(Article first appeared in Black Belt Magazine, June, 2008)
By Dr. Randy Borum
In their book, Martial Arts Mind & Body (Human Kinetics Press, 2000), Claudio Iedwab and Roxanne Standefer describe martial arts as “the original mind and body experience.” Historically, they say, striking and defense techniques in the martial arts were just a method or vehicle for learning to integrate mind and body. In essence, the martial arts evolved as a path to personal development, not principally as a technique-driven means to teach people to fight.
It makes sense to teach people to defend themselves. But research shows that most people seek out martial arts training – like motivations for other sports - looking for health benefits, social benefits, and skill development. Martial arts participants, however, - more than in other sports - tend to rate character development, increasing perseverance, and integrating mental and physical health as important reasons for their participation.
Some people who want to learn self-defense are seeking the confidence and inner security that comes from knowing they can do it. The late Ed Parker, founder of American Kenpo, has been quoted as saying: “It is not danger that causes us to be afraid, it is the fear of danger.” Self-defense students often want to know that they can perform under pressure and that they will respond to peril with courage and sound judgment. That’s a character skill that can come in handy in a variety of situations, not just a personal attack.
The Martial Arts are filled with skills and lessons that can enhance our general well-being and help us perform better in many areas of our lives. Have you ever set a goal to attain a particular ran, then made a plan and successfully followed through? Have you persisted in sparring or training when you were tired and just wanted to rest? Have you ever been frustrated with an instructor or training partner, but took a deep breath, put the emotions aside and continued working? Many of the demands and challenges you face in your gym or dojo require the same skills as the challenges you face at work, in the classroom, or in social interactions. The lessons you learn in martial arts training can teach you something about life.
Rodney King – founder and director of the Crazy Monkey Defense Program (crazymonkeydefense.com) – believes in using martial arts – not just for fighting or self-defense- but as vehicle to help his clients face challenges more effectively and achieve to their potential. King has recently developed a program called Martial Arts-Life (MA-Life) to span the gap between martial arts teacher and life-skills consultant. At the heart of King’s coaching program is what he calls the G.A.M.E. approach, which has Grounding in the client’s existing strengths; develops Attitudes that build resilience and facilitate peak performance; and helps clients boost their Motivation to prepare and Execute a personal plan for success.
Does the integration of self-defense and life skills signal a new trend in martial arts training? I don’t know. Rather than paving a new path, in many ways, it seems to bring martial arts back to their conceptual origins.
Consider the journey of Kano Jigoro, a pioneer in creating the modern discipline of Judo in 19th Century
In the modern era, numerous research studies in psychology and sport science have shown that lessons learned in martial arts can apply to life. Among the physical benefits – aside from fitness - studies have shown that martial arts training may improve body image and enhance physical self-confidence. Research evidence also shows improvements in self-esteem, autonomy and positive response to challenges. All of these things may also contribute to well-being.
Importantly, research on martial arts training has fairly consistently found positive benefits on “self-regulation.” Psychologist Roy Baumeister calls self regulation “the process by which the self alters its own responses, including thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.” That concept is one the most important psychological processes in all human development. It is the foundation for our performance in nearly everything we do. It is the mechanism by which we think, feel and do the right things at the right time. Self-regulation also drives “self-discipline,” which many psychological studies have found to be perhaps the single most important ingredient in determining success – more than self esteem or even pure intellect. And martial arts can help us develop this.
At the end of your next training session, try a quick exercise in reflective learning. First, write some notes to yourself about what you learned that day – maybe that includes technique and strategy, but reflect also on what you learned about yourself and how you perform. Then, think through some non-training situations where you could apply those lessons - maybe to improve your mood, to perform better, or to navigate a particular relationship. Use your martial arts training not just to feel confident or to defend yourself, but to learn to succeed in life.