Robin Hardbattle holds up two kickboxing mitts. He is standing in front of a group of pediatric patients, wearing a traditional martial arts uniform called a keikogi.
One of his students, Aryssa A., swings a fist at a mitt, connecting with a solid thwap! “Good! Try again, and this time, add a kiai when you punch,” says Mr. Hardbattle.
Aryssa’s opposite fist thwacks the other mitt, and a grin spreads across her face.
Mr. Hardbattle, an instructor for Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Integrative Medicine Service, teaches martial arts and meditation therapy to pediatric patients, as well as weekly qi gong and tai chi group classes for adults. These ancient Chinese martial arts combine rhythmic breathing with self-paced movements or stretches of the arms and legs.
Enlisting therapists and exercise specialists to get patients of all ages up and active is a critical component of patient care, and Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Integrative Medicine Service offers services like Mr. Hardbattle’s to meet this need.
“One of the wonderful aspects of martial arts is it teaches you to be calm, focused, and strong while you deal with a challenge,” he says. “And you cannot get more serious or intense than in a fight against an illness.”
Teaching Kids to Cope
Throughout their lives, adults develop ways to manage the emotions brought on by traumatic events like cancer. But with their limited life experience, children aren’t as equipped to cope.
Activities such as martial arts that combine physical release with mind-body elements can teach kids coping mechanisms to manage the emotional stress brought on by their diagnosis, treatments, and hospital stays, Mr. Hardbattle says. It’s “an outlet for the anger and frustration kids are inevitably feeling.”
Another outlet is the small “focus pillow” Mr. Hardbattle carries with him during his rounds in the Pediatric Day Hospital.
“I ask patients to concentrate on one word or image on the face of the pillow that describes how they are feeling in that moment, then I tell them to imagine blasting it away with a punch to the pillow,” he says. “They can punch once, ten times — as often as they like. It gives them a chance to physically release stress from their system.”
Mr. Hardbattle also organizes a group martial arts class in the Pediatric Day Hospital playroom called Robin’s Sidekicks.Back to top
Reassuring the Family
The meditation component of Mr. Hardbattle’s instruction focuses on controlled breathing exercises to relax the mind. Patients can repeat these techniques on their own when they’re feeling distressed during their treatments. “They understand how to make what was once a traumatic experience for them only mildly stressful, and procedures that were moderately frustrating now feel like no big deal,” he says.
And when children learn skills to help themselves get through their tests and treatments, it benefits not only themselves but also their family members. “If after I’ve worked with a patient for a number of weeks, they are able to face former challenges or fears on their own, their parents can feel some relief because their child is more confident and comfortable,” says Mr. Hardbattle.Back to top
Getting Back in Action
Most importantly, martial arts instruction gives pediatric patients a fun reason to be physically active.
Surgeries and cancer treatments can keep kids in bed for days or even weeks at a time, often leaving them with no interest in or enthusiasm for exercising. But exercise can play a crucial role: Research conducted at Memorial Sloan Kettering and other institutions has linked physical activity with increased survival rates for some cancer diagnoses.
“When I walk into [a patient’s] room, I present martial arts as a new activity to try, not rehab or a procedure,” Mr. Hardbattle says. “Giving a young child or a teenager the option is important because they often feel no control over their cancer, hospital stay, or treatment. I engage each patient in a conversation, assess and tailor the exercises I can teach them, such as kickbox punching, low kicks, stretching or yoga breathing, and ask them to give it a try.”Back to top