Brad Stennerson Ph.D.

Psychology, but Not Too Seriously

Should Everybody Be Kung Fu Fighting?

Three brain-building benefits of martial arts training.

Posted Jan 05, 2016

"Karate Black Belt Leaping" by Spirit-Fire/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
Source: "Karate Black Belt Leaping" by Spirit-Fire/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Let’s start with the obvious:  martial arts involve violence.  A technique may focus on defending against violence - for example, an O Goshi (Judo hip throw) that places an attacker flat on his back - but still, it aims to subdue or damage the human body.  Which is itself a violent act. 

As much as we want to deny it, human beings are a violent bunch.  Always have been.  Acts of violence were part of daily life for our prehistoric ancestors, who roamed an unforgiving world hunting for their food and fighting off predators (and each other).  A few thousand years ago they banded together in larger, more settled groups to improve their lot in life, but culturally the violence remained.  In fact, in the millennia since the dawn of human civilization one society or another has been embroiled in near constant warfare.

Yet in today’s world, at least for the fortunate among us, violence is merely an ingredient in our entertainment.  It’s a spectacle to give us thrills as we watch our favorite movies, read the latest new york times bestseller, or wince at a brutal tackle during a football game. 

It doesn’t always evoke positive emotions.  After all, no one enjoys seeing or reading about their favorite character getting beat up, shot or decapitated (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones).  But there is something within us that draws us back to these fictional or regulated scenes of violence, something innate that craves it, that recognizes it as familiar.

Is that a bad thing?  Maybe.  Should we undergo a moral overhaul en masse and purge ourselves of these violent tendencies?  Probably. 

Okay, so then why would anyone engage in a violent activity on purpose?  Any practitioner of martial arts/combat sports can relate to this inner conflict:  I dislike violence in theory and would never wish physical harm on anyone, but I enjoy fighting.  Alternatively:  hurting people is a bad thing, but combat is interesting. 

I personally practice Judo – a Japanese grappling art – and many of my colleagues in psychology would (and do) turn up their nose at my hobby.  Don’t I know Bandura’s Bobo doll study?  As a psychologist, shouldn’t I know better than to put more aggression in the world?

If you ask almost any experienced practitioner of martial arts how to best win a street fight, you will get the same answer.  DON’T FIGHT IN THE FIRST PLACE.  Like medical doctors studying damage to the human body so it can be healed, or like car mechanics understanding how auto parts break so they can be repaired, we learn about combat so we can better avoid it.  Or, in a worst-case scenario, do only what is necessary. 

At least, that’s how I resolve my own cognitive dissonance.  And, as it happens, there are some nice mental health benefits to practicing marital arts.

1.     Improved Focus and Self Control

The technological landscape of the 21st century often requires us to split our attention in a thousand different directions at once.  Few of us would turn down the chance to use our attention more effectively and develop better mental focus.  Martial arts may be the answer.  There is evidence that practicing a martial art can improve concentration, regulation of emotion, and self-control (Goldsmith, 2014; Marquez-Castillo, 2014; Mendenhall, 2006). 

Learning a martial art often requires complete dedication to the moment, or complete absorption in the present.  You must cultivate awareness in order to learn and use self-defense techniques.  This kind of intentional awareness, also referred to as mindfulness, has become increasingly popular in recent years as a component of psychotherapy.  It can help with all kinds of issues, like anxiety, trauma, depression, OCD - you name it.  Without getting into the research on mindfulness in therapy, I’ll say that a lot of researchers and therapists think it works (I’m one of them). 

Simply put, we tend to have more meaningful experiences when we’re connected to the present moment, to what we’re actually doing – as opposed to thinking anxiously about the future or ruminating about the past.  Martial arts training can help you develop this ability.

2.     More Social Confidence

It takes two people to fight.  Consequently, martial arts training is a social endeavor, and it almost always involves learning in a group and working with several partners during each class.  You will get to know these people well, and you will support each other as you master your art.  So in addition to practicing your joint locks and punches, you will practice your small talk and witty banter.  And practice makes perfect (Itriago, 2014).

This makes martial arts training particularly useful as an adjunct mental health treatment.  The most common mental health problems usually involve social impairment, particularly social withdrawal.  I.e. when you’re depressed you want to be alone, and when you’re anxious you want to avoid people.  Your martial arts classes will expose you to social interactions even if your moods tell you to isolate.  Isolating almost always makes you feel worse.  Socializing almost always helps.  Martial arts class can also serve as exposure therapy for social anxiety

The first day is scary for everyone, but you will have a hard time finding a more supportive, welcoming place than a Judo dojo.  (I have been told this typically extends to other martial arts facilities as well)

3.     Positive Self-Concept   

Practicing a martial art can build your self-esteem (Ball, 2012; Finkenberg, 1990; Prince, 1996).  This doesn’t mean you will see yourself as an unstoppable human weapon like a Bruce Lee movie character or a real-life Jon “Bones” Jones (because you won’t be), but you will feel better about yourself as you develop your mind and body.

Martial arts training, particularly when it involves sparring and competition, forces you to confront fears that most people work hard to avoid.  The fear of fighting, the fear of pain, the fear of being hurt, the fear of failure, the fear of losing, the fear of your own fear/anger, the fear of the unpredictable – the list goes on and on.  Lesser challenges in life become just that – lesser – and you develop a respect for yourself and your abilities as your martial art becomes an integral part of your identity.     

In Conclusion

My opinion:  martial arts are fun.  My advice:  do some research and try one that sounds interesting.  Or just take my word for it and find your nearest Judo club.

****For the purposes of this article I have grouped several martial arts together, but of course, not all martial arts are created equal.  Although there are vast differences between the arts – for example between the kick/striking emphasis of Tae-Kwon-Do and the Ne-waza ground techniques of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu – I have chosen to focus on their similarities.  Namely, a coherent system of unarmed combat taught actively in a group setting, emphasizing physical conditioning, situational awareness, and skill building.

References

Ball, K., & Martin, J. (2012). Self-defense training and traditional martial arts: Influences on self-efficacy and fear related to sexual victimization. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 1(2), 135-144.

Goldsmith, S. A. D. (2014). Adolescent participation in traditional martial arts: Effects of training on risk behaviors and psychological wellbeing (Order No. AAI3587845).

Finkenberg, M. E. (1990). Effect of participation in taekwondo on college women's self-concept. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 71(3), 891-894.

Itriago, M. G. (2014). The social effects of a group community social martial arts program on shyness in children (Order No. AAI3562202).

Marquez-Castillo, R. (2014). Martial arts and ADHD: A meta-analysis (Order No. AAI3595201).

Mendenhall, M. (2006). An investigation of the impact of buddhist martial arts as a rehabilitation intervention program to remedy emotional problems, curb aggressive tendencies, develop self-awareness, and cultivate a strong moral foundation with incarcerated juvenile delinquents (Order No. AAI3222044).

Prince, D. S. (1996). Self-concept in martial arts students (Order No. AAM9619194).