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UK Coaching Team
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Rapport Building and Communicating Supporting Specific Needs

Ikkaido: For the Self, For the Community, For Life

Inclusive martial arts coach Angus Mackay tells Charlotte Potterton about the life-changing impact of martial arts, and explains how inclusive sessions can be instrumental in promoting community cohesion by encouraging people to see beyond their differences

Think of a sport, any sport, that's popular in your community. Unless you attend karate sessions yourself, or know someone who does, karate, or even the umbrella term of martial arts, probably wasn’t the first thing that popped into your head.

Yet a plethora of research has been conducted into the impact of practising karate, and the results demonstrate that regular karate practice can have a significant positive impact on our physical and mental health.

Just a few of the studies on karate have shown that regular practice can:

  1. enhance bone mineral density
  2. increase speed, agility and coordination
  3. improve reaction time (and other factors connected with fall reduction) in older people
  4. improve problem-solving abilities (as well as concentration, information processing and conflict resolution)
  5. increase self-esteem and self-efficacy in young people with visual impairments
  6. reduce aggression in young people aged 6 to 18

Angus Mackay, a Level 2 martial arts coach, has more to add. From his own practice, he has first-hand experience of the impact that martial arts can have on the committed individual. But as a coach of inclusive sessions, he knows that there can also be a social impact that benefits communities. 

Angus' sessions have a naturally cooperative element. The people who attend are encouraged to help one another during sessions, and train together to reach individual goals. From the start, he says, this approach to coaching "brings people together," encouraging them to see beyond their differences and recognise their similarities while developing an interest in sport and physical activity. 

Not only does this foster the development of new social links, it can also help to heal divisions within the community, undermining misunderstandings about the capabilities of people living with disabilities or long-term health conditions.

Coaching pivotal in encouraging motivation

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that the common denominator in the above is that deceptively simple word: 'regular.' To reap the benefits (physical, mental or social), people don't just need to be interested enough to give martial arts a try. They need to be inspired to regularly give their time and effort in the hope of future gain.

To facilitate this, the coach must ensure that they keep coming back. Angus asserts that the coach's first task (in any sport) is to lead sessions in which students have enough fun to return week after week, as interest in a specific sport isn’t always sufficiently motivational. Students need to feel welcome, understood and involved, and the sessions need to tap into their motivations for attending in the first place.

As such, it is when coaches understand the needs, interests and motivations of the people attending their sessions that they ensure that the long-term benefits of regular practice can be experienced by more people, more often.

Life-changing impact

Angus, who is on the autism spectrum and has Tourette's syndrome, is himself testament to the life-changing impact of inclusive coaching.

"I was never a sporty person at all," Angus explains. "I was very quiet." At school, Angus excelled at Maths and Science, but was also dealing with "episodes of depression and different types of anxiety."

After achieving A-Levels in Physics, Maths and Further Maths, university seemed to be a reasonable choice. Unfortunately, the mental health problems that had manifested in his earlier education made it impossible for Angus to continue or conclude his studies.

I got into university to do Maths, but after a few months I had to drop out. I was doing the work, but I couldn't leave my room. I'd just not leave for days and days."

With a future at university no longer viable, Angus went on to work at a care home, but left the position when his mental health problems became more severe.

"As my depression got worse, I gave that up as well because I couldn't see friends much or even get any sunlight. Eventually I was completely out of education and employment."

It was at that low point that Angus discovered the inclusive sessions at Ikkaido, a charity dedicated to creating a greater number of opportunities for people to participate in and enjoy martial arts, especially people who historically have lacked opportunities to get involved.

This includes:

  • people with disabilities
  • people with long-term health conditions
  • people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In martial arts, Angus found a new passion that he was excited to get involved in. He explains that the regular commitment to physical activity "put me in a permanently better mood." But it was at Ikkaido that he found an opportunity to overcome the barriers that had restricted his choices and kept him from reaching his potential.

He experienced an increase in confidence and mindfulness, which he attributes to the process of learning how best to help the different kinds of people that attend his sessions.

"Martial Arts helped me to be mindful and to overcome the sensory overload that came with autism, which was the cause of a lot of my anxiety."

One of the key attributes of Angus' experience of autism is that he can struggle to relate to other people's emotions. Becoming a coach has enabled him to develop the people skills crucial to success in this area.

Realising that he was able to help other people in the community enjoy a similar positive experience, Angus progressed to helping at and leading sessions, and ultimately obtained coaching qualifications. This, Angus says, was at least in part due to the ethos of Ikkaido, at which it "feels very natural to help people while you're there. Right from the start there were people I could help and people I could learn from."

In coaching I found a side of me that was assertive. For the first time I felt like I could affect positive changes in other people's lives. It's an amazing feeling."

Martial arts: For everyone, always

Martial arts "is designed for everyone," Angus says. There are no special requirements for participation, and no level of fitness that must be reached prior to involvement. Anyone and everyone can benefit, and inclusive sessions, open to all, provide a unique chance for people from all parts of the community to enjoy those benefits.

This, Angus says, is a crucial opportunity for people that can't or don't feel able to attend traditional non-inclusive sessions to come together in a shared positive experience – with the reassurance of knowing that the coach is there to ensure that their needs are being met.

Learning a martial art can be completely life-changing, so why on earth would you deny that opportunity to the people who need it the most?"

