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MMA: Not For Adults Only

With mixed martial arts boom, Reston resident’s gym offers Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu program.

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Students at the Synergy Mixed Martial Arts training facility are taught how to defend themselves while in a submissive position using various joint-locks and chokeholds.

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Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Tony Passos watches as his student practice the skills necessary to defend themselves in a fight.

Rolling around on mats at the Synergy Mixed Martial Arts training facility in Sterling, children ages 6 to 12 attempt to execute an arm bar, which is an advanced submission hold that hyperextends the elbow.

The scene might suggest that those participating are trying to seriously injure one another, but under the watchful eyes of Tony Passos, a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu from Recife, Brazil, they are learning what's considered one of the most effective martial arts.

"That's enough," Passos said. "It's time to play dodgeball."

Smiles light up on the children's faces as they give each other high-fives and dash to the middle of the mats to enjoy the classic schoolyard game. Within moments, an intense Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu sparring session has divulged into a light-hearted game of dodgeball, with the children taking aim at their instructors.

The Synergy gym has existed in Northern Virginia for nearly three years and recently has found success in attracting children for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu lessons.

"The kids really like it and we want them to have fun while learning," said Firas Barzinji, 25, a Reston resident, the gym's owner. "Usually, the parents bring us the kids because they are looking for a place to fit in or have been bullied or just want a fun activity to do."

A generation ago, children looked to karate or taekwondo as a way to ward off bullies, but today the ground-fighting discipline of Brazilian jujitsu is starting to take its place alongside them.

"Those martial arts have turned into 'train for a month and then pay for a belt test,'" Barzinji said. "That's not what Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is all about. It's much more practical for self defense."

The core lessons of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu are how to use an opponent's body weight against them and apply chokeholds and other submission holds while lying on one's back, making a person in a submissive position a threat to his attacker.

<b>ALTHOUGH THE</b> training features variations of schoolyard games that have connections to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the gym doesn't shy away from teaching the submission techniques that have made the sport famous. The children practice the submission holds on each other, but as soon as pressure is felt, their hands tap on their opponent's body to let them know to let go.

"We tell them, the second you feel uncomfortable, let your partner know," Barzinji said. "There's no shame in tapping out, everyone of us does it."

While the children practice these potentially dangerous holds on each other and the instructors, parents watch from a viewing room just beyond the mats.

"I don't see violence in this," said Toni Torres, 32, a Manassas resident whose two children, ages 7 and 12, train at Synergy. "It's an art form. It's not what I expected."

Ashburn resident Sonya Rios, 40, brought her two children Nicholas, 12, and Natalie, 9, to Synergy as a way to boost their confidence.

"[Nicholas] was starting middle school soon and we wanted to give him an activity he enjoyed," she said. "It's been a huge confidence booster."

Rios said that she was worried about the submission holds and dangerous techniques, but "we've never had an injury."

<b>THE SYNERGY</b> instructors try to keep the children safe, but an injury is always a lingering possibility. Dr. Andrew Wise, a specialist in sports medicine in Alexandria, said that practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has its risks.

“I think it's potentially dangerous for anyone, children or adults,” Wise said. "I don’t see many serious injuries [from martial arts] other than sprains, but all sports carry risks.”

Wise said that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is no more dangerous for a child than playing football. He also mentioned that the risk of injury was also depends on one’s involvement in the sport.

“There's a major difference between training [in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu] and competing like the professionals,” he said.

While Rios' children have been able to avoid any serious injuries, the benefits from the class were so great that she enrolled her daughter in the class as well.

"Natalie tried it out and fell in love with it," she said. "It seemed like a good skill to have. Now she can defend herself if she needs to."

<b>WHILE PARENTS</b> say they are bringing their children to class for confidence lessons, some of the children are motivated fans of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the popular MMA promotion in America.

"I really like watching [UFC welterweight champion George St. Pierre]," said Nicholas Rios. "I enjoy watching the fights with my dad."

Even though the UFC has helped popularize arts such as Brazilian jujitsu, it also has placed misconceptions around the sport due to the violent fights that feature bloodstained mats and brutal knockouts.

"It's not human cock-fighting like John McCain called it," said Barzinji. "It's athletes performing at a high level and it's safer. In boxing, when you get knocked down, you're encouraged to keep fighting. That's a lot of head trauma if you ask me."

The UFC's version of mixed martial arts features striking techniques such as Muay Thai kickboxing, but the Synergy children's class does not. Barzinji says he isn't looking to train the next UFC legend.

"I don't think little kids should be hitting each other," Barzinji said.

<b>SYNERGY DOES</b> offer Muay Thai lessons, but it's the child's choice if he wants to advance to that stage of training.

"We have a low turnover of our kids going from jujitsu to Muay Thai," he said. "We won't even consider teaching them [Muay Thai] until they are a teenager."

Even though the goal isn't to find a new MMA prospect, the gym does allow its students to compete in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournaments.

Nicholas Rios recently won an event on Aug. 1, his second tournament victory this year.

"The atmosphere for the tournaments is very jovial," said Barzinji. "The kids take it seriously, but it's not as intense as you might expect."

Despite Barzinji's efforts to keep the focus on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, some students are curious about the world of MMA beyond Jiu-Jitsu.

"I want to try Muay Thai," Nicholas Rios said. "I don't know if my mom will let me though."

Sonya Rios gave her son a worried glare. "If we have time,” she said.