‘The martial arts are all about violence, aren’t they?’ a concerned parent once asked. Such questions may immediately come to mind when discussing martial arts in a school setting. For those who have been working in schools long enough, seeing wannabe Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers in the playground can fill any teacher with dread of injury, with play-fighting turning more physical. The question, ‘Why on earth would anybody want to train school students in the martial arts?’, is perhaps justifiable with the school fight scene from the Netflix series Cobra Kai similarly coming to mind, where two rival karate schools have a direct confrontation in the corridors.
However, a lengthy tradition of research indicates that martial arts training can have numerous physical and, perhaps more importantly, psychological benefits. Various studies have demonstrated how martial arts training can reduce anxiety, depression, stress and anger, while increasing self-esteem and feelings of tranquillity (Wang et al., 2013). Unfortunately, with the wide range of martial arts and mainly adult demographic samples, generalising martial arts research to school-aged students is problematic.
‘Various studies have demonstrated how martial arts training can reduce anxiety, depression, stress and anger, while increasing self-esteem and feelings of tranquillity (Wang et al., 2013).’
For this reason, a martial-arts-inspired programme was developed, adhering to the principles that:
(i) it must be safe to train;
(ii) it must negate participants being able to apply their skills to other people and thus cause injury;
(iii) it must be inclusive for all participants;
(iv) it must adhere to the principles of the martial arts.
As a result, the Mindful Movement Programme (MMP) was developed. The MMP specifically removed two essential components (footwork and use of applied energy) that would have made the techniques applicable and thus harmful to others. Instead, the MMP focused on performing the movements, providing intrinsic motivation to perform aesthetically correct techniques. This focus on correct technique facilitated the ‘mindful’ component, whereby arguably anything can be mindful if that one thing is focused on, whether breathing, walking, eating, and so on (Germer, 2013).
Designed as a post-Covid-lockdown intervention to help integrate students back into school, the effects of the MMP were assessed through measures of state self-esteem (using Rosenberg’s Self-Esteem Scale; Rosenberg, 1965) and trait self-esteem (using the State Self-Esteem Scale; Heatherton & Polivy, 1991), through a quasi-experimental approach. One group engaged with the MMP over eight 40-minute sessions (two sessions a week), while the control group continued with their normal personal, social, health and economic education lessons.
Self-esteem was assessed for both groups prior to engagement with the MMP and at the end of the programme. The experimental group demonstrated a statistically significant increase across both measures compared to the control group (RSES, F(1,43)=17.32, p=.000, partial eta squared =.29; SES, F(1,43)=5.14, p=.000, partial eta squared =.11). Qualitative comments collected after sessions 4 and 8 were predominantly positive (80 per cent) or neutral (17 per cent), primarily citing that the MMP was fun, relaxing, calming, and developed positive feelings. Such qualitative comments resonated with the concept of ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002), where consciousness and action merge, resulting in positive affect and self-affirmation, or Maslow’s ‘plateau experience’ characterised by moments of calmness, serenity, transcendence and inner peace (Buckler, 2020).
While this was only a small study, the results support previous research that the martial arts can promote a range of psychological benefits. What is different is that the MMP was specifically developed for the safety and inclusion of students, while maintaining the integrity of the martial arts.
Can the martial arts really help enhance students’ psychological wellbeing?
For further information, please attend session 3.14 Innovative Strategies and Interventions for Wellbeing (room MB 554, 3.30–5.00pm, Tuesday 12 September), or workshop 9.13 The Mindful Movement Programme (room MB 554, 11.00am–12.30pm, Thursday 14 September) for practical engagement with the MMP, at the BERA Annual Conference 2023.
Buckler, S. (2020). The plateau experience: Maslow’s unfinished theory. Sciencia Scripts.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness. Rider.
Germer, C. K. (2013). Mindfulness: What is it? What does it matter? In C. K. Germer, R. D. Siegel, & P. R. Fulton (Eds.), Mindfulness and psychotherapy (2nd ed., pp. 3–35). Guilford Press.
Heatherton, T. F., & Polivy, J. (1991). Development and validation of a scale for measuring state self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 895–910.
Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton University Press.
Wang, F., Lee, E. O., Wu, T., Benson, H., Fricchione, G. L., Wang, W., & Yeung, A. (2013). The effects of tai chi on depression, anxiety, and psychological well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 21(4), 605–617.