With more than 300 members, True Martial Arts, opened in 2009, sees people signing up as young as age 4 to adults in their 50s and 60s.
Martial arts can help teach youth how to defend themselves against bullying. They improve self-esteem, learn discipline and build physical strength, among other traits, while practicing the sport in a safe and supportive environment.
“I love to see the brand of confidence that it gives somebody,” says Matt Sikora, owner and founder of West Bloomfield’s True Martial Arts, which offers regular anti-bullying programming.
“They can walk with their head held up high that they are confident and that if anything were to happen to them, they could defend themselves.”
Teaching kids how to be mentally and physically resilient, especially against bullying, has long been a building block of the Jewish-owned martial arts school, which teaches everything from karate to Krav Maga, a form of self-defense developed by the Israeli Defense Forces.
With more than 300 members, True Martial Arts, opened in 2009, sees people signing up as young as age 4 to adults in their 50s and 60s. “We provide great self-defense training and character building-type training,” Sikora, 35, of Birmingham, says. “Martial arts is very autonomous.”
People sign up for the sport for a variety of reasons, he explains, from parents wanting their children to build confidence to kids struggling with discipline or behavioral issues who need extra support. Others simply do it for fun and socialization, or for the physical health benefits.
Martial Arts and Anti-Bullying Efforts
Sikora, like many other youth who gravitate toward the sport at a young age, has been practicing martial arts since he was 5. “I grew up as a very serious martial artist,” he says. After receiving a business degree from Michigan State University, he decided to follow his passion by opening True Martial Arts as a place to teach the ancient practice to others in the community.
In his more than 10 years of teaching martial arts, Sikora has noticed firsthand the impact the sport has on people, especially on youth who may be experiencing bullying directly or indirectly.
“I really fell in love with martial arts,” he says, “and then later really fell in love with the results that we’re seeing in our students and the impact that we’re making.”
Multiple parents have come forward, he says, explaining that martial arts have helped their children navigate bullying. While self-defense should always be used as a last resort, Sikora explains that by practicing the sport, youth gain enough confidence to simply use their voices.
Using their voice is part of an “anti-bullying pledge” that True Martial Arts encourages students to take as an effort to prevent and reduce bullying. The pledge includes promising not to display bullying behaviors, while also making a commitment to stand up if it happens to others.
Challenging the Status Quo
As part of the international organization Martial Artists Against Bullying, which aims to raise awareness for bullying worldwide, True Martial Arts has woven anti-bullying messaging and techniques into their everyday programming.
“Our focus is to make a cultural shift in the way that people think about bullying and to make sure that kids understand it’s not cool,” Sikora says. “It’s OK to report it when you see it happening.”
By role-playing common bullying scenarios, True Martial Arts practices “five rules of personal safety” within their anti-bullying curriculum. The rules include: use your mind, use your words, use your legs, ask for help and defend yourself.
“Hopefully, it never ends with self-defense,” Sikora explains, “but they can step into the situation with the confidence that if it were to go in that direction, that they have tools to protect themselves.”
True Martial Arts hosted a “Buddies Against Bullying” class on Oct. 30 as part of Bullying Prevention Month. There, youth learned how to overcome harassment, defuse situations and defend themselves, if necessary.
Yet the event is just one of many efforts put on by the martial arts school, which also partakes in speaking engagements, school assemblies and works with West Bloomfield’s Temple Shir Shalom, where Sikora belongs, to teach self-defense classes.
“Bullying often happens in the shadows,” he explains. “If students witness this happening, and the majority of people stand up and say something or don’t put up with that kind of behavior, then it’s less likely to happen.
“More kids will have each other’s backs,” he continues. “And that’s what we really want people to take from the program.”