December 2, 2000
Turning Fidgets Into Karate Kicks
By SUSAN SAULNY
he karate class that Daniel Povzhitkov
attends begins in meditative silence, then explodes into the kata, a choreographed
sequence of blocking, kicking and punching. The 10 children then glide into
a series of jumping front kicks and back elbow strikes in their little white
gis, all solemn-faced and graceful. The only noise is an occasional grunt,
or a command muttered in Japanese.
What is on display here, for most of the children in the small, bare room,
is just another day of after-school martial arts fun a showing of the classs
coordination, strength and precision. But for 12-year-old Daniel, it is something
more. His mother, Natalia Povzhitkov, believes that for Daniel, who has attention
deficit disorder, karate is therapy, too.
The New York Times
Some students of Paul Sookdar,
above, who teaches karate in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, say that
his course helps their attention disorders. But experts say it is has
not yet been proven that martial arts is a viable therapy.
At the school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, where Daniel studies,
and at other martial arts centers in New York and across the country, some
parents say they have discovered a therapeutic element to the martial arts
that helps children with attention deficit disorder cope.
Many doctors support that idea, as do several national nonprofit resource
groups for people with the disorder, including the National Attention Deficit
Disorder Association and Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity
Disorder. They say that such courses help ease the symptoms of the disorder:
impulsiveness, inability to concentrate and, in some cases, hyperactivity.
I talk about this all the time because I think its a huge intervention,
said Dr. John J. Ratey, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Harvard
Medical School. Its becoming very popular as a means of treatment.
This theory, however, is dismissed by other experts who say that it is nothing
more than wishful thinking. They point to the dearth of medical studies to
back up the theory, which has become a matter of intense debate among professionals.
I think much of this is driven by the wish that children did not need medicine,
said Dr. Theodore Shapiro, who is the director of child and adolescent psychology
at the Payne Whitney Clinic and a professor of psychology at Weill-Cornell
Medical College. If youre around for a long time, you see these new waves
come and go, and you become cautious.
But such doubts have not diminished support for the idea from parents who
say they have seen results.
Its sort of a known fact in communities with people who have these issues,
said Lynne-Ann Walsh, whose son Christopher, 8, has an attention disorder.
He studies kung fu at Nabi Su martial arts school in SoHo to help him focus
on coordination, concentration and to overcome fidgeting. It has been a very
positive experience, she said.
Of course, the martial arts are no panacea, and parents involved say they
know that. None interviewed for this article said they had abandoned medication
in favor of karate or kung fu. But they also said that the benefits of martial
arts study were manifold, augmenting medical treatment by specifically focusing
on the aspects of personality that A.D.D. affects most importantly, the
ability to concentrate.
But if the children are already medicated, some experts ask, who is to know
whether the benefits come from the medicine or from karate?
Dr. Ratey, who has written several books about attention disorders, a couple
of which include sections on the benefits of the martial arts, said that exercise
coupled with medication does a lot more than medication alone. While exercise
in general would benefit those with such disorders, he said, martial arts
helps moreso than, say, baseball or soccer.
There is no doubt that something in the brain is changing when individuals
with attention disorders study the martial arts, Dr. Ratey said. We make
a lot of metaphorical leaps here, and we dont know whats happening for sure.
The martial arts demand a kind of concentration that forces coordination
of the attention centers in the brain: the frontal cortex, the cerebellum
and the limbic system, Dr. Ratey said. That coordination skill is erratic
when individuals have attention disorders, he added. The martial arts, which
are repetitive, slow, structured and individualistic, facilitate a learning
of the coordination skill that is digestible for those with attention disorders,
he said, adding that dancing and gymnastics might have similar benefits.
This is not a cure, Dr. Ratey added, but it is certainly a useful intervention.
Mrs. Povzhitkov does not need convincing. Just that Daniel can perform the
kata, which his symptoms would have rendered impossible a few years ago, makes
it clear that karate classes help his condition, she said.
Daniel was aggressive and hyperactive, his mother said, describing him as
all over the place. When he was about 5, she said, she began to consider
enrolling him in a martial arts course to instill discipline.
