I came across this fascinating article on social media. After contacting the author, Thomas Belassie BA, from the Oxford Karate Academy he has kindly given me permission to present his work on this blog. I hope that you will enjoy reading it.
As a young child, of around 6 to 7 years old, I was diagnosed with Dyspraxia/ DCD (Developmental Coordination Disorder), and Dyslexia. The preferred medical term for Dyspraxia is DCD; hence I shall refer to the condition by this term. My difficulty in reading, as well as in tasks such as cycling, tying shoe laces and general clumsiness were early signs. The headmaster at my first school had very archaic attitudes to learning difficulties, which in hindsight is perhaps understandable. In the 1990’s, learning difficulties, such as Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, and ADHD were just starting to be more widely accepted. The headmaster was close to retiring, and wasn’t about to alter his methods of teaching. To him Dyslexia was “stupid boy syndrome”, Dyspraxia – “clumsy boy syndrome”. This was a fairly common attitude. Fortunately, with incredible support from family, many of whom later became
teachers; my first non picture book was 1984, by George Orwell. I vividly remember the week when I became able to read.
The first educational psychologist who I saw told me that I would never be able to cycle, would probably not do my SATs, and may never wear shoes with laces. At secondary school, the educational psychologist told me that despite my intelligence, she confirmed similar things. Despite gaining good grades at college, I wasn’t “university material”. This all seems rather dismal, doesn’t it? I am now 31 have earned a BA in philosophy and psychology, a black belt in karate; I enjoy wakeboarding, and ride a motorbike. It may be thought that learning difficulties are less stigmatised now, and that there is a greater understanding. It is certainly true that there is more specialist support available, and most teachers vaguely know of these conditions. However, there is still a huge lack of understanding within the general population, despite DCD affecting roughly 8-10% of the U.K. This is a significant minority. The vast majority of literature on DCD focuses on the early stages in childhood, but does little to address the continual development, and coping strategies as an adult. Through this article, I aim to address this issue. I shall explain what DCD and Dyslexia are, with the primary focus being on Dyspraxia, and the neurological, and neuromuscular mechanisms behind it. I feel that most literature on the condition fails to fully explain the condition, despite the importance of understanding the condition in supporting someone with this condition. Traditional martial arts, specifically Goju Ryu Karate (under the tutelage of Paul Coleman, 7th Dan) has started to remap my brain.
My love of martial arts started when I was around 7 to 8 years old. My brother showed me a Bruce lee film. Nobody could predict how much this would inspire me. I started to ask around, and do some research. Firing up the noisy dial-up internet, and asking around, I found a Judo club. After months of nagging Mum, and family discussions, I went to my first lesson. Understandably, she was concerned that I was setting myself up to fail. I got slammed to the mat hard, but found my tenacious nature which was to become my greatest asset in helping me. I immediately started running, swimming, and body weight exercises, by the age of 10, I was reading about the history of Judo, Asian philosophy, and Feudal Japan. I was hooked. Through gaining better core strength, and understanding balance better, my practice started to help my everyday life. When I was 10, Mum made huge sacrifices to get me into a private, specialist school. It was amazing; they understood how to help me. My academia started to improve, and so did my balance. I will explain some of the methods which were used later in this essay, before explaining how my instructor, and friend, Kyoshi (teacher of teachers), Paul Coleman saw my enthusiasm, and would support me in achieving far beyond my expectations. This was only the start of a long journey, which I am still on.
DCD is a common disorder, which affects fine, and gross motor co-ordination, and can also affect speech. I undertook speech therapy as a child, and I still think about slowing down my speech, and annunciating my words. This is still a problem when I’m tired, but an awareness of it helps. DCD has been described as, an “impairment, or difficulties with, organisation, planning and execution of a physical movement, with a developmental rather than acquired origin” (J. Appleton, J. Appleton, R. Gibbs, 2007). Interestingly, as with many learning difficulties, it predominantly affects males, and has a high rate of co-morbidity (rate of co- occurrence) with Dyslexia, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders. According to Dr M. Portwood, this may be as high as 40-45% (M. Portwood, 2000). This makes it extremely hard to diagnose, as ADHD and dyslexia may also cause poor coordination. The essential feature of Dyspraxia is the impairment in the development of motor co-ordination, which is caused by problems in the communication in the neurological and neuromuscular connection.
