Psychology: A martial artist's aspect

When writing on subjects such as this, I often tend to incorporate the psychological state of the child with that of the psychological state of the adult. Throughout my coaching journey, I have encountered several children who began their martial arts journey because they were bullied at school, or because they were aware of their poor self-image. I have seen just as many adults start martial arts for the same reasons. Bullying may not necessarily stop at physical abuse. Bullying can take place every day. At home, at work, at the park, at the bar - anywhere, without a single finger being raised. Through this article, I aim to briefly delve into the relationship of Taekwondo (vis-a-vis martial arts) on the human psychological effects, weather good or bad.

The benefits of Taekwondo are often perceived as twofold. The first and perhaps more obvious of which is related with the physical component, especially those which enhance physical appearance and human strength. The other component is that of the psychological, which manipulates itself through the following characteristics:
1 - Affective characteristics (self-esteem, charisma, problem solving and self-assurance)
2 - Cognitive characteristics (the act of being respectful)
3 - Social characteristics (assertiveness)
4 - Behavioral characteristics (enhanced maturity)

Now-a-days, taekwondo is often practiced in a dojang, which characteristically comprises of an indoor playing field covered with tatami mats or specialized protective flooring. Whilst taekwondo is not generally considered a team sport, it is usually practiced among a team comprising of members of different ages. The introduction of one’s child to this environment will automatically place him under the educational wing of the academy’s coach - whose aim should be to distribute the martial art philosophies (which in the case of taekwondo are courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit) over and above the physical aspect of training. The “next-in-line” of educators can be seen in the form of the senior students, which, in greater numbers, occupy the dojang and maintain the same philosophical agenda, albeit with different characters and different approaches. A parent who introduces his child in this environment is automatically exposing the child to an environment presenting a great learning opportunity. That being said, it is the duty and the responsibility of the coach to maintain a standardized level of discipline and cohesion among his team. This is the key to ensuring the tenets are passed down from generation to generation.

Taekwondo and Self-Regulation

‘‘Understanding self-regulation is the single most crucial goal for advancing an understanding of development and psychopathology’’ (Posnar and Rothbart, 2000). Self-regulation is often understood as a delay in self-gratification. Often-a-time, this could mean that one is able to withstand the urges to, say, eat something unhealthy or act impulsively perhaps even violently. An association of the principle of self-regulation can be correlated with, for instance - parenting, in how parents can effect the delivery of education to their children in how the achievement of instant gratification in a single situation might not always lead to the best long term outcome (for example: eating a piece of cake after school because the child is hungry, instead of cooking a protein-based meal that will provide better overall sustenance). Therefore, when self-regulation is not present, one can say that he is either under-regulated; characterized by the delivery of actions which do not bring out the best outcome (procrastination, violence…) or otherwise by mis-regulation which is characterized by actions bringing out an undesired outcome but only through lack of understanding (alcohol abuse, binge TV watching).


A study by Lakes & Hoyt (2004) compared the delivery of Taekwondo classes with that of traditional physical education training in a population of 207 kindergarten students at school. A 3 month intervention was sufficient to show a statistically significant improvement of the students training taekwondo in that of cognitive self-regulation, affective self-regulation, pro-social behavior, classroom conduct and performance on a mental mathematics test. Why was this so?

The introduction of an individual to martial arts fundamentally brings about a structural framework for discipline. Because of the meticulous nature of how our martial artist forefathers directly instilled discipline from generation to generation as part of the “creed” of the martial art, it could be postulated that martial arts could entice us to accelerate our maturity, pursue self-awareness and enhance our character growth.

”From a psycho-therapeutic standpoint, the martial arts may be viewed as formalized, refined systems of human potential training which provide interesting practical models and mechanisms for psychological intervention” (Fuller, 1988).