But I was advised against it by people who said, If hes already aggressive,
why put him in something that is also aggressive? she said. But I did
Karate became an outlet for Daniels aggression, his mother said, but it
also taught him how to stay calm and focused. Slowly, she said, she noticed
changes in his behavior inside and outside the martial arts school, or dojo.
He still takes a dose of medication on school mornings, but Mrs. Povzhitkov,
who is a registered nurse and has a masters degree in teaching, said Daniel
would not be as well developed mentally or physically without karate.
I think karate obviously contributed tremendously with identifying his
problems and helping him learn how to deal with them, she said.
That seems to be how many professionals see the martial arts and medication
working best, as part of a comprehensive treatment program.
Conceptually it makes sense to me, and Ive seen it work clinically, but
the martial arts are not a substitute for behavioral therapy or medication,
said Dr. Peter Jaksa, the president of the National Attention Deficit Disorder
Association, who is also a clinical psychologist. I wouldnt want to see
parents take kids out of treatment and say, `Lets just do karate.
But some doctors do not advocate karate at all. One, midway through a strongly
worded sentence, hung up the phone in disgust after a reporter raised the
topic. Before disconnecting he did say: I dont want my name connected with
that. Others expressed concern about the lack of evidence and the staying
power of what they said could turn out to be a trend.
None, however, said the exercise would have adverse effects. Theres no
real evidence about the martial arts, but that doesnt mean it isnt good
for you, Dr. Shapiro said.
Ritalin is the most common medication prescribed by doctors for attention
and hyperactivity disorders, doctors said. They also estimate, conservatively,
that about 6 percent of school-age children suffer from such disorders. Some
estimates are as high as 14 percent.
The most beneficial of the martial arts for children with the disorder are
the ones that have less a focus on contact fighting, like akido, or seido
karate, which includes meditation, parents and instructors said. The meditation
forces a certain level of calm and concentration, according to Paul Sookdar,
34, the black belt instructor and founder of the Riverdale Seido Karate dojo.
John Mazzoni, 11, who has attention deficit disorder, studies karate with
Mr. Sookdar. He said that his school work and behavior had improved since
he started karate. John attributes the changes to what he has learned with
Before I started taking karate I couldnt focus all that well, Johnsaid.
But after I started, I learned that you have to concentrate on the kyoshi,
the teacher and yourself to get the movements right. And that just carried over into
school and everything changed.
Mr. Sookdars dojo has become well known in the Riverdale area and beyond
as a sort of resource for children with the disorder, although it has never
been advertised as such and most children in the course do not have it. Parents
spread the word themselves, said Mary Mazzoni, Johns mother, and Mrs. Povzhitkov.
Mr. Sookdar, who has been decorated in international karate tournaments,
is known as a formidable opponent. But in the dojo, we have a different way
of thinking, he said. We try to incorporate fighting, form and meditation
so were all well rounded. I focus on strength, but thats not the main goal.
Im not out to make a bunch of bullies.
Mr. Sookdar, a native of Trinidad, began studying karate at the height of
Bruce Lees popularity in film, he said. He was a small child, he said, and
an easy target for bullies. Mr. Sookdar said his father thought martial arts
classes would help build his confidence and self-esteem. Karate soon became
one of the most important aspects of his life.
Eight years ago, with money inherited after his mothers death, he opened
the school in Riverdale. This year, his enrollment base was large enough for
him to quit his day job as a software developer at the New York Stock Exchange
to concentrate on karate full time.
Parents say Mr. Sookdar, whom the students call Kyoshi Paul, has a special
effect on children.
Kyoshi Paul has helped me become better with my discipline and coming here
has helped me not get so frustrated, said Daniel, a green belt wrapped around
his lean body, after class one recent Thursday night.
John also says that his life has changed. He said he remembered the exact
day everything improved: second marking period, third grade. That is when
the N (needs improvement) changed to an S (satisfactory) in the behavior column
of his report card. He had been studying karate a few weeks. Self control,
he said. I learned it in the dojo.
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company