In order to give a more concise explanation of DCD, we must take a slight detour in explaining some basic neuroscience, regarding proprioception, neural pathways, and DCD. I will then explain how martial arts help with this. The brain comprises of around 10 billion neurones, which are the bricks in the foundation of the structure of the brain. Neurones make and break connections with other neurones. A single neurone can have 10,000 links, or as few as 1-2 in other neural networks. To make this appear less esoteric, imagine a spider web, as another strand of silk is added, the connections in the web increase, and the overall complexity of the web increases with it. Forming neural networks gives the brain its incredible learning capacity. Intellectual ability isn’t the number of neurons, but the amount of connections.
One of the major features of the neurone is the axon, leading from the cell, covered in an insulating layer of myelin (consisting of proteins, and fatty substances).
This axon carries the electrical pulse, and at the end of the axon is a gap (synapse), which is the point in which the electrical signal is transferred between cells. The axon releases a neurotransmitter, which causes electrical activity in the receiving neurone, causing electrical discharges/nerve signals to occur in the membranes of the neurones. The synaptic junction is where the signal transfer takes place and the neurone fires when it is stimulated to a certain level. The pattern in which the neurones fire is important. Much like a 4 stroke engine, if the correct sequence of events doesn’t occur, the engine won’t work. The intake has to happen before the compression, the neurones have to fire in the right pattern, creating neural pathways. One of the problems in DCD is in the pattern of firing in some neurones, as well as the connections between them, signals are lost in the synaptic gap. If the connections are weak, the neural pathways will also be weak. “The neurones form increasingly complex neural networks which are the basis of the nervous system” (M. Portwood, 2000). The brain stem and limbic system understand the signals within the body. They respond to emotions, and hunger within the body, as well as to the endocrine, and autonomous nervous system. These regulate the heartbeat, respiration and digestion.
The Thalamo – cortical system consists of the Thalamus and the cortex, which work in conjunction to receive signals from outside of the body. The cortex is adapted to receive signals from the sensors, responding to our senses (sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing). Most germane to our purposes, it responds to proprioception (our body’s awareness of its position in space). If I were to ask you where your left hand is during a game of twister, your knowledge of where it is, despite being in a contorted position is a great way to show proprioception! DCD is primarily a proprioceptive disorder. The Thalamo-cortical system makes up about ¼ of the brain’s volume, and a huge 75% of its 10 billion neurones. The function of these neurones transmits from one part of the CNS to another.
The neural connections are affected by the messages which the brain receives from external stimulation, within our environment. To borrow an analogy from Kyoshi Paul Coleman, imagine a lawn with a path around the outside, people continuously cut across it, eventually wearing down a path in the lawn. If they stop doing this, the path will disappear. As they start the habit again, the pathway comes back. As the complexity of the connections increase, the pathways become easier to trigger. The more synapses which a pathway has, the faster the network becomes. A mature connection requires fewer electrical pulses. As the pathway increases in complexity, the processing speed increases with it. As a young child, we have an excess of connections, but by the age of 3, as the brain develops, the lesser used ones are “pruned”. Unnecessary connections die. Where the brain hasn’t reinforced the correct pathways, messages travel along longer routes, resulting in slower processing, and an increased chance of the signal not being processed. “This persistent neurological inactivity is the basis for youngsters with Dyspraxia” (M. Portwood, “Understanding developmental Dyspraxia”, 2000). The difficulty in motor control and proprioception in those with DCD is a result of under-developed motor neurones, resulting in a longer processing time.