Taekwondo and Self-Esteem

By nature, humans are gregarious animals. Humans enjoy and, some may argue, inherently require human-to-human contact. It is part of human nature, coded in our very own DNA.
I’ve been teaching taekwondo for a few years now. My first class comprised of a total of 6 young boys and 1 young girl. Not a large class by any means. However, with time, a lot of patience and meticulous planning, our numbers grew. That initial pack of 7 kids became “the old guard”, now-a-days independently taking charge of the education of some of the newer students and, although still teenagers, fearlessly taking part in high level competitions, some of which even took part in the Junior World Championships of 2018 (Tunisia).
When their journey with me started, I was the same man in many ways, relatively confident in myself and my ability. I tried as best as I could (and still do till this very day) to push their physical and mental capabilities to the absolute limit, and sometimes even past it.
I had invented this game where we would stack tatami mats atop each other and each student (including myself) would attempt to jump on top of them. We would regularly finish the session with this simple and entertaining exercise. Entertaining in the sense that we would often laugh at one of us stumbling down due to a misjudged jump or step. I would use the exercise to challenge my limits, each lesson stacking more and more mats on top of each other and by doing so, trying to challenge my vertical jumping power. I instilled this mindset in those 7 students and they began doing the same. As the years went by, 35 mats turned into 45 mats. 45 mats then turned into 50 mats, and before I knew it, a group of 15 and 16 year old boys and girls were challenging my maximum height of 52 mats. Nobody could exceed this number. Not even myself, and Lord knows I tried. At the end of the session I would try to make the jump but in doing so, I would clip my foot at the edge of the top mat and come tumbling down to the resounding laughter of my very own students. One day, I just couldn’t accept that I had achieved my limit - that I was at the maximum. At the end of the session I decided to give it another go, but I kept failing. Again and again and again. At that moment, there was no laughter. The students could see that I wanted to make it happen, but couldn’t. I tried one more time and fell flat on my back… again.
It was at this moment that one of those seven students stepped out of line and walked towards me. He knelt down on one knee and looked at me dead in the eyes. “Come on coach, you’re almost there. Keep going.” I remember vaguely that I didn’t quite know what to think at this stage. Shouldn’t it have been me telling him that? Needless to say, he was right. I could’ve made the jump - I felt it. As I stood, he spoke again: “don’t give up… isn’t that what you always tell us?” The others joined in. They began shouting words of encouragement and clapping and cheering as if they were watching their favorite football team set to make an enormous comeback. From nothing, they re-built my self-belief. I went on to try again and again and sure enough I made the jump (after another 4 or 5 attempts). Today, I don’t remember that day as the day I made a great jump, or as the day I earned some remarkable physical accomplishment. I remember that day as the day I had realized that the feeling of power and confidence I instilled upon a group of 7 shy kids through my discipline and my tuition was reflected back to me when I needed the confidence to accomplish a task that was defeating me. I had created a cycle of self-esteem development.

It may sound a bit old school, but I had come across an old study by Richman and Rehberg (1986) which used a questionnaire called the Rosenberg Self Esteem Scale to assess self-esteem in students of variable ages prior to a competition when they held a low ranking belt and once again a few years later when they had achieved their black belt. The results were astounding, with students clearly depicting enormous changes in their physical prowess, form, general fighting level and endurance. This could encourage any would-be student or athlete, even one lacking in self-confidence, that the future can always present you with something more. That even though one may not necessarily win all the gold medals, he may be on the road to achieving the confidence needed to do great things in his/her own way.

Sometimes, or most of the time rather, for many children undertaking their taekwondo training, many of which who truly lack self-confidence, simply seeing adult peers (now team members) consistently show them signs of respect could be enough to quell several years of having a poor self-image.

A Sense of Preparation

”When you find yourself in a room surrounded by your enemies, you should tell yourself ‘I am not locked in here with you, you are locked in here with me’. This is the kind of mindset you should have if you want to succeed in life. Get rid of that victim mentality” - Bruce Lee

When I began delving into Taekwondo as a student, I fell in love with the sporting aspect of the martial art. I did not find a great deal of interest in the technical components such as those of forms or self-defense. That came later (as I began feeding the desire to become a complete martial artist). However, even at a young age, I did recognize that I was being equipped with new skills. Greater speed, greater strength, the knowledge of how to kick and punch properly (and safely). Through what I learn’t, I was more able to deal with say… school bullies. Truth be told, I did have a bullying problem as a child. I used to get bullied on the regular, and even after starting taekwondo I did not become a violent man. However, I did slowly become able to stand up for myself and for what I thought was right. After my martial arts journey began, I started to learn how to say “no” when the word needed to be said. The thought process behind it was insane. It all fell upon the reliance on myself to be able to defend myself (at least better than before) if I ever needed to defend myself on short notice. That confidence was already enough to deter people who perhaps wanted to hurt me. They were able to notice that something was different. I was able to correlate this reflection with an old quote I once heard, unsure of the source:

”A student once said to his master, you teach me fighting but you talk of peace. How do you reconcile between the two?” And the master answered: “It is better to be a warrior in a garden, than to be a gardener in a war”.

