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Better Focus Without Medication: How Mixed Martial Arts Training at UFC Gym Impacted an Entire Family

The Surratt Family. Photo courtesy of Randi Sue Surratt
The Surratt Family. Photo courtesy of Randi Sue Surratt

 

By Kim Constantinesco

As a society, we like to throw labels on children.

“He’s got ADHD. She’s hyper-active. That boy has impulse-control problems.”

Go to any elementary school or middle school, or even a daycare, and you’ll hear those words thrown around on a daily basis. They stick like silly putty to linoleum.

We do it because those are easy descriptors for the behaviors we don’t understand. It allows us to harness control, distribute medication “in good conscience,” and explain the nature of our high-energy children to teachers, parents, and coaches.

According to the CDC, over 6 million children between the ages of 4 and 17 have received an ADHD diagnosis in their lifetime, which is up 16 percent since 2007, and up 41 percent in the last decade.  About two-thirds of those with a diagnosis are prescribed medication, which often leads to addiction and anxiety.

What if to control excess childhood energy, we let kids express themselves through play and exercise instead?

That was the thinking of mother of five, Randi Sue Surratt, 34, when she moved from a small north Texas town to Dallas and found UFC Gym Flower Mound.

Randi Sue’s two youngest sons, Weston, 10, and Landon, 9, have always been dynamic balls of fire. Weston, in particular, struggled with academic work and fitting in at school.

“Weston isn’t diagnosed with anything because I haven’t pursued that,” Randi Sue said. “A label doesn’t change anything, and only limits a child’s full potential and purpose.”

Still, Weston had been on medication since he was five years old to help regulate his lively behavior. Since starting training sessions at UFC Gym four to five times a week in January, however, he hasn’t needed pills to help him focus.

His grades have gone up, his confidence has increased, and a nice side effect of this “medication” is that Randi Sue has found motivation to get in the gym herself.

The Right Combination

The Surratt’s lived in Vega, Texas, a small windy Panhandle town with a population of about 1,000.

“The people were precious and sweet, but we didn’t have opportunity,” Randi Sue said. “There are not resources available for anyone that is designed outside the traditional box. It’s not the kind of place where you’re an individual, and have the ability to become whatever, so we took a leap and moved the family to Dallas in December.”

The boys work with Matthew Hunt at UFC Gym. Photo courtesy of Randi Sue Surratt
The boys work with Matthew Hunt at UFC Gym. Photo courtesy of Randi Sue Surratt

Close to Christmas, Randi Sue and her husband, Lee, were driving around their new city when they spotted UFC Gym Flower Mound, which offers fitness classes and training in mixed martial arts. Randi Sue wanted to lose weight and have a place where her boys could get their excess energy out. So, on January 1, the Surratt’s stepped through the doors.

No one told Matthew Hunt, an instructor for the youth striking classes, that Weston struggled with traditional learning, or that Landon had bouts of low self-esteem because he’s small for his age.

“I wasn’t aware that Weston was having any trouble outside of the gym,” Hunt said. “From the start, I thought, wow, he just remind me of myself. He was very energetic.”

During the class, Hunt instructs 8-12 kids at a time how to warm up properly before they jump into shadow boxing drills, combination work, and mitt training.

“I try to get them to use their mind and their body together,” Hunt said.

Upon moving to Dallas, Weston was already showing signs of improvement at school thanks to Argyle Hilltop Elementary’s more compassionate classroom, and joining an archery team on the side. Once he got going at the gym, his progress shifted into a higher gear.

“Weston was getting a lot more good notes from the school saying how great he’s doing,” Randi Sue said. “Last year, he was at a first grade reading level and now he’s at a third grade level.”

As part of Hunt’s classes, the boys learn various combinations of kicks and punches with a 1, for example, correlating to a jab, a 2 standing for a right hand, and a 3 corresponding to a left hook.

“It started with a, ‘Give me a 1-1-2.’ Now they’re working up to eight or nine sequences,” Randi Sue said. “Matt just saw in Weston what he needed, and it was focus and memory.”

The carry over effect has been noticeable on an almost daily basis.

“Today, Weston had testing at school, and he was talking about conquering things and how things don’t defeat him,” she said. “He uses words like ‘focus’ which is something he didn’t do before.”

As a result, every grade on his report card last quarter jumped up five points.

Landon is reaping the benefits as well.

“They are putting him up against big kids and little kids, and teaching him that ‘size’ is in the mind,” Randi Sue said.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

With a growing attention span and a new found confidence, Weston was able to stop taking the medication he had been on for half his life after less than a month of attending UFC Gym on a regular basis.

“The medication calms you, but it takes the life and the spirit out of you,” Randi Sue said. “The gym is a way to get that energy out, but leave the spirit still kicking.”

Randi Sue hated that her son was on medication, but back in Vega, there was no other way of thinking.

