BIG CYPRESS — If Charlie Osceola could turn back time, confidence would have played a bigger part in his childhood.
“I remember being not necessarily the best one in a sport, or the first picked, and I didn’t like that and it left a big shadow on my life moving forward,” he said.
As he grew older, Osceola made sure confidence – boosted by his involvement in martial arts – became a source of embedded courage that he could draw upon. So it’s no surprise that building confidence is the foundation to Big Cypress Martial Arts, a school Osceola bought three years ago while watching his three daughters and other tribal youngsters learn martial arts, including jujitsu.
“What I want the kids to take away is a sense of confidence in themselves,” Osceola said as he watched eight barefoot kids – seven in white robes and one in black – practice on cushioned mats under the guidance of instructor Luis Gutierrez on a January evening.
Based at the Fitness Dome in Big Cypress, the program offers sessions for adults, too. Osceola said practicing an hour of jujitsu burns more calories than weightlifting and running.
“It’s an all-around body workout, and it’s not high impact,” he said. “You come in, you roll around, you wrestle, you do the moves. It’s low impact; anyone can do it. We’ve had seniors come in before.”
Kids can start as early as age 5; the adult program starts at age 16. Osceola said he’s open to expansion.
“We are trying to get the program on other reservations. Right now, it’s only in Big Cypress,” he said. “We’ve had people from Hollywood and we’ve had people from Immokalee and Brighton come and participate. They do really well, but after a while the ride after work gets tiring.”
If Tribal citizens would like the program offered on other reservations, Osceola said they should contact their local leaders.
“We are contracted by the Tribe,” he said. “It’s a service that’s provided. It’s a very good service. Anyone who wants to take part in it or try it out, I encourage it because it will definitely change your mind on what you think about martial arts.”
Last September, Big Cypress Martial Arts ventured off the reservation and broadened its scope by entering a competitive tournament for the first time.
Filled with youngsters, the team returned from the North American Grappling Association event at Florida Atlantic University with first-place winners, runners-up and positive vibes in the confidence department.
“We placed well,” Osceola said. “Everybody did good and I was very proud of everyone, including the community that came out, the parents that came out to support their kids.”
Competing against unfamiliar foes has its benefits, Osceola said. In the school, students practice against one other and eventually learn their “opponent’s” moves. By facing outside competition, the kids do not know what to expect from the other side.
“You want to expose them to as many different techniques and different styles from every other kid. That helps them grow way faster,” Osceola said.
But Osceola stressed that excelling in tournaments isn’t the driving force to his program, nor is it the ultimate goal.
“This isn’t necessarily a competition school; we will test our students in a competition whenever we want to, but we’re not here to push kids into competitions; we’re not here to win medals,” he said. “What we’re focusing on is having better kids, better attitude, better confidence when they grow up.”
Before they grow up, the kids have plenty of opportunities just to be kids while learning jujitsu. Gutierrez, who has decades of experience as a martial arts instructor, teaches a system that blends sweat with fun.
“It’s where you reward them with play if they do well. Go from intense drills, if they do well, then to a game for five minutes. They love it,” Osceola said. “It’s a very good system and it works on kids who have a lot of energy, especially the younger kids.”
At the end of the class in January, Gutierrez wrapped black tape around the ends of some students’ belts as recognition for accomplishments. The beaming students proceeded to embark on a joyous victory sprint while high-fived by their peers and Gutierrez.
“He’s very good at connecting with the children and making them feel confident and getting them out there to do things they probably wouldn’t normally do and take chances,” Osceola said.
Helping kids emerge from their shells while building a wealth of self-esteem they can use for the rest of their lives makes all the hard work worthwhile for Big Cypress Martial Arts.
“These kids won’t show any nerves,” Gutierrez said.