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Martial Arts in Schools

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

Martial arts is a modern combat sport that focuses not only on physical fitness, but also emphasizes discipline, respect and moral uprightness. With such emphasis on morality in conjunction to physical fitness, would a school based martial arts program help decrease behavior issues in school and improve academic performance?

Statue of Confucius (Chinese teacher, editor, politician, and philosopher)


Martial arts has been present in East Asia for thousands of years, constantly evolving and developing throughout the centuries and ultimately would become widely popular around the world by the later half of the 20th century. Originally intended for military purposes as the term “martial” suggests, martial arts has always had a set code of honor and respect to ensure discipline and proper conduct. In the modern era, martial arts has moved away from its military purposes and evolved into various sports such as Taekwondo, Karate and Kung Fu with sets of rules to ensure safety for practitioners and competitors.

Unlike other sports in the modern era, martial arts continues to instill discipline and respect in its practitioners helping develop not only physical skill, but mental mastery of oneself as well. It is because of martial arts’ focus on both physical and mental mastery that I believe it is worth exploring the possibility of implementing martial arts programs within school districts. Through the combination of physical fitness and the creation of a positive environment through the emphasis on eastern martial arts culture students can be given the tools they need to not only be successful students, but will also learn self-control so as to avoid and reduce behavior issues in schools as a whole.

Significance of Martial Arts

While nearly all schools have physical education classes as well as extracurricular sports, students still continue to have behavior issues. Research in a 2016 article in the Journal of Sport and Health Science explained that physical fitness alone such as general physical education classes has only indicated very slight improvement in student conduct and classroom behavior, whereas more complex activities such as martial arts that require higher cognitive thinking about one’s actions has been shown to greatly improve classroom conduct (Tomporowski, 2015). Furthermore, a study titled The effect of sportive and cultural activities on the self-esteem and hope of the children who have tendency to involve in a crime indicated that martial arts as a school program is able to reduce delinquent behavior in children who had a tendency to be involved in crime (Basaran, 2016). According to Diamond (2012), this may be attributed to the fact that martial arts and similar activities focus on mindfulness and as a result they have been shown to improve executive functions such as cognitive inhibitory control, discipline and emotion regulation. As so, since martial arts incorporates more than just physical activity alone and emphasizes discipline and self-control, then instituting a martial arts program for students with behavior problems may potentially have positive results.

As part of a traditional martial arts curriculum morals and values encompass the physical education. For example, in Taekwondo, a Korean based martial art, 5 tenants are recited at the beginning and end of each class, those being the values of courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit. The martial culture in martial arts is further rooted in the Bushido code of honor and respect stemming from Feudal Japan that has permeated the martial arts systems of East Asia due to the heavy Japanese influence on the martial arts systems of both China and Korea after Japanese occupation in the early half of the 20th century. Self-discipline is strongly emphasized in martial arts. Through instilling self-discipline and self-control through martial arts, I believe this will help students reduce behavior problems and help them to become successful in all aspects of their life. Through learning to control their body and mind students will be able to think and act with a level head. This will reduce stress and help students to tackle any problem head on and overcome obstacles that may stand in their way while at the same time acting morally and responsibly. This is best demonstrated in the Hagakure (Book of the Samurai) which reads:

"There is something to learn from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved at the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything." (Tsunetomo, 2014, P. 7)

Such concepts are heavily emphasized in martial arts programs and will help students better think about their actions before reacting impulsively and potentially causing a behavior issue.

In general for students there is extensive pressure to do well and in order to get into a good college which in turns creates a very stressful environment that will either cause students to excel in a competitive manner or fall back and shut down. Many students may become overwhelmed by the thought of hard work causing many to become disillusioned with their own abilities and short comings and rather than seek to overcome them, may fall into negative patterns of behavior. If students can instead look to excel without the stress or fear of failure they may better and see that they are there to learn and failure is acceptable in that they now know what they need to improve on they may be less inclined to fall into a repeated rut of continuous failure and work hard to overcome obstacles.

