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The Social & Psychological Effects of Martial Arts - Hard Data or Scam?

by Jason Maine

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When you practice martial arts, you are opening yourself up to a multitude of benefits from improving your overall physical health, to gaining better life skills, and even to self-defense. Plenty of studies and personal accounts attest to these benefits. However, the question then arises: are there negative social-psychological effects of martial arts?

There are many cases that take a look at just how much martial arts training can be affecting social and psychological development. At the same time, some controversy exists in these studies. Is this data actually legit? Or is it based purely on propaganda against the fighting arts, in particular when it's directed toward youth practitioners?

Budding Interest: A Rise in Social-Psychological Studies

Interests in the social-psychological effects of martial arts date back to the 1960s, but it wasn't until the mid-'90s that focus turned toward youth practitioners. Researchers previously examined the typical traits martial arts focused on (e.g. reducing stress/anxiety, self-esteem, humility, independence, etc.). That changed, and instead, they began focusing on purely the hostility and anger found in practitioners over anything else.

Findings became far less biased once different researchers began weighing the teaching styles (traditional vs. non-traditional). Outcomes appeared to be more positive when training focused on the long-established approach to martial arts.


shaolin kung fu training

Youth training in Shaolin monastery


For example, when Judo was first conceived, it focused on practitioners behaving in accordance to society as a whole; becoming a better person for themselves and for others. Many today still teach that philosophy to practitioners, helping them gain greater respect toward those around them.

The Fighting Arts: Therapeutic or Heightened Aggression?

Young kick boxer in training

A young kickboxer 


Researchers who approached competitive-driven arts may have skewed their findings in a way. When examining the social-psychological effects of martial arts in that type of setting, some found that practitioners seemed to stay on edge, or even, angry.

This can easily be used against the arts in terms of allowing children to participate. The problem with such findings is that they are biased from the start. Competition-based martial arts require practitioners to fight to win, not to find peace, reduce stress, etc. They aren't given a chance for self-reflection, so studying them in the same way as studying one who practices Tai Chi may deliver false data.

More researchers took an open-minded approach over the years, and their findings began to support one another. For instance, several concluded that the longer one remained in an art, regardless of style, aggression levels tended to lower.


Youth training in a monastery

Youth training in Shaolin monastery


The lower levels of aggression can relate to the fact that the root philosophies found in just about all styles of martial arts can weigh out anything other training. The arts are largely about respect—for yourself and for others—in addition to being about discovering more about yourself and your limitations. There's a reason why many people look to martial arts as healing arts; just take a look at the therapeutic benefits Kung Fu can offer its practitioners.

Data or Scam? It's Complicated

The study of the social-psychological effects of martial arts, especially with youths, remains a tough subject to tackle. Is the data really a scam? Considering the various research conducted across decades, the answer appears to be no. There is hard data found in the relation between martial arts and the effects on the development of the mind and emotions.

The challenge comes with how we can get get a solid finding from these studies. There are far too many factors to conclude one way or another if there are too many or zero negative effects. You have to consider the likes of the environment of the school. Are the instructors encouraging and patient? Do the other students behave with similar values?

Next, you have to focus on the many styles of martial arts, something that is known to skew data. Examining someone in boxing will not get the same results as someone who is taking low-impact styles like Baguazhang.

You have to look at the "why" as well. Is it for self-defense or getting into shape? Or is it all about competition? Data can change based on whether or not the child has anger issues in the first place.

In the end, with this many variables, it can be tough to discern anything one way or another. What isn't up for debate is the benefits practitioners see. Perhaps with more time and research, we can get a clearer picture of the true social-psychological effects martial arts truly have on us.

Curious to find out what benefits martial arts can offer you without breaking the bank? Why not sign up for a budget martial arts training camp? If you’d like to read more of Jason’s work, be sure to check out his blog or find him on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest

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