Efficient brain function is heavily reliant upon the transfer of information between the limbic and cortical systems. The cortex consists of the left and right hemispheres which have different properties. There are 4 cortical lobes, consisting of:
- Frontal lobe- involved in organisation, voluntary movement, planning, purposeful activity and production of speech.
- Parietal- Processes the responses to pain, touch, and coordinates joint/muscle positions.
- Occipital lobe- analyses messages from the retina, before transferring to parietal.
- Temporal-interprets sound.
The cortex is split into right and left hemispheres, which are connected nerves (Corpus Callosum). The left receives sensory information about the right side of the body. The left hemisphere processes sequentially, and works with analytical information. It interprets information then fits the pieces together like a jigsaw. This helps with linguistic reasoning and skills. The right hemisphere combines the parts, and doesn’t organise in a linear way, but simultaneously. It helps with:
- Depth perception, and pattern recognition
- Visual and spatial processing
- Sensitivity to melody and rhythm (dancing, music etc.)
- Non verbal stimuli
The right hemisphere processes information quicker than the left. Each hemisphere does its job then sends the information to the opposite hemisphere if needed. It is heavily accepted that learning a skill such as music, or languages results in an overall improvement in cognitive ability. This is also true of physical skills, such as martial arts. This is because encouraging the development of one hemisphere, often results in improved cognitive function in the other hemisphere.
Arguably, one of the reasons that males are more prone to learning difficulties, such as Dyslexia, and DCD, is that males appear to have evolved specialised functions in the hemispheres (left-language, right-spatial/visual). This means that if one hemisphere experiences processing challenges, they are unlikely to ask their neighbour for help. In contrast, if a female has processing challenges on one side, they are more likely to utilise the systems of the neighbouring hemisphere. Men are less adaptable in our cognitive make up, than our female peers.
Both Dyslexia and, DCD are more prevalent in males. “Males are four times more likely to be affected than females” (https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk). DCD results from difficulties in processing information in the right hemisphere. Dyslexia is caused by an issue in processing in the left hemisphere. It is not fully understood why there is such a high co-morbidity rate of the two conditions, but issues in communication between the two hemispheres may be one explanation.
This may all seem rather dismal for those with DCD, but claiming that a child “will never be able to cycle”, as I was told as a child leaves out one important mechanism of our brain. Our brains are extremely adaptable. Through a process of neuroplasticity, we can reorganise our brain, changing its structure. Neuroplasticity is the process of reorganising and forming new neural connections throughout life. This allows the neurones to compensate for conditions or injury. Undamaged axons can grow new nerve endings, hence forming new neural pathways to help accomplish a function. With the right training, we can overcome huge challenges through this process.
When I started Judo, and a regular fitness regime, I had started this process. A well managed exercise program, with a focus on core strength and stability creates a great foundation for finding a good path of overcoming these difficulties. There is a general acceptance that children with DCD, often have below average strength, which contributes to poor balance and motor function. Personally, this wasn’t ever a big problem, because I was raised to be an extremely active child. As a teenager, I started researching nutrition, and trying different exercise programs, getting increasingly interested in martial arts. I was constantly working on my weaknesses, and strengthening the neural pathways, gradually reshaping my brain. It is this same process which has helped my dyslexia, and allows me to write this and develop into a fairly prolific reader.
When I was about 9 to 10, Mum managed to get me into a specialist school for those with DCD, and dyslexia. She volunteered as an administrator, and dinner supervisor. In return, I was given a place at the school. PE lessons consisted of working with balance beams, trying to walk down straight lines, and numerous balance related exercises. Although I was stronger than a lot of my peers to begin with, walking on a straight line was a huge challenge, but the neural pathways were gradually strengthened. With regards to my dyslexia, they tried putting coloured film over the pages of my books, as often the contrast of the black text on the white background creates difficulties in focusing. My problem (and still is when I’m very tired) is that my eyes weren’t tracking the text across the line properly. I would start reading a line then my vision would drift to the line below it, resulting in fairly amusing sounding sentences! I used to read with a ruler underneath the line. Eventually, I didn’t need this. As soon as reading wasn’t such hard work, I started to really enjoy it. This is working with the same process of neural plasticity which allowed me to increase my proprioception enough to compete in Judo, and start learning Jujitsu.
