Kids, martial arts and mental health

I am a martial artist and I have always been told that practicing martial arts is beneficial for both adults and children.  For adults we can see the advantages in terms of improved fitness, psychological benefits and better coordination and self-defence skills.  Many adults report that they benefit psychologically from martial arts as it offers a way of channelling their stress and aggression, so I think that it is fair to say that practicing martial arts can help to support mental wellbeing.

In relation to children, most martial arts schools advertise that martial arts can help a child’s mental wellbeing by improving self-confidence, self-discipline, socialisation skills, sense of respect, non-violent conflict resolution etc.  While the physical benefits are clearly observable there do not appear to be many studies that examine the effect on their mental health.  (Please note that this article is based on my trawl through the internet, if anyone has any studies that have meaningful data on this matter I would be grateful to see it.)  Based on my initial search I have seen a lot of articles that support the idea of mental health benefits with anecdotal evidence, but I have not seen any conclusive data backing up these claims.  All over the internet we can find articles on how great martial arts are for your kids (for example: http://breakingmuscle.com/family-kids/7-reasons-why-your-child-should-practice-martial-arts).  There are also several scientific publications that support the idea that martial arts are beneficial for the development of mental wellbeing, for example:

Rather interestingly there are also studies that suggest that martial arts have no bearing on the mental development of children.  For example, there was a study run in the U.S. by Joseph M Strayhorn and Jillian C Strayhorn that used the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Kindergarten database and was funded by the U.S. Department of Education.  This research indicated that there were no real improvements or changes to children’s behaviour as a result of practicing martial arts.  The study and its results can be found here: http://www.capmh.com/content/3/1/32.

I found these results to be very surprising as I would like to believe that martial arts are a great way to improve society and I have personally seen young people that practice martial arts change to become calmer, better people.  This makes me think that more studies are required to understand why some people can see and demonstrate the benefits whilst large studies indicate that there are no significant impacts.

I wrote this article as a result of my surprise to the findings of the last study I mentioned.  Unfortunately I do not have the time (or funding!) to conduct my own research into this, but I just wanted to share my thoughts on the matter to see if anyone else had any further insight that they may be willing to share.

Hope this stimulates the debate!

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3 thoughts on “Kids, martial arts and mental health

  1. One wonders how the home life of these children were, and how generally structured the kindergarten aged programs were at these martial arts schools. The researchers made no claims that it didn’t effect behavior outside of school, so it could be that factors at school are canceling out the skills learned in the dojo. Or it could be that programs for that age group are generally not structured in such a way as to significantly impact discipline or focus. Or it could be that the parents are not enforcing any of those skills at home thereby encouraging students to not translate those skills to life outside the dojo.

  2. Sure, by what I understood martial arts it self should have impact, not parents enforcing rules. Any form of sport or activities can have same impact on kids. Yes we don’t know what martial arts program they have attended. There is a lot of unknown in this study. I think that was the point to just check the behavior of kids in school and impact of martial arts classes. I guess everyone will read this study in different way.

  3. An interesting set of studies. In some ways the last article has a point – I’m not sure exactly how a martial art will protect against mental illness at such a young age. Certainly for youth and adults I can see it though. My two pence!

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