Denver’s Peaceful Warriors: Developmental Disabilities and the Martial Arts

December 9, 2016 by Shawn Smith

“Hi Mark, I’m breathing!” Click.

That’s one of hundreds of voicemails Mark Nothdurft has received from his students over the years. This one is from Nick, a spirited young man with autism who has studied martial arts with Mark for more than a decade. He probably wanted Mark to know he had taken a moment to calm himself when he was feeling upset.

Mark has taught martial arts to hundreds of people with developmental disabilities. (Full disclosure: I’m on the Board of Directors for Mark’s School, though my contributions are minimal. To call me an assistant would be overly generous. I’m basically a confused mascot.)

It started 15 years ago when George Brangoccio, who runs a state-funded community and residential program, approached Mark about the difficulties his clients faced when they traveled unsupervised in the community.

Mark and Nick
Sensei Mark works with Nick at Platt Park Recreation Center.

George told me how it all began. “One of my participants got rolled,” he said. “He got beat up and they took $100. I noticed this was happening a lot. When they have to go back and forth to work, they’re independent and easily exploited. Even at the mall—everybody was coming back with phone contracts. They’re easy to take advantage of.”

George, whose father happened to have been Mark Nothdurft’s sensei, was looking for a way to make his clients safer. “Mark took the ball,” George said. It started with private lessons to a client named Jim, who was “really, really frustrated and bored.”

Mark recalls Jim’s anger management problems—flipping off police officers and shouting at strangers, for example. With his ever-present sly humor, Mark described the time Jim “beat up a Toyota” in a fit of rage. He made it a personal mission to help Jim contain his outbursts before someone victimized him.

It may seem counterintuitive to teach martial arts to a grown man with impulse control problems, but Mark puts great emphasis on mental discipline and self-control. Jim developed a passion for the classes and great respect for his teacher. His outbursts decreased as he found a place to focus his energy, along with skills for containing his impulses.

Most of Mark’s students struggle with impulse control, though more typically in a manner which makes them vulnerable to suggestion and manipulation by predators. That’s why each of his classes includes role-playing exercises in which students can practice maintaining boundaries with strangers, recognizing dangerous interactions, and escaping to the safety of friendly people and safe locations.

Heaven and Earth
Class assistant Marylin and her brother Rudy practice the “heaven and earth” defense. (All the techniques have easily memorized names.) Marylin has assisted Mark for many years.

Scenario training gives students safe opportunities to practice responding to difficult situations. They practice handling mock predators harassing them on public transportation, offering them rides, or attempting to gain private information, just for starters.

It can be exceedingly challenging for students to step away from dangerous interactions, and so Mark repeats the scenarios frequently. He makes it fun, so there’s never a shortage of volunteers willing to practice the skills.

The scenarios don’t always go as planned. For example, Mark’s favorite scenario teaches students how to call 911, with a volunteer playing the role of the operator. It once occurred to Mark that the class had spent too much time practicing the scenario on land lines (unplugged) rather than cell phones which involve pressing a “send” button.

To remedy the oversight, he brought an old, out-of-service cell phone to class, not realizing that disconnected cell phones can still reach emergency services. At some point during the exercise, he heard someone on the line say, “911, what’s your emergency?”

“I think we called 911 about six times that day,” Mark laughed.

Sometimes it’s the students who bring scenarios to an unorthodox end, like the young woman who responded to an “aggressive stranger” scenario by locking herself in a broom closet and falling silent, even after Mark called an end to the exercise.

Missteps are part of the plan, and the scenario training has proven invaluable. While the 911 sequence is challenging for some participants, it paid off when one student saved the life of a neighbor who was having a heart attack. It’s unlikely she would have known what to do, or how to do it, without the many classroom repetitions.

Plenty of success stories have accumulated over the years, like the young woman who escaped sexual assault by fighting back against her attacker. Mark doesn’t care whether she executed her defensive techniques correctly. Through her years of training, she learned how to fight her way to safety, and that’s what matters. She was unscathed and her attacker was arrested.

However, Mark makes it clear that the goal is to avoid physical confrontation. His classroom mantra is Move! Get out of the way! Avoid the fight before it starts. The students take the lesson to heart.

Remember Nick? (“Hi Mark, I’m Breathing!”) I asked his father if the decade of classes have made Nick safer in the community.

“Oh yes, it’s been a godsend,” he said. “Mark is a saint. Nick takes public transportation. The thing that really helps is all the stuff Mark does with safety. Nick knows how to walk away, to sit behind the bus driver, not to get in the car with somebody… Mark has made it safer out there.”

Nick’s dad said the classes have also helped him rein in his emotions and impulses at home. “Nick can get upset. He says it to himself: ‘breathe through your nose.’” It’s a skill Mark has spent countless sessions helping Nick to develop. “We don’t make him go to class,” his father added. “He’s choosing it. Mark has such patience.”

Word of Mark’s classes has spread. Since the first referrals many years ago, Mark has taught classes through Denver Parks and Recreation, Mount Saint Vincent’s Children’s Home, and Denver Public Schools—all on a volunteer basis, taking small donations that barely cover his fuel bill.

To date, Mark has taught more than 2,000 classes with this population. By any conservative estimate, that’s more than 4,000 hours of his time and 38,000 miles driven. I asked him why he does it.

Bowing Out at End of Class
Reviewing the day’s lesson at the end of class.

“I see progress, and it helps them,” he said. “They keep their heads up, they pay attention to their surroundings…. It’s a calling. As long as you’re doing something good you have to stay with it.”

Mark would like teachers in other cities to follow his lead, and he’s happy to offer guidance. I’d like to see it happen too, but first I’d like to see Denver’s small army of peaceful warriors get on more solid footing.

As the school’s confused mascot, I’m in the position to know that these classes are expensive to run, even with donated space. We’d like to one day have our own building. For now, a tankful of gas for Mark and some new uniforms for the students would be great.

If you’d like to contribute to Mark’s efforts, please visit the Mountain Tiger website. (Here’s the donation page.) I’ll sign off with a short video of my buddy Ben giving me an attitude adjustment. Happy Holidays!

-Shawn