Martial arts depend on co-ordinated actions, balance and a force output. The skilful actions are an expression of co-ordinated movement. Complex movements usually originate in the lower/mid brain. The motor neurones receive signals from the, cortex, brain stem, and spinal cord and directly from sensory neurones in the CNS. Literature on DCD regularly describes the neurological issues, which I have already covered, but rarely discusses the role of the receptors in the muscles, which are a vital part of the CNS. My progress through physical training is, in part due to creating new neurological pathways, but the neuromuscular affects of training must also be considered. The brain interprets information from receptors around our body for all of our senses, this includes proprioception. Receptors are specialised cells, which alter their properties in response to stimuli. Different receptor systems allow the body to differentiate the type of energy being absorbed, hence helping information to be shared with other neurones within the CNS. We have 3 main types of receptors:
- Interoceptors- Convert information from within the body
- Exteroceptors- Transmit information from within the environment
- Proprioceptors- Convert information about the relative location, and movement in space of the body parts, telling us where each part of our body is at one time.
As already discussed DCD is a proprioceptive disorder. It is both a neurological and neuromuscular condition. Proprioceptors are the most important to mechanical movement. These pass on information about muscular changes in the limbs and torso. The most important types of proprioceptors are: Muscle spindles, Golgi tendon organs, and the Gamma system.
Muscle spindles run parallel to muscle fibres, and provide sensory feedback about length changes, and rate of changes in the muscle fibres. If a length change happens suddenly, it can induce a stretch reflex to protect the muscle. The Golgi only recognise, and react to force. Force sensors recognise changes in the tension of the muscle, thus protecting the muscle from excessive force. They only react to force in associated fibres to their area. This can be altered over time. The suppression of Golgi training is a premise of plyometric training, which is essential for martial arts. The aim of plyometric training is to exert maximum force, in a short time, hence increasing power. The Gamma system takes information from proprioceptors, and bypasses consciousness, creating unconscious reflexes. They also inform the CNS where the limbs are in relation to the body, and create our ‘internal map’, which is used to carry out movement.
Signals from proprioceptors travel along sensory nerve fibres, along the spine. The primary sensory nerve fibres make direct contact with the spinal motor neurones. Some sensory (afferent) nerve fibres travel directly to the brain, helping limb positioning, movement planning and body perception. From my experience, it is evident that through a well designed exercise regime, and regular martial arts training, I have increased the strength of the muscles, and created more active nerve fibres in these systems.
By the time I was in my twenties, I was able to start wakeboarding, and was training in Karate. I started Goju Ryu Karate when I was about 25 to 26. By this time, my DCD was only obvious during my training, but not obvious in my daily life. I had accepted that this would always be the case. Through experience, and research, I suggest that strength training is extremely useful for those with DCD, but isn’t as effective as fitness training, combined with the technical training of traditional martial arts. It seems to be the combination of mental and physical training which is most effective in combating the symptoms of DCD.
