It sounds like a paradox – the idea that participating in aggressive sport can make people less aggressive. Yet this belief forms a core basis of many martial arts dating back thousands of years, and many famous practitioners (real and fictional) have preached the importance of self control.
Legendary martial artist Bruce Lee once noted that “emotion can be the enemy. If you give into your emotion, you lose yourself”. Or as Mr. Miyagi said in The Karate Kid the “lesson is not just karate only, the lesson is for whole life”.
Previous research has demonstrated that this may well be the case, as participating in martial arts helps improve concentration and self-awareness, self-esteem, emotional stability and self-regulation.
But is it really true that martial arts also reduces aggression outside the karate dojo? Can participating in traditionally violent sports prove cathartic, helping young people develop self-discipline and in turn be less violent away from the sport? Writing in the journal of Aggression and Violent Behaviour researchers from Israel and America report their findings from the first meta-analysis on the impact of martial arts on violent behaviours in children and teenagers.
Anna Harwood and Michal Lavidor of Bar-Ilan University and Yuri Rassovsky of UCLA reviewed the existing research and found 300 potentially relevant papers. However, only twelve met their criteria for inclusion: they had to have a control group, as well as valid measures of the impact of martial arts on aggression, violence, anger or hostility.
Their analysis found that participating in martial arts did indeed have a significant impact in reducing aggression. Of the twelve studies reviewed, eleven showed a positive impact. Central to this was that martial arts reduced the rate of externalising behaviours in participants. Externalising behaviours included, but were not limited to, physical aggression, verbal and physical bullying, theft and vandalism.
Through the teaching and practices of martial arts, participants were better able to gain a sense of control over both the situations and themselves, leading to less negative emotional responses and violent behaviours. Statistically speaking, the average size of the effect of martial arts on these behaviours was 0.65, indicating a medium sized effect.
The results were consistent regardless of the participants’ age or gender. Likewise, the amount of time spent training and if they practised their martial arts either in or outside of school made no significant difference. Given that the studies reviewed comprised a range of methodologies, including both longitudinal random control trials, these findings carry significant weight.
However, this meta-analysis was somewhat hampered by the sheer paucity of quality studies to have looked at the impact of martial arts on children and teenagers. As the authors put it, “the research on martial arts is sparse and many studies lack the statistical integrity to include them in a robust meta-analysis”.
That being said, this review raises some exciting implications for martial arts as an intervention for delinquent teenagers, especially those who demonstrate serious and consistent anti-social behaviours, who are at increased risk of becoming lifelong offenders. Encouraging them to engage in traditional “self-help” programmes can be tricky so participating in martial arts could potentially offer a different route. As the authors of the study note, “while psychologically oriented programmes often receive the bulk of the scientific interest, troubled youth often do not cooperate with these traditional approaches. Martial arts, may both complement and form a basis for further cooperation in psychological therapies”.
Compared to more traditional methods to reduce aggression, martial arts and karate offer a cost-effective and fun alternative to enhance mental well-being.
More research is clearly needed, but these initial findings are promising and seem to confirm the long-held paradoxical belief that participating in combat sports can help reduce rates of violence, anger and aggression.
If you would like more information about our Martial Arts Program for Kids and Teens don’t hesitate to call us at (561)-222-3903.
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