Martial arts is also a business – one that has almost no barriers to entry. Anybody can set up a studio or school. And there’s a lot of (usually obscure and petty) politics in the world of martial arts, such that schools are constantly breaking away and starting new lines. The result of all of this is that if you want to study a martial art, you have a wealth of options – but in that crowded field there’s lots of hype, fantastic promises, and fluff as schools try to grab a marketing edge over their competitors.
In all of this, the value of studying martial arts tends to get lost. People who have been on the path for a while often understand – although there is always more to learn – but we do a lousy job of explaining this stuff to laypeople who aren’t already committed. Those who do try to answer the “what are martial arts good for?” question are usually selling something.
In the interest of full disclosure: I run a branch of a martial arts school, and I would love to have more students. But I don’t expect very many prospective students to read this, since most of my blog posts get a few dozen readers at best. Moreover, I do believe in the value of martial arts study – I don't teach it to make money, but because I’m passionate about it and think it’s worth sharing. So here’s my attempt to answer the question, Why should you consider studying martial arts? What value is there in it?
Lots of martial arts schools talk about “teaching discipline”. This is one of the things that seems to have sunk into the public consciousness. I’ve seen many parents bring kids into martial arts schools, or consider signing them up for lessons, in the hopes that their kids will learn to be more disciplined. These parents are often frustrated when karate class doesn’t turn their child into an angel (though transformations have been known to occur, they are rare).
The reality is more complex and unfortunately disappointing to some. Tools of “traditional” Asian discipline – negative feedback, often accompanied by physical punishment to some degree – have largely been abandoned in the martial arts world, which is a good thing. Those tools didn’t teach discipline anyway – they just teach behavior modification, often with unintended consequences.
The truth is that discipline is, and always must be, cultivated from within. It is the virtue of doing something over and over again with focus and determination, towards the achievement of a future goal. As an instructor, I can only do two things: I can demonstrate discipline, and I can give you the opportunity to practice it. These things most martial arts schools do accomplish – with some caveats.
Studying a traditional martial art is a structured activity. That structure of basic movements gives students the opportunity to cultivate and practice discipline. Lots of other activities do the same thing – the study of a musical instrument, or practice in another sport, or pursuit of the arts. If what you are looking for is simply a chance to practice discipline, the opportunities are nearly endless.
With its ranks of promotion (a modern invention of Jigoro Kano and Gichin Funakoshi), modern traditional martial arts offer students a means to gauge their progress – and thereby a means of rewarding discipline. But this only works if promotion is tied to actually achieving what is required of a given level. Schools that promote on the basis of “time in the program” – and there are many such “belt factories” – destroy the value of martial arts as an exercise in discipline, because there is no link between discipline and achievement. If I’m going to get the next belt anyway, why work hard?
So if you are looking to develop discipline in yourself or in your child, by all means give martial arts a try. But discipline only comes from your efforts – the martial arts merely provide the medium. If that medium does not otherwise appeal to you, it probably won’t work.
• Physical Fitness
Unlike playing clarinet or painting, martial arts is a physical activity. And in order to develop as a martial artist, most people need to improve their physical condition to some degree – to develop balance, stamina, coordination, and strength. Some schools place more emphasis on physical conditioning, others less. Some traditional arts, like taijiquan (or Tai Chi), do very little for your cardiovascular fitness or limb strength, but are great for balance. Like any other form of physical exercise, you should match your activity with your goals. If your goal is to develop a muscle-bound, Arnold Schwarzenegger body, martial arts isn’t what you want. But if you’re looking for a good combination of strength, speed, endurance, flexibility, and balance, martial arts can get you there.
If you want to get a good workout, find a school or a class that will give you that. Watch a class or two to get a sense of the level of physical activity demanded. As with discipline, martial arts provides an opportunity for physical fitness. Whether you actually get that benefit or not depends in part on how hard you work at it, and also in part on whether that’s a part of what the school emphasizes.
A lot of parents enroll their kids in karate or tae kwon do classes because they want their child to become more confident. This is one area in which martial arts really is a good choice. If you successfully pursue martial arts, you will gain self-confidence in a couple of different ways.
First, practicing martial arts gives most people confidence in their own physical self – that they can, if called upon, defend themselves (more on this below). This is important for both children and adults, but probably more so for kids. Even though in most neighborhoods and schools actual violence between children is a vanishingly rare thing, most kids don’t really understand that yet. There will always be other kids who trash-talk, bully, or otherwise intimidate by threatening to “beat somebody up”. Just knowing that you’re not helpless in that situation can be a huge confidence-booster.
