Martial Arts, Executive Function, & Self-Regulation
The Harvard University Center on the Developing Child defines executive function and self-regulation skills as “the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.”1 These skills include working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. The Harvard University Center further states, “Children aren’t born with these skills—they are born with the potential to develop them.”1
Citing martial arts specifically, research has demonstrated that activities involving repeated practice and progressive challenges to executive functions successfully improved executive functions in children ages 4 to 12 years old.2 Additionally, the most successful programs were those that integrated emotional, social, and physical development, as martial arts training does.2
Further supporting martial arts’ positive affect on the development of executive function and self-regulation in children, additional research has found that students given martial arts instruction made greater improvements in “areas of cognitive self-regulation, affective self-regulation, prosocial behavior, [and] classroom conduct” than a comparison group that received standard physical education.3
The Importance of Choosing the Right School
While martial arts training has been positively researched as an adjunct to verbal psychotherapy,4 a way to enhance family development,5 and as means to reduce externalizing behavior (i.e., aggression, anger, and violence),6 its positive outcomes—as much of the research notes—are dependent on the quality of both instructors and curriculum.
One study, for example, found that students who were trained with the philosophical and psychological emphasis of traditional martial arts “showed decreased aggressiveness, lowered anxiety, increased self-esteem, [and] increased social adroitness,” “as indicated by before-and-after scores on the Jackson Personality Inventory (JPI)” and Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI).7 This stood in contrast to a comparison group that received modern sport training, whose participants showed a “greater tendency toward delinquency on the MMPI than they did at the beginning of the study, a large increase in aggressiveness, and generally opposite effects of [the traditionalist group] on the JPL.”7
Again, a larger survey of empirical research on the benefits of martial arts training confirms that the benefits are not universal: They are confined to schools with good instructors teaching good lessons.
The Family Black Belt Academy Difference
At Family Black Belt Academy, our instruction draws from both traditional martial arts and contemporary learning theories, including those of Child Developmental Psychology and Pedagogy. As a result, our curriculum is scaffolded to progress students to greater understanding and, ultimately, greater ownership of their learning. That ownership empowers our students to transfer the skills they learn from our program to other areas of their lives, supporting both their short- and long-term success.
- 1. Executive Function & Self-Regulation. (2018). Retrieved from https://developingchild. harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/
- 2. Diamond, A., & Lee, K. (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old. Science, 333, 959-964.3.
- 3. Lakes, K.D., & Hoyt, W.T. (2004). Promoting self-regulation through school-based martial arts training. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 25, 283-302.
- 4. Weiser, M., Kutz, I., Jacobson, S.J., & Weiser, D. (2018). Psychotherapeutic aspects of the martial arts. The American Journal of Psychotherapy, 49, 118-127.
- 5. Lantz, J. (2002). Family development and the martial arts: a phenomenological study. Contemporary Family Therapy, 24, 565-580.
- 6. Harwood, A., Lavidor, M., & Rassovsky, Y. (2017). Reducing aggression with martial arts: A meta-analysis of child and youth studies. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 34, 96-101.
- 7. Trulson, M.E. (1986). Martial arts training: a novel “cure” for juvenile delinquency. Human Relations, 39, 1131-1140.
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