Martial arts can help overcome this by reinforcing the ideal that learning in itself can be fun in its own right and that you should strive to compete against yourself. By doing everything to the best of your ability you are competing and competition by nature can be fun when the pressure is self-derived, as with videogames, which in of themselves are competitions against a computer and so it is important to try and tap into that already existing drive and redirect it into a more positive light. Such an ideal is embodied in the Hagakure where it is said,

"At the highest level of learning a person is aware of the endlessness of entering deeply into a way and never thinks of himself as having finished in their learning. He truly knows his insufficiencies and never thinks he has succeeded because life is an endless pursuit. He has no thoughts of pride and is instead humble. It is said that Master Yagyu once said, “I do not know the way to defeat others, but the way to defeat myself.” Throughout your life advance daily, becoming more skillful than yesterday, more skillful than today. This is never ending." (Tsunetomo, 2014, P. 4)

Conversely, as Bushido permeates primarily Japanese and Korean martial arts, Confucian and Taoist ideals permeate primarily Chinese martial arts, but elements are seen in all the East Asian martial arts systems. Perhaps the most valuable maxim from Confucian ideology that goes hand in hand with attempting to change the mindset of students with behavior issues is as follows:

"Enforcing laws by punishment will deter people from doing wrong, but they will lose their sense of shame. Instead, depending on moral sentiment and encouraging education and good manners will create a sense of shame for wrong doing and encourage them to emulate what is good." (Confucius, 1898, P. 7)

Therefore, through implementing a martial arts program, the ultimate goal would be to instill discipline and moral sentiment through education. Through this development, a sense of respect for educators, education and themselves can be developed so that they can better focus and achieve academic success.

What are your thoughts?

Reference List:

Bahrami, F., Movahedi, A., Marandi, S. M., & Sorensen, C. (2016). The effect of karate techniques training on communication deficit of children with autism sprectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(3), 978- 986.

Basaran, Z. (2016). The effect of sportive and cultural activities on the self-esteem and hope of the children who have tendency to involve in a crime. Educational Research and Reviews, 11(14), 1324-1330. doi: 10.5897/err2015.2242

Biggy, David. (February 25, 2012). Simms making an impact. Asbury Park Press.

Burns, R. D., Brusseau, T. A., & Hannon, J. C. (2017). Effect of comprehensive school physical activity programming on cardiometabolic health markers in children from low-income schools. Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 14(9), 671-676. doi:10.1123/jpah.2016-0691

Confucius. (1898). The discourses and sayings of Confucius (K. Hung-Ming, Trans.). Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh Limited.

Diamond, A. (2012). Activities and programs that improve children’s executive functions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(5), 335-341. doi:10.1177/0963721412453722

Miyamori, A. (1920). Tales of the Samurai and lady Hosokawa. Yokohama: Kelly & Walsh.

Nishihioka, V., Coe, M., Burke, A., Hanita, M., & Sprague, J. (2011). Student-reported overt and relational aggression and victimization in grades 3-8. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi:10.1037/e595642011-001

Tomporowski, P. D., Mccullick, B., Pendlteton, D. M., & Pesce, C. (2015). Exercise and childrens cognition: the role of exercise characteristics and a place for metacognition. Journal of Sport and Health Science, 4(1), 47-55. doi: 10.1016/j.jshs.2014.09.003

Tsunetomo, Y. (2014). Hagakure: the book of the Samurai (W. S. Wilson, Trans.). Boston: Shambhala.

Twemlow, S.W., Biggs, B. K., Nelson, T. D., Vernberg. E. M., & Fonagy, P. (2008). Effects of participation in a martial arts-based antibullying program in elementary school. Psychology in the Schools, 45(10), 947-959. doi: 10.1002/pits.20344

Woodward, T. W. (2009). A review of the effects of martial arts practice on health. Wisconsin Medical Journal, 108(1), 40-43.

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