Through training with some local instructors, I managed to get to a certain level. However, knowing that I wanted to take my training further, I contacted Kyoshi (teacher of teachers) Paul Coleman, as I knew that his academy (Oxford Karate Academy) had an incredible reputation. He has gained a 7th Dan in The All Japan Karate-Do Seiwakai and 7th Dan Japan Karate Federation Goju Kai, and is an international examiner. We immediately got along well, but he noticed that I had some very odd habits. Due to my unwillingness to be treated differently, I have developed a habit of not telling people about my condition. During my University study, I didn’t take extra time for exams, which is probably ill advised! During a conversation in the pub with Kyoshi Paul Coleman, where I explained how much training had helped me, I explained DCD, and Dyslexia. My training changed from that moment. He started working with me to figure out how to adjust my training, utilising his diverse teaching methodology. I gained my 1st Dan/level Black Belt through him, and I’m currently working towards my 2nd Dan/level Black Belt). Kyoshi Coleman started boxing, and Judo when he was 11, then decided to focus on Judo until he was 21. Kyoshi started another style for 6 months, before discovering Goju Ryu when he was 18, whilst he was still training in Judo. His passion and dedication to the art is contagious. He left school at 15, acquiring qualifications in various jobs, before leaving the building trade. At that time he taught karate part-time. He decided to teach Karate full-time in 1992. He has immersed and dedicated himself to training, competing and teaching. He has worked harder with me, over the past year and a half, than any of my teachers throughout all of my formal education. Together, we have started to understand my condition more, which has inspired enough progress to research this article, and share my experiences. I have started to realise that traditional martial arts have something to offer that few other activities can. For those with DCD, I would strongly suggest finding an instructor, who understands your condition, and will work with you and push you to achieve your potential. This may take time.
A karate lesson will generally consist of practising basic techniques (kihon), fighting drills/ partner practice (kumite), and practising kata (forms). Kata and kihon can be practised by oneself, with very little space. Kata are detailed, choreographed sequences of martial arts movements, which were developed to help the practitioner to improve their skills through daily practice. They don’t require any equipment, and are a form of solo practice, which can be done anywhere. In order to do something reactively in a fight, the response has to be hard wired in the CNS. The neural pathways required for the movements are built through practising the movements thousands of times, hence reinforcing the pathways associated with such techniques. This includes increasing the efficiency of the receptors in the muscles. The kihon are practised to improve individual techniques, stances and combinations of movements and the techniques are also practised in pre arranged sequences in the kata. These are then applied/tested with a partner during partner drills or kumite. Hence, in a single lesson a single technique is practised in a variety of ways, and with different variables. It is precisely this constant repetition which is vital for someone with DCD. I am constantly working on proprioception, distance perception, and balance.
Although any activity which relies on co-ordination, and balance will be beneficial to someone with DCD, this constant neurological and neuromuscular reinforcement is key to improving. Fighting arts like boxing, MMA, Kick-boxing may be useful, but the structure of an art which includes kata (included in most Asian martial arts) seems to create an environment in which we are constantly reinforcing the neural pathways, and practising the areas in which someone with DCD struggles. Dancing and music follow a similar structure. A pianist will practice the basics, learning relatively simple pieces then build on that to create more complicated scores. They will play a piece, then isolate one part which they are struggling with, then practice that part constantly, before reintegrating it into the piece. This constant reinforcement requires certain character traits. The individual must have a persistent, tenacious nature, they must accept that they will have to work exponentially harder than their peers who don’t have DCD, but hard work often overcomes talent. Someone who works incredibly hard at something, and sees the benefits will continue to improve, whereas an exceptionally talented person often quits as they rise up to higher grades. Of course, the best dancers, musicians and martial artists in the world, are those with an incredible work ethic, and natural talent. But to achieve a high level of skill, hard work, and a great support network is essential. Hard work is king!
Purely through experience, and through having a curious and perceptive mind, Kyoshi Coleman intuitively knew how to work with me to reinforce the neural pathways in a way which works for me. He pushes me hard, because I respond well to it, and I care about what I do. I have always pushed myself hard, but he helps me to push myself harder. Together we have come to appreciate something which is severely overlooked in literature about DCD. Where the eyes are focusing massively affects proprioception. My wakeboard instructor also regularly tells me, “you look down, you go down”. If I look down when I jump a wake, the nose of the board normally hits the surface of the water first, requiring quick reactions and skill to correct posture and balance, hence you normally “wipe out” (crash into the water), it’s often dramatic and amusing, but it hurts! The line of sight is extremely important. In order to demonstrate this, try standing on one leg, looking straight ahead, then look up or down, you will notice it affect your balance. When I’m training, Kyoshi often stands where I should be looking, instructing “look at me”, or picking marks on the wall, doors or windows as points of focus. Training in front of my reflection is also highly beneficial. Seeing my mistakes, my body corrects it, often without conscious thought. For most of us vision describes how clearly we see an object, but vision affects us in more profound ways than we usually conceive. “To maintain balance and navigate space in the physical world, we must organise, and integrate information from the eyes, proprioceptive […] and vestibular (inner ears sensing motion, equilibrium and spatial awareness) systems”. (Dr N. Davis OD 2016). When a person loses sight, or hearing, they often have difficulty maintaining balance, and require help to “relearn” certain skills, which were previously taken for granted, such as walking.