“Even understanding that he was different was a big struggle for people in our old town,” she said. “I felt like I failed like a mother because I gave him the medicine so that he might fit into their mold better. Every year, he struggled more. I was losing my kid.”

The Surratt’s were once paying $250 a month for Weston’s medication. Now they’re paying significantly less than that for an entire family membership to gym. Randi Sue is more than happy to make that trade, aside from the obvious savings.

“The medication was covering up an issue that wasn’t being fixed. It was just numbing it,” she said.

If Weston misses a few days at the gym, he struggles to finish his work.

Weston (left) and Landon have found better focus with archery, too. Photo courtesy of Randi Sue Surratt
Weston (left) and Landon have found better focus with archery, too. Photo courtesy of Randi Sue Surratt

“When I say, ‘Bud, what do you think we need to do?’ He says, ‘I need to get back to the gym. We need to go!'” Randi Sue said. “My kids are getting more than just fit.”

Letting Kids be Kids

Back in the 1970’s, ADHD was rarely diagnosed.

Registered nurse Marcia Williamson was raising her son and UFC Gym Flower Mound owner, Jeff Matthews, at the time in rural northeast Louisiana.

“I don’t know that he had the attention deficit that is associated now with ADHD, but he was a very high-energy child,” Williamson said. “He could watch a television show and he could work a puzzle. He could focus on something, but he needed the activity or he would get out of control.”

When Matthews was in kindergarten, he was sent out of class on a regular basis for about three weeks in February. He loved his teacher and got along well with other children, but regular appearances in the hall became the norm so that he wouldn’t distract his classmates from learning. So, Williamson went in to talk with his teacher.

“When he came home, he grabbed a snack and went outside, even if it was really cold or raining,” Williamson said. “The only thing his teacher and I could come up with was that it was winter time. They had not been able to go outside for recess to play. He was pent up all day. When the weather improved and they could go outside for recess again, his behavior straightened back up. I really think in this day and age, he would have been labeled, and it would have been recommended that he take medication. I’m so glad he wasn’t.”

Matthews has put that surplus of energy to good use in his adult life. In addition to owning the gym, he works full time as a forensic accountant and litigation consultant. He’s also a part-time college professor.

Matthews had three recesses a day while he was growing up. Today, kids are lucky if they get one. At a time when physical education classes are being reduced or cut all together, prescription pads are emptying at a faster pace. Treehouses and forts are being traded in for iPhones and iPads.

Perhaps it’s time to reconsider lifestyle choices.

An Entire Family Shift

Randi Sue has always described herself as a “chubby short little blonde.” Her husband has been fit his entire life.

She’s a dedicated mom who puts herself on the back burner, and that’s why before Weston and Landon started at UFC Gym, she never considered going just for herself.

“They drive me to go to the gym because I won’t do anything that doesn’t put my kids first,” she said. “In the past, they would’ve had to sit in the day care while I was working out. Going to the gym seemed like a very selfish thing to me.”

Once the boys were enrolled in striking classes, Randi Sue connected with UFC Gym trainer, Terrell Carter.

“She just didn’t have the knowledge or the accountability,” Carter said of Randi Sue. “One of the reasons why I started doing this is because I can understand. At one point, I was 250 pounds. My natural weight is around 170 pounds. I know how difficult that journey is.”

Carter puts Randi Sue through circuit-style total body workouts. One minute, she could be pushing a weighted sled. The next, she could be pounding a tire with a sledge hammer.

She has added muscle, her endurance is better, and most importantly, she’s penciling in time to attend to her own needs.

“I wanted her to take time out for herself because she’s such a great person, and she loves so many people,” Carter said. “She’s a great wife and a great mother, but I want her to be a great ‘her’ for herself.

During spring break, Randi Sue and Weston even took an entire class together. Weston called it “the best day ever.”

Randi Sue is calling this “the best move ever.”

Rather than scrutinizing attention spans and energy levels, perhaps we can give children the outlets that they need to expel energy.

When we realize that we all have different needs and speeds for traveling through life, that will be the winning 1-2-1 combination to knock out ADHD.

Kim Constantinesco

Kim Constantinesco

As the founder and editor-in-chief of Purpose2Play.com, Kim Constantinesco dives under the surface hype to illuminate heroes in the sports world. Whether talking with the first man with cerebral palsy to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro, or the first woman to mountain bike across Afghanistan, Kim has a keen interest in shining the spotlight on ordinary people doing extraordinary things. She believes it's time media starts placing a higher value on the people and communities who are actively doing something to make the world a little better. Previously, she covered the Denver Broncos and the NFL for seven seasons. Her work has been featured on NFL.com, CBS Sports, Fox Sports, The New York Times, and USA Today. She resides in Denver, CO. When not working, she can be found deep in the Rocky Mountains throwing backflips on her snowboard. Follow Kim on Twitter: @KimCon14
Kim Constantinesco

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