Martial arts may not provide mental health benefits to kids

Though it might be great for fitness and self-defense, research suggests you should be skeptical of claims that martial arts provides measurable and consistent mental health benefits for kids.

Marketing materials for martial arts studios often mention mental health benefits, and past research has found that Taekwondo can improve children’s prosocial behavior, classroom behavior, and mental math abilities. Another study found that participation in martial arts led to greater behavioral improvements for children.

But a very large study on martial arts and mental health casts doubts on those claims.

In an article published October 2009 in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, researchers explored the potential mental health benefits that martial arts provides children. The researchers used information collected by the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. The publicly-available study followed 21,260 children, beginning when they were in kindergarten (1998), and continuing every year throughout childhood.

In their martial arts study, the researchers compared teachers’ reports of the children’s classroom behavior in kindergarten, third grade, and fifth grade. The teacher questionnaires asked about children’s self-control, approaches to learning, interpersonal skills, externalizing problem behaviors (e.g. arguing, fighting, getting angry, and acting impulsively), internalizing problem behaviors (e.g. anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, sadness).

Overall, 3.3% of kindergarteners, 7.5% of third graders, and 7.1% of fifth graders in the sample were participating in martial arts. To determine whether participation in martial arts has any benefits, the researchers compared children who were enrolled in martial arts to children who were not enrolled in martial arts from first through third grade, then again from third through fifth grade. The researchers did not observe any associations between participation in martial arts and teachers’ reports of children’s behavior (self-control, approaches to learning, interpersonal skills, externalizing problem behaviors, internalizing problem behaviors).

“Changing students’ behavior outside the classroom in a way that generalizes to the classroom is, we suspect, in general not an easy task. This study fails to find evidence that martial arts training achieves this goal,” the researchers write.

While these results cast doubt on the idea that martial arts provides mental health benefits, the researchers point out that this is still a possibility. The authors note that it is possible that the way each martial arts class is instructed plays a role, and because this study used a variety of martial arts studios and instructors, some may have been more effective than others.

“It’s important to remind ourselves that educational interventions such as martial arts are not homogeneous. Martial arts as taught by one practitioner may be totally different from that taught by another. One practitioner may emphasize self-control and emotional regulation, whereas another might emphasize self-defense or preparation for competition, and a third might actually promote aggression,” the researchers explain.

“Thus our results do not rule out the possibility that some studios regularly achieve positive effects, and others achieve negative ones. It could also be that even within individual studios, there are net positive effects on some children from encouraging self-discipline and respect, which are cancelled by net negative effects on others from practice of physical aggression.”

This was the first time researchers explored martial arts’ mental health outcomes in such a large number and diverse group of children. Although the study did not find any mental health benefits, martial arts still continues to benefit children in other ways, potentially increasing children’s self-defense abilities and overall physical fitness.