Maryland's first family of martial arts teaches life lessons along with physical strength

In the world of the ninja, the Elrod family is an impressive force.

Julie and Ron Elrod are black belts who travel to Japan annually to study their craft with Soke Hatsumi, the 34th-generation ninjutsu grandmaster. Their children, 21-year-old Kami and 24-year-old Wyatt, have followed in their footsteps, training with their parents. Experts in the art of self-defense, the Elrods are physically alert and sharp. They are not a family muggers would want to meet in a dark alley.

Despite their physical prowess and skill with weapons, the Elrods are more welcoming than intimidating. And to the students and parents at the American Academy of Martial Arts, the family's 18-year-old Howard County martial-arts school, the Elrods' physical accomplishments, while inspiring, are secondary to their other qualities.

"The Elrods are amazing people," says John Miller, whose 7- and 9-year-old sons have been training at AAMA for about nine months. "We've been blown away by the values they instill in the kids. For me, that's more important than what they're getting with the martial-arts training."

The Elrods, along with about 50 additional instructors who are "like family," teach the AAMA's 1,200 students taijutsu, or Japanese mixed martial arts with a self-defense orientation. The Elrods' approach draws heavily on the 1,000-year-old art of ninjutsu; Julie Elrod holds a ninth-degree black belt in the discipline, along with black belts in several other styles of martial arts. Kami and Wyatt have also spearheaded a kickboxing program at the school, focusing on cardiovascular exercise.

As the school continues to grow, the AAMA moved into bigger digs at the end of July. With 11,000 square feet of space, the new Columbia facility is large, open and cheerfully bright. Most of the building is dedicated to taijutsu practice space, with mats covering the floors and mirrors on the walls — and plenty of seating for parents who want to watch their kids practice. Kami and Wyatt teach kickboxing in a smaller room, tucked in the back near two large locker rooms, where students have space to move, but more privacy for practice.

Woven into each of their classes are values-based lessons that the Elrods hope students will retain throughout their lives. "While our students may at some point forget the physical moves they learned, we hope that the concepts we try to instill in them will last a lifetime," says Kami Elrod.

Those concepts — such as compassion, honesty, respect, perseverance, confidence and self-discipline — are on display in the AAMA's facilities, written in bold red letters across the mirrors in the training area. Each week, AAMA classes highlight one of those concepts as a "word of the week."

"They really focus on those things during class," says Stacy Bussing, a black belt instructor at AAMA whose two children also train at the school. "They'll ask the kids, 'What's our word? What does it mean?' They make sure the kids know exactly what it means and how they can use that word in karate and at home."

Like many AAMA parents, Bussing uses the words of the week as a springboard for conversations and lessons at home. She shares a story as an example. "One of my sons moved a worm off a hot sidewalk onto the grass and I said, 'You're really showing a lot of compassion.'" Her son replied, "Mr. Elrod says every living thing deserves compassion."

Bussing notes that the words of the week are useful lessons not just for kids, but also for adults. "One of the words of the week is courage — about facing your fears," she says. "I am not the most extroverted person. Speaking in front of a group is scary for me. But as an instructor it's something I have to do — I face my fear. It's helped me."

In class, the Elrods draw on their own experiences to illustrate the words of the week, telling stories about times they were challenged to persevere or show compassion. Julie Elrod has written a book, Moral Kombat, exploring those words from a kid-friendly perspective.

The Elrods practice the values they preach both in the studio and out.

"They're always doing something to give back," says Sue Jones, a kickboxing student whose son started training at AAMA when he was 5; he's now 18 and an instructor. "They do Wounded Warriors, write letters to soldiers, do personal stuff for the families."

The Elrods are especially involved in canine rescue. They are active with an organization called K-9 Lifesavers that helps foster dogs; they personally foster over a dozen dogs.

"It shows how loving they are," Jones laughs. "They get attached to these dogs and can't say no! They're very involved in giving back."

That loving attitude is on display at the school, too. AAMA is the largest of Maryland's 290 martial-arts schools, and the Elrod family knows each student's name, both first and last. "It's amazing how Mrs. Elrod talks to people," says Stacy Bussing. "She knows their first and last names. It makes people feel good!"

The Elrods insist they gain as much from their students as the students learn from them. "It's so neat to see the transition," says Ron Elrod. "The most rewarding thing is to see the kids as they grow."

For some AAMA students, that growth means a boost in confidence or overcoming shyness. For others, it means resisting peer pressure and staying on a wholesome path.

"We try to teach inner strength," says Julie Elrod. "Not just going along with friends, but thinking for themselves. It gives teens a support network if their friends at school are getting into trouble. And these kids grow up together."