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Martial arts training shows promise in reducing aggressive tendencies in youth

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Martial arts could help reduce aggressive behaviors in youth, according to psychology researchers from Bar-Ilan University and UCLA.

The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of twelve studies to investigate what effects martial arts training had on youths’ aggression, anger, and violence. A meta-analysis is a statistical method that allows researchers to test data from multiple studies. The previous research had examined a variety of martial art styles, including aikido, karate, taekwondo, and judo.

The results of the meta-analysis, which combined data from 507 participants (ages 6 to 18), suggested that martial arts could reduce aggressive tendencies. “It does not appear to matter which specific martial arts are used,” the researchers wrote in their study, “but rather the common themes of repetitive movements, controlled behaviors, and respect” are key.

The findings were published March 3, 2017, in the peer-reviewed journal Aggression and Violent Behavior.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Anna Harwood of Bar-Ilan University. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Harwood: Before I moved to Israel, I studied at Oxford Brookes University and was a Psychology Assistant at a large prison in the UK. I was interested in finding ways of predicting and preventing prison violence in addition to interviewing prisoners to take part in rehabilitation programs. I became interested in innovative rehabilitation programs so when I met prospective PhD advisers and Dr. Rassovsky talked about studying martial arts I was attracted to the topic and brought my criminology background to the project.

What should the average person take away from your study?

That martial arts has a lot of potential to help at-risk kids and in turn be used as a potential rehabilitative intervention but there is a dearth of research. This study shows that initial research is really promising but before we draw any groundbreaking conclusions we need to widen the research and make it much more scientifically rigorous.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

This is the basis of my PhD. I am researching the effect that martial arts has on at-risk children. I want to see not just if martial arts reduces aggression but if it also improves cognitive and psychological factors which may lead to this reduction. I propose that martial arts impacts executive function (see Adele Diamond’s research) and that this may reduce criminality and aggression. We are currently researching this question.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Martial arts is a cheap intervention which seems to really benefit a host of populations. Because there is little research it is very difficult to fund these programs and thus martial arts becomes a sport of those who can afford it. If we can show a real benefit then it will be easier to fund and introduce to the kids and adults who really need it. I hope that with a strong research backing I will be able to eventually introduce it in the adult prison and offender rehabilitation services because adult criminals are a much under served population.

The study, “Reducing aggression with martial arts: A meta-analysis of child and youth studies“, was also co-authored by Michal Lavidor and Yuri Rassovsky.

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