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Combat Sports & Dyslexia

a group photo after iron manning Matt Olson for his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Brown belt in Tameside

This might be a long post, I don’t mean to tell you my life story, just to share my experiences particularly through school in a hope it may help someone else. If you have a child struggling at school, possibly acting up, or who is always down this post may be of some help. Many children with Dyslexia are diagnosed (and I’m sure some are misdiagnosed) with ADD & ADHD, being frustrated, unstimulated and downplayed constantly will make a childs attention wander. It’s a subject close to my heart, and a fact that although I am not ashamed of , I generally don’t share as many people do attach a stigma (ironic that I am now writing an internet blog post about the subject). Much of this post is just outlining how Dyslexia not only effects your reading and writing but memory, co-ordination but mainly your self-esteem and self-confidence (I have read that it can affect your organisation and time management skills. My time management is hotly contested, however I stand by it being good although some people may disagree).

Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty relating to reading and writing, there are other common traits that go with it but it does NOT relate to intelligence. The severity and way it effects each person is very different, it’s not that your brain doesn’t work it simply works differently. Having to use your brain slightly differently can give you strengths in other areas. Personally I have a keen interest for how things work and feel that understanding the mechanics of things for example, comes more easily to me. For each person this will be different, you could have a creative flare for art or music, you could have a profound insight into people but whatever your cognitive strengths are you should play to them.

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Let me start by saying I am extremely lucky. Through infant school I was slow to learn the alphabet, really slow, and off the back of that I was slow to learn pretty much everything else. To be honest I was too young to have many memories from this age but was generally a happy chatty normal(ish) child. The time came to move up to junior school,  and on starting at the new school (the school was straight across the road from my parents’ house) I was placed in a remedial class. There were some children in this class that had real problems, physically, socially and mentally. It’s not that my English wasn’t under par, it was, but my intelligence and abilities for all intents and purposes was perfectly reasonable for my age. So my parents moved me to a new school, a rather nice primary school in Trafford. My parents knew I wasn’t stupid, knew that I was articulate and intelligent (so far as any child). They started asking questions and trying to find out if there was something “wrong” with me. We went for some tests, saw some specialists and they concluded I was Dyslexic. I seem to recall that this was a fairly new, rare and misunderstood label. This was a huge relief for me. I wasn’t broken, I wasn’t retarded I was just different. My Parents got me extra help outside of school by way of a tutor for much of both primary and high school. By the time I came to sit my GCSE examinations Dyslexia was becoming better understood in schools. Luckily my high school was very good and allowed me extra time during my final exams, had it not been for this extra time I cannot say with any confidence that  I would have got into college to study at A-Level. The college were great, through some of my breaks and free periods I was given additional support. We tried different things to help me read faster with more accuracy, coloured paper, computer screens, glasses (the best solution actually being a ruler, or in the absence of one, a finger). My college exams were sat either with extra time and my final exams on a computer. As an adult I’m really lucky to have supportive people around me who can proof read nearly everything I write. Being born in this day and age is a godsend in itself, anyone who has read any first drafts I have written will attest to my writing accuracy being low. Spell check can only go so far as to find words spelled incorrectly, it doesn’t find missing words or the wrong words if spelled incorrectly. Having a low reading accuracy makes it really hard to find these sort of mistakes myself so having this support is invaluable and the technology to go back and make changes is life changing.

 

Co-ordination, there’s nothing a PE department seems to love more than a ball sport, Football, Table Tennis, Basketball, Cricket, Tennis even though it’s not a ball sport Badminton deserves a mention here. The only ball sport I was good at during school was Rugby and the only parts of Rugby I was good at didn’t involve the ball, mostly just the running and tackling. Through school I always enjoyed, and was fairly good at most pure athletic activities such as track and field, lifting weights, cycling but didn’t really excel enough to pursue them more. Below average co-ordination is possibly one of the reasons I never got more into striking but truth be told I never really liked hitting people, and enjoyed being hit even less. Training grappling the way we do is very forgiving of poor co-ordination, don’t get me wrong being co-ordinated to some degree helps but it’s not the lynch pin. When you’re grappling against a resisting opponent it’s hard to tell if you did something wrong or they did something right. If you fumble a grip, move with your left instead of your right these are all natural mistakes in the moment so it’s hard to say what is a forced error and what isn’t. Having your grips a few inches from the optimal position is common when you and your partner are both in motion, there is a margin for error and most techniques can still be effectively carried out. If you hit a football 3 inches in the wrong place it’s going off the field, if you miss a ping pong ball by a few inches it’s off the table. Much of our training time is spent recovering from mistakes, countering counters, making do with the best of a bad situation, and being adaptable. There’s so much more to training combat sport or martial arts in a live manner than just athleticism and co-ordination. Intelligence, timing, leverage, heart, determination, ingenuity, lateral thinking are all equally important. If our emphasis was placed upon application against a compliant partner as is the case with many traditional martial arts doing kata, lock flows or choreographed routines, poor co-ordination would be more apparent. I’m sure training any sport will help improve your co-ordination but being able to enjoy sport unhindered by sub par co-ordination give you access to all the other physical benefits it holds.