The relationship between the vestibular and visual systems begins at birth. As young children, movement guides vision, but as we develop, vision starts to guide movement. Around half, to two thirds of the brain is used for visual processing. Unless our eyes are closed, two thirds of the electrical activity of the brain is devoted to vision. Any disruption to the vestibular and visual systems, through injury, or ocular condition, often results in a disruption of balance. Kyoshi Coleman has an intuitive understanding of this, and realised how much visual training could help me.
Throughout this essay, I have explained what DCD is, and how martial arts have helped me. Being told as a child, that “you will never…”, is potentially damaging to a child. It encourages them to not try. This, in my opinion, is a huge mistake. We should be telling those diagnosed with DCD about the struggles which they will face. However, with a great support network, a positive mindset, and an iron-clad tenacity, there is no reason that someone with DCD can’t achieve their goals. Finding an activity, which constantly builds the neural pathways, and working on visual training are essential to cause the process of neuroplasticity to take place. Traditional martial arts are a great way to do this, but dancing, or music will help build the neural pathways. It is the constant drilling of a movement which is important, combining this with an exercise program which strengthens the core, constantly working on improving balance, and co-ordinated movements that will bring huge benefits. Parents, and teachers should work with the individual to help them find the activities, which they enjoy, and work on these highlighted areas. I feel that learning support departments in schools should work closely with PE departments to facilitate the students with DCD. Personally, I think that the physical, and cognitive challenges in traditional martial arts, make it uniquely placed to help those suffering with DCD. The very nature of the art means that we are constantly working on the areas affected with DCD. If you are able to find an instructor who is willing to dedicate the time, and patience to help you, then the benefits will be huge. I am lucky enough to train with a world class instructor, and be supported by some incredible instructors at Oxford Karate Academy. They all understand my challenges, but work with me, which has led to some incredible experiences.
Last year 17 of us travelled to Japan to train. We spent a week training 5 to 6 hours per day. The training focused on constantly drilling certain movements. The precision of technique via high level instruction, and intense, focused training was incredible. It is exactly this type of immersive training, which is highly beneficial for anyone who wants to use the art to understand the more profound aspects of the art. “Perfection of character is through perfection of technique” (Kyoshi Coleman).
I am extremely lucky to have an incredible family, and have a support structure around me, but ultimately, the individual’s attitude will determine success. If I was able to get rid of my condition, to the cost of the lessons that overcoming my condition has taught me, then I certainly wouldn’t make that sacrifice. Having to adapt, and overcome from a young age, has given me the focus, drive and tenacity which I have today. To those with DCD, I conclude by saying that DCD gives you challenges, and you may not be able to take a straight path to your goals, but with the right support, understanding your condition, and the right mindset, you can achieve more than you think you can. Karate continues to help me improve, and I believe that the methodology of traditional martial arts is highly beneficial to those with DCD. However music, art, or dance, combined with strength training may provide similar results for those not inclined towards martial arts. My condition will always be a part of me, but as I progress, it affects me in less conspicuous ways, thus becoming less of a hindrance. In order to help those with DCD, learning support departments could collaborate more closely with art, music and sport departments to provide individualised plans for the student. Ultimately, the progress is dependent upon the attitude, and drive of the individual. A great support network is important, and I simply can’t overstate how much my family, friends, Kyoshi Coleman, and the fantastic instructors and fellow students have helped me. Improvement is the result of dedication, and hard work. Hard work is king!
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