But the question remains as to how far the transformative effects of martial arts can possibly reach. With concerns about failing community cohesion increasingly prominent in Brexit-stricken Britain (recent polarising debates include the impact of immigration and the teaching of lessons on LGBT rights and tolerance), can we perhaps turn to sport and physical activity for a solution?

"We're all basically the same"

Angus asserts that the atmosphere at Ikkaido is characterised by a willingness to help others. The club, he asserts, "…feels like a family."

"It might start with something as simple as giving someone a punch pad to hold for someone else, but that gives them the message: ‘You can help, you can make a valuable contribution.' So it's a multiplier effect."

Angus explains that he uses fun games during sessions to encourage people simply to take part, without worrying about being able to perform to a certain level. These games require people at the sessions to work together

From a young age, people are put in a situation where it's just assumed that they will be kind, respectful and supportive to each other. Every week they're reminded that everyone has their own difficulties and differences, but we are all basically the same."

What does this achieve?

At Ikkaido, where traditionally they might be expected to train separately, it's normal to see people who don't live with disabilities or long-term health conditions training alongside and helping people with moderate to severe learning difficulties.

Importantly, Angus says, there's still room for individual development: people have fun together, socialise and help each other with individual challenges meaningful to their own goals, facilitating the development of new friendships.

Angus adds: "It definitely brings families together." Parents or carers can train alongside their children or the children they're supporting, even if they have very different physical abilities or reasons for attending.

An "incredibly rewarding" role

Sporty or not, Angus has clearly found his niche in coaching martial arts. "It's amazing," he enthuses, because his role extends far beyond teaching punches and kicks: as the coach leading sessions, he has an opportunity to help all kinds of people overcome the issues and challenges affecting their lives, just like he did. A chance to help them get their foot in the door.

It's not just about the physical aspect of becoming more active, though of course that's important. Angus has seen the people he coaches walk more confidently, be kinder, be more mindful, and even simply develop a better understanding of when to keep quiet and when to speak up. These may seem like small things, but they can have a substantial long-term impact on people that may feel isolated or have poor self-esteem.

Simply providing the means for someone to develop their self-belief can be the tool they need to become and feel like active, involved members of their community.

I think that sometimes, one of the best things you can do for someone is present them with someone who they can help. It's incredibly rewarding to see the positive changes in the people you coach. The best things are when you manage to give someone a life skill that they didn't have before."

Importantly, anyone who tries martial arts can enjoy a comparable experience: the positive results are by no means restricted to people living with disabilities or long-term health conditions. 

"It's a journey for self-improvement," Angus explains. People who attend sessions can benefit from feeling relaxed and more focused, as well as from an increase in happiness, self-esteem and confidence. As martial arts emphasises the importance of respect, it can also be a mechanism by which to encourage people to push back against the instinct to be aggressive or react negatively to differences of opinion, which can have wider ramifications for their relationship to the wider community.

What's next for Angus?

Angus describes martial arts as "your own journey of improving yourself." Based on a principle of self-development, regular practice facilitates a lifelong process of gradual, positive change

For Angus, it's a journey that has both changed everything and still has so much to offer.

"I love working for Ikkaido," Angus says. "It's my dream job except I want to get much better at it and there's always more to do." 

Angus is already doing more. Alongside his coaching responsibilities, he has been offered the opportunity to become involved in the business side of Ikkaido's operations. One of his key tasks is managing a team of interns, which has thrown up an interesting challenge: "They are all from Spain, so I am also trying to do all this in Spanish!"

Before he became a coach, Angus explains, none of this would have happened. It was only in becoming a coach that he gained the people skills, the confidence and the experience to handle the task, delegate effectively, and support the progress that the interns are making. He credits all this to Ikkaido, of which he cannot speak highly enough.

"We're all united by the goal of helping people using martial arts, and I couldn't ask for a better boss or co-workers."

At Ikkaido, Angus found his first opportunity to do something different, to achieve something he didn't know he was capable of, at a time when no other opportunities seemed likely to appear. Now, new opportunities just keep coming.

The final argument for inclusive coaching

Speaking to Angus has made it clear that we need more coaches capable of and interested in holding inclusive sessions. Inclusive coaching provides indispensable opportunities for people that may lack other realistic options to get involved in sport and physical activity, and not only that, but in an environment that they can be confident will meet their needs. The support of a coach helps everyone in the session to reap the benefits, physical, mental and social, thereafter.

But it wouldn't be possible without coaches like Angus, who see coaching inclusive sessions as an exciting opportunity to help people and unite communities. Coaches who take the time to understand and connect with the people who attend their sessions, determining from the beginning what it is that they need to succeed, regardless of their motivations for attending. Of that, the first step is to ensure that everyone feels welcome – a seemingly small thing that can make all the difference.

Inclusive coaching also gives families a chance to enjoy sport physical activity together despite differences in physical and mental capabilities, ensuring that parents and carers have what can be a rare opportunity to relax their vigilance and focus instead on making positive memories.

Beyond this, it gives all kinds of people the chance to grow and develop alongside people that they might not ordinarily get the chance to meet or think about getting along with, facilitating a change in perspective to see beyond differences and instead recognise similarities.

Inclusive coaching, in other words, has the extraordinary power to bring people together and unite communities.

Related Resources

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UK Coaching Team