Conclusion

Ultimately, we need to become conscious of a key point and consider the implications it may have on anyone undertaking an educational challenge (i.e. that of martial arts): that we are on the road to perfection
The road to perfection, is a phenomenon that can be seen all around us. How often is it that we are told that an action we are performing is not fast enough, not strong enough or perhaps that we don’t bag enough wins despite the training and effort we give? The answer is this: we are on the road to perfection. Everyone is. However, we never quite arrive at our destination - and that’s OK. Setting deadlines to success can have catastrophic consequences, especially when the harsh reality emerges - that the goals we set out for ourselves are 90% of the time… unreachable. It is more important to look at the steps you take as a general progression. Improvement - yes, end result - forget it. This is how we can promote self-improvement and the sustainability of a healthy psyche’. I always think of a student of mine who is probably one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen. This boy is young, aged 13 years and is extremely talented. To award his efforts, I arranged for him to attend a difficult competition in Italy. I observed him - closely, as he attended training rain or shine, and even arranged several extra sessions with me to make sure his form was maintained. He made weight like a professional athlete, cutting carbs and maintaining a high-fat diet for some time, and he did all of it whilst his buddies were eating pizza and drinking coke. Only one problem. One day during a heavy 1-on-1 with me he said: “I hope I win. At least 1 match. I really worked hard on this.” He said this because he had lost in the first bout of a couple of competitions prior to this. This mentality is the mentality that we as a society are incorrectly becoming accustomed to. The destructive “results, results, results” approach. Tell me - what becomes of us when the pleasure we once sought in the undertaking of a sport we love is replaced with an ugly and heavy pressure? I’ll tell you what happens - we quit. We tell ourselves, we’re not good enough ‘because someone made it, and I didn’t’.
The session stopped for a while as I stroked my chin and tried to think of what argument to present to a hard working athlete who was hungry to win. Then I remembered all those matches I had taken part in where I lost. In the first round. I thought about how it made me feel and I was able to recognize that the reason why it upset me so much was because society literally ingrained the ‘all or nothing success’ story in my psyche to the point where a single loss made me feel like nothing. Like I was worthless. As i grew older, I began to understand that the reality was this:
1. There has to be a winner and a loser in every match, and losing doesn’t mean that you are defeated.
2. Life isn’t fair. There is no active force of justice ensuring that you will be fairly rewarded for all the pizzas and cookies you didn’t eat, all the hours you spent sweating through your t-shirt in training, all the trips abroad you took to fight against people who may look intimidating to you.
3. That all of this is for nothing. We take part in sports because we love sports. Because it is part of who we are. I am a taekwondo player because I enjoy it, and I don’t want anything, or anyone to be the reason for my dissatisfaction in my sporting practice, nor will I let my win:loss ratio be the barometer of my happiness. You will lose a lot of times before you win. It sucks, but if you think that sucks - wait until you face real problems in life.
4. The real problems in life are nowhere near the problems you face when you lose a taekwondo match. As a nurse, I have seen people being told straight up that the illness they suffer from will be the cause of their death in 4 months. I would pick a loss in taekwondo a hundred times over having to deal with that.
In the end, its all about the progression. How far have you come? What are your targets? How can we achieve them? Find the right people to help you follow these goals and never focus on that perfection, but the journey… and when you think about quitting, always remember why you started.

References


Fuller, J. (1988). Martial arts and psychological health. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 61, 317-328.

Lakes, K. & Hoyt, W. (2004) Promoting self-regulation through school based martial arts training. Department of Counseling Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2004.04.002

Posner, M. I., & Rothbart, M. K. (2000). Developing mechanisms of self-regulation. Development and Psychopathology, 12, 427 – 441.

Richman, C. L., & Rehberg, H. (1986). The development of self-esteem through the martial arts. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 17(3), 234-239