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:
- “A review of the effect of martial arts practice on health” published in the Wisconsin Medical Journal 108 by Woodward, T.W (2009).
- “Martial arts and children” (http://www.yourdocmedical.co.uk/exercise/184) by Catherine Payne (who is incidentally the daughter of my friend, Roger).
- “Martial arts and mental health” (http://www.contemporarypsychotherapy.org/vol-2-no-1/martial-arts-and-mental-health/) by Iulius-Cezar Macarie and Ron Roberts.
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!