: ‘Show Myles, show him how it’s done!’” Walker said. “He is able to take it so graciously, and that has something to say about the way he’s been trained over the last five years.”
Co-ed classes are common, especially with younger ages. At Black Label Martial Arts, instructor Malachy Friedman said 80 percent of the students in his “Little Foxes” classes for 3- to 6-year-olds are girls. Girls as young as 10 have become dominant competitors in the boys’ division at regional jiujitsu tournaments. https://blacklabelmartialarts.com/
Friedman made his name as a jiujitsu wrestler before training well-regarded UFC fighters like Kimbo Slice and Hector Urbina. Now he trains everyone from toddlers to world-class competitors at his West Ashley studio. Coker is one of his adult students, too.
“Joseph has a great way of making his class very fun, but at the same time giving them a fundamental structure of how to move, how to catch themselves, how to balance. He disguises it very well,” Friedman said. “I’m more of the traditional sense. I’m really detail-oriented.”
Either way, Coker said, students can learn to walk with confidence.
“They learn to be OK in situations that aren’t OK,” Coker said.
Several martial-arts studios in the Charleston area offer Brazilian jiujitsu training for children. Here are a few options:
American Judo and Jiu Jitsu Academy (Summerville): Ages 4+
Black Label Martial Arts (West Ashley): Ages 3+
Blackforce Mixed Martial Arts & Fitness Academy (Summerville): Ages 5+
Checkmat Charleston BJJ (Mount Pleasant): Ages 5+
Devine Jiu Jitsu Charleston (James Island): Ages 4+
Park Circle Jiu Jitsu (North Charleston): Ages 3+
Tick-Tock Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (North Charleston): Ages 4+