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Memory, particularly poor working memory is a very common difficulty amongst Dyslexics. At primary school learning your 1- 12 times tables up to 12 by memory was a nightmare. Come high school and college they were largely about data and facts, things dyslexics are generally bad at. I could understand the how and why but not recall the where and when, I could understand the principles but not cite the name and reference of  the source. One of my favourite subjects was Sociology and I took a real interest, it fascinated me but come exam time it was about quoting the right people for the right argument rather than having a structured opinion. With times tables I had to learn how to work them out as citing them from memory isn’t viable ( memorising 1-12 was supposed to teach you how to multiply any number, I argue why not just teach how to multiply any number?). In authentic martial arts the value is in the doing. This is one of the main reasons we aim to cut down so much as is possible on terminology. In striking martial arts you should be judged first and foremost on your striking, in grappling martial arts you should be judged on your grappling NOT your ability to name each variation of a technique possibly in a different language, NOT your ability to ape a set of movements in a choreographed order. There is an amount of terminology required to translate instruction effectively but keeping this down to a minimum makes the training more efficient on time (you spend more time learning martial arts and less time a second language) it also makes it more inclusive. Yes we will practice techniques in series from time to time but these won’t be two minute kata or as a 15 point combination (that’s not how things happen in a fight). We will ask questions of why and how things work but you won’t be asked to quote or repeat from a curriculum or source verbatim. If you see a cool technique in a fight or match so long as you are able to decode the key technical points (a hugely challenging skill in itself) the superfluous information such as which fight, against who, for which organisation, for what title, at what venue and where, although useful information to cite aren’t the key points to anyones development.

Having extra curricular activities which you enjoy is a great way for anyone to improve their self esteem and self confidence. It doesn’t have to be MMA or Jiu Jitsu, but these are the two I have most experience of. Some of my very worst memories from school iare reading in class. Not being able to find where we were reading on the page (in fact I struggle with this now), dreading that I’d be picked to read next (at an excruciatingly slow speed, missing words and repeatedly reading the same line of text) , constantly being on the wrong page in a book or losing place on the page. Writing speed was a real issue at school “you can’t go on break until you’ve copied this down”, “take down these questions for homework before you go” . That is  before spending twice as long on the homework, only to hand the homework in to have it criticised for missing words, spelling, punctuation and grammar regardless of the content relevant to the subject matter was demoralising to say the least.

At primary school we had a Chess competition, which I won. A teacher accused me of cheating, she didn’t know and couldn’t say how I had cheated but she “knew” I must have done in order to win (I hadn’t cheated). She was so confident in her one dimensional view of intelligence that a child underachieving academically mustn’t have abilities in other areas. The primary school I went to was in Trafford, one of few remaining areas to still make all children due to leave primary schools sit an 11 plus. For those that passed you went to a local Grammar school and to those that failed you went to the secondary modern. I never finished the exam, I’m not sure how many pages were left to go but I never reached the end and therefore failed. Years later I fell out with one of my very best friends around the age of 17 when she explained to me that I must be stupid because “all the smart people” went to her grammar school. To judge someone’s intelligence for a test they took 6 years ago at the age of 11 possibly isn’t the best barometer. By the time I left college I had no confidence relating to anything academic, to stand up in front of a group of people, I was working a dead end job, had no direction in life and I was angry at myself for not being smart enough or being capable of articulating myself well enough to share the intelligence I had. This is when I found MMA and Jiu Jitsu. On the mats everyone is equal. It doesn’t matter how good a game you can talk, how much you earn each year or what grades you got at school. On the mats you’re held to your performance, more than this you’re held to your efforts to improve on your performance from yesterday. You have commonality with everybody else training that you are all embracing the grind. What I learnt is it doesn’t matter if you’re a geek or a natural athlete through training alive you can find the path, techniques and style that allow you to succeed. In the biggest way I had ever found the amount of effort that I invested in training directly repaid me my investment.  Through investing my time and effort I was able to  see improvement and progress each month and each session. Being able to apply more and more techniques and apply techniques more competently gave me a sense of achievement, a sense of value. Without Jiu Jitsu I can confidently say that I would never have built up the confidence to speak in front of a group of people, something I now do every day and have given briefings to groups of 100’s of people at a time competitions and events. Without Jiu Jitsu I would never have needed to push myself as an adult to read and write so much as I do.

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I’m still a little embarrassed every time I have to sign for something as I can’t repeat my signature, I’m the last to read a menu at a restaurant. To be honest in adult life for me, now, I cannot really say I am held back by Dyslexia and in many ways am probably helped for thinking a little differently. Without the unique nature of Jiu Jitsu being forgiving to my shortcomings whilst playing to my strengths my life may not be as rich and fulfilling as it is. If you do have a child who struggles at school, be it with any learning difficulty, bullying  or for any other reason I would applaud you to encourage them to try so many activities as you can and support them in whatever makes them feel good. It may not make school any easier but it may give them the strength and confidence to make it a little more bearable and hopefully achieve a little better. I didn’t start training until I was 18 and know people who didn’t start training until there 30’s and 40’s so it’s never too late.