This is true for adults as well. Although it’s even more rare for adults to run into confrontations that have any possibility of escalating to violence, most untrained and unpracticed adults are very much afraid of such situations. They assume that an aggressive person has probably been in fights before, whereas most people (because schools and neighborhoods are so safe) haven’t. Obviously there are exceptions, and there are adults who are already quite confident in their ability to stand up for themselves. But they are a minority. The rest of us tend to be afraid of even the mildest forms of violence – and so we often lack the confidence needed to defuse a tense or aggressive situation. As with kids, some experience and some practice can really help take the edge off that fear.
More broadly, the structure of traditional martial arts (with a defined curriculum of skills and standards and a visible system of promotion) encourages the development of self-confidence more broadly. Everybody comes in to the martial arts as a neophyte, and at first everything seems strange. Many people at the white belt stage will watch what advanced belts are doing and think, “there’s no way I could ever do that.” But as people advance up through the ranks, and are rewarded for their efforts with new belts and certificates, they learn that they can do things they never thought possible. Achievement – especially the achievement of goals that seemed insurmountably difficult – is the greatest self-confidence builder there is. Indeed, concrete achievement is the only source of self-confidence that will stand the test of time.
• Self Defense
Many people come in to the martial arts specifically because they want to learn how to defend themselves. Some of these folks have been victims in the past; others are simply worried about being victims in the future. Next to firearms sales (a topic I’ve dealt with before), martial arts is the most common and visible “product” marketed for self-defense purposes.
There are lengthy debates within the martial arts community about how effective traditional martial arts are for self-defense, and which style or techniques are best. These debates will probably always continue, but they are of very little interest to outsiders. The layman walking in the door wants to know: if I do this, will I be better equipped to defend myself?
The answer, in general, is Yes. Martial arts practice does increase people’s ability to escape a dangerous situation unharmed. It’s not a panacea – there are always folks (often, I’ve found, 10 year old boys) who want to play “what if”: “But what if he does this, or what if he has a knife, or what if there are four of them, or …?” The truth is that there is nothing in the world – not mastery of a martial art, or a gun, or body armor, or anything else – that can protect you in all situations. It’s all a question of relative risk; if I can defend myself against the most common attacks that constitute 80% to 90% of the assaults I’m likely to face, that’s a lot better than 0%.
Unfortunately, this is another area in which school (not so much style, but school) matters. Every style of martial arts is rooted in practicality, else it would never have been developed in the first place. Some schools make sure that those roots are still strong, and include practical applications as a part of their curriculum. Others are more interested in the artistry of traditional forms, or in sport fighting applications (Olympic Tae Kwon Do comes to mind), that are further removed from “street” applications. If self-defense is important to you, find a school that includes practical application as a part of their curriculum. I guarantee that you can find such a school, probably pretty close by, if you look.
• Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts: Body and Mind Together
To this point, the argument for studying martial arts looks OK but not radically exciting. It’s an opportunity to develop discipline and get in shape – but so are lots of other things. It’s a good way to boost self-confidence. It’s a means of learning self-defense – if you go to the right school. These are all good things, but they are mostly things that can be obtained elsewhere.
So why martial arts? What’s special about this arena? It’s tempting for those of us “on the inside”, who have already travelled some way down the path, to say “you have to experience it to understand. Trust us – you’ll Get It once you get far enough into it.” As a marketing approach, that’s lousy. And I think it’s not unreasonable that somebody thinking about starting something new and strange should expect those already in it to be able to articulate why this is such a good idea.
So here’s my take: the truest benefit of studying martial arts isn’t found in any individual thing, like fitness or self-defense skill. The gift that the founders of traditional martial arts have given us is that the martial arts, practiced as a whole system, are a means of bringing together our bodies and our minds into a coherent, balanced unity. Learning and developing as a martial artist is as much a mental exercise as it is a physical one. The farther you go in practice and development as a martial artist, the more you have to learn about yourself; the more you have to think about other people, and how you relate to them; the more you see how thin the boundaries are between the practical and the aesthetic. The best martial artists have mastered not only a set of physical skills, but abilities in thinking philosophically, morally, socially, spatially. Becoming a good martial artist requires focus, discipline, drive, stamina, and confidence. In a phrase, it pushes you to become a better version of you.
It has been argued that studying martial arts makes you better at everything you do. This sounds bombastic, but it is in fact true. I would not argue that it is the only discipline in the world that has this result; it may be that mastering any number of other things will have the same effect. But I can say, from personal experience as well as meetings and relationships with many martial artists at varying levels, that they are all better people for walking the path.
So here, finally, is the real benefit of studying the martial arts: not to make you a different person, but to improve yourself in who you are and who you can be. And that, it seems to me, is a pursuit well worth the effort.