The art of not fighting: Martial arts reduce child and teen aggression

giphyBy guest blogger Bradley Busch

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 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”.

Of course there are many different martial arts and they all vary in their techniques and philosophy. Unfortunately, there has also been little research that has actively compared the impact that these different combat sports have on reducing aggression. This is because many of the studies to date have been on people who participate in a combination of martial arts.

The one study in this review that did report a negative impact on martial arts on aggressive behavior was on young boys participating in judo. This finding may have been due to the lack of meditation within the training sessions to help improve self control, which is a common aspect of many other martial arts. Further research would help us identify under which situations and which martial arts are most beneficial for helping adolescents with aggressive tendencies.

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 orientated programmes often receive the bulk of the scientific interest, troubled youth often do not co-operate 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 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.

Reducing aggression with martial arts: A meta-analysis of child and youth studies

Bradley BuschPost written by Bradley Busch (@Inner_Drive) for the BPS Research Digest. Bradley is a registered psychologist and director of InnerDrive. He has worked with Premiership and International footballers and is the author of Release Your InnerDrive