Martial Arts can be a useful therapeutic tool

Martial Arts can be a useful therapeutic tool

by Frank C. Sacco, Ph.D., CSI President, Scholar in Residence

martial arts as a therapeutic tool

Martial arts is not just an activity, a sport, or even a self-defense strategy. I have used it in many different formats to impact aggression in children with destructive impulse disorders. Traditional martial arts is a philosophy that combines mental and physical training to establish control and power using the ultimate in respect and compassion.

Martial arts is based on ancient wisdom that stresses balance. The ying-yang circle illustrates this dichotomy and the interconnected nature of power. Ancient warriors would train in hand-to-hand combat and weapons in the morning and after a rest would calm themselves arranging flower or Zen painting. The physical combat was yang balanced by the yin flower arranging. Power stems from balance and self-control.

In the world of disruptive youth, there is a great need for the instilling of the values and skills of traditional martial arts. Many aggressive and disruptive children suffer from a consistent model of self-control and gender-appropriate aggression and assertiveness. When positive models are absent, aggression becomes a mindless response to fear. When someone is filled with fear, they stop thinking, or more specifically stop mentalizing. When mentalization is frozen, then the person stops accurately reading social cues and can’t monitor their own aggressive arousal. This leads to “acting out” or fear-driven aggressive behaviors to protect against perceived (mostly misperceived) threat.

Martial arts training emphasizes control of breath, emotions, and physical movements (kicks, punches, joint manipulations) We have used elements of martial arts in the “CAPSLE” elementary school bully program. Defensive skills and assertiveness stances were taught. Strategies for role playing with bullies was combined with breathing and self-control techniques as part of physical education classes.

Martial arts and movement in general can be seen as a “container” for destructive aggressiveness. There have been a number of studies showing that martial arts, tai-chi, yoga, and dance have led to improved functioning and self-control. The martial arts instructor becomes a role model who does not tolerate destructive aggression and hurting but promotes healthy aggression, self-confidence, and respect. Self-control is the ultimate goal of martial arts.

Martial arts is a physical exercise that has many benefits from purely a “working out” perspective. You feel better when you work out. Martial arts stresses posture and self-awareness. Tai-chi emphasizes proprioceptive awareness of body structure and movement. These skills can be used in everyday management of stress for a young person experiencing problems controlling impulses. Movement like play offers an expanded arena for discharging pent-up affect and to build strength and confidence rather than bully or lash out against authority.

As a therapist, you might recommend this and use a therapeutic mentoring service (TM) to see if this is an activity that the youth is attracted to and has the motivation to pursue. Most martial arts students quit within 90 days. If it sticks, it is a great way to build control and self-confidence. This is especially true for submissive young people who gain confidence by learning assertive posturing, use of voice, and defensive tactics.

Related Resources

gentle-warrior-sm Gentle Warrior Child Safety Program (PDF)
This martial arts themed training aims to make students aware of the bully, victim, and bystander roles and to teach them more effective coping skills along with non-violent ways to deal with others.
Zen of Parenting Alone Zen of Parenting Alone (PDF)
A free e-book to help single parents. Written by CSI’s Frank Sacco.

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