Preview: Experiences of Children in Martial Arts

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European Journal for Sport and Society 2009, 6 (1), 19-35

Experiences of children in martial arts
Marc Theeboom, Paul De Knop and Jikkemien Vertonghen
Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
Abstract: Contrasting images seem to appear regarding the effect of martial arts involvement
in general and with regard to youth in particular. On the one hand, there are several reports
referring to medical and moral concerns with a focus on assumed negative effects to personal
and social well-being. On the other hand, there is a common belief that martial arts practice is
associated with positive socio-psychological outcomes. To date, conclusive evidence regarding the effect of martial arts remains scarce, as not all research findings point in the same direction. In addition, little is known about the way children experience their martial arts involvement. Through the use of a qualitative research methodology, 40 children between the
age of eight and twelve years in five different martial arts were interviewed in-depth regarding their experiences and views on participation motives, training, competition and behaviour.
In general, findings seem to support the relationship between martial arts practice and positive
socio-psychological responses. It is concluded that analysing the experiences of children in
martial arts should take different approaches of martial arts practice into account.
Keywords: martial arts, children, experiences, interviews.

Martial arts
In recent decades, the practice of martial arts has become more popular in many Western countries. Also, the variety of forms and styles of martial arts that are practised has
increased over the years. Next to indigenous fighting sports (e.g. boxing, wrestling and
fencing) that have been practised in Europe for a long time, other systems (e.g. judo,
jiu-jitsu and karate) found their way from Far-East Asia to the West in later times
(Skidmore, 1991). According to van Bottenburg (1994), the popularity of Asian martial arts in the West has resulted for a number of reasons, such as the growing economic power and international prestige of Japan and, to a lesser extent, of other East-Asian
countries. Also, the post-war stationing of American and European troops in Japan and
South Korea, as well as the emigration of Asians to the United States and Europe, contributed to the spread of Asian martial arts to the West. Gradually, fighting systems
from other parts of the world, too, found their way to the West (e.g. Brazilian Capoeira).

Classification of martial arts
The introduction of numerous schools and styles of fighting systems over recent decades has made it less than straight forward to refer to martial arts as a unitary phenomenon. A number of classification systems can be found. For example, martial arts are

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Marc Theeboom, Paul De Knop and Jikkemien Vertonghen

divided according to technical characteristics such as “hard” versus “soft”, or “striking” versus “grappling” styles (Donohue & Taylor, 1994). Another system is based on
cultural or geographical criteria, such as “Asian” (“Oriental”) versus “Western” martial arts (Draeger & Smith, 1975). Although according to some authors, Asian styles
are regarded as more refined because of their inherent philosophical and spiritual
foundations (e.g. Cynarski & Litwiniuk, 2006; Hsu, 1986), others see no real differences (Donohue & Taylor, 1994). Yet another way of categorizing martial arts refers
to differences in basic philosophies, aims and methods that are used, sometimes even
within the same styles. For example, as a result of modernization and internationalization, several Asian martial arts have undergone distinct changes which have resulted in
the occurrence of a “traditional” and a “modern” version (e.g. judo: Villamon et al.,
2004; karate: Tan, 2004; wushu: Theeboom & De Knop, 1997). This “sportization”
process has been criticized by some as it is believed to restrict the intrinsic value of
Asian martial arts (i.e., a unity between physical, philosophical and spiritual aspects)
(Förster, 1986). A number of authors have even described an evolution beyond the
sportization process towards increasingly harder variations or types of martial arts.
This trend, referred to as a “brutalization” or “decivilization” (Förster, 1986) or “desportization” (van Bottenburg & Heilbron, 2006), entails an evolution towards more
efficient fighting styles, often combining a variety of potentially dangerous techniques
from various systems resulting in so-called “mixed martial arts” fighting contests.

Youth and martial arts
Sever
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al data demonstrate the popularity of martial arts in European countries. For example, martial arts have been ranked tenth on a list of the most practised sporting activities among 15+ year-olds in the European Union (European Commission, 1999)
and are reported to be among the ten most practised sports in a club context (van Bottenburg et al., 2005). International comparative studies have also indicated that martial
arts are popular among young people. In various European countries, they are among
the most popular extracurricular sports practised by 10 to 15 year-olds (Clearing
House, 1997; De Knop et al., 1996). Participation data from the Netherlands have even
shown that the mean age of those involved in martial arts was lower than in most other
sports (van den Heuvel & van der Werff, 1998).
It is interesting to note that martial arts bring about mixed feelings among many
people. The literature reports a variety of studies and reviews focusing on either negative or positive outcomes of martial arts involvement in general and with regard to
youth in particular. On the one hand, there are reports on medical as well as moral
concerns, with a focus on assumed detrimental effects of martial arts practice to the
personal and social well-being (among others Buse, 2006; Carr, 1998; Parry, 1998;
Sheard, 1997). For example, there is a considerable amount of studies that have focused on injuries in martial arts (among others Birrer & Halbrook, 1988; Pieter, 2005;
Zetaruk et al., 2005). This is especially the case for boxing, with several papers and
statements in favour of a ban of boxing for children under the age of 16 years on medical and philosophic-ethical grounds. Pearn, for example, stated that “(…) there is no

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Experiences of children in martial arts

21

place in contemporary society for a youth sport which has, as its primary goal, the infliction of acute brain damage on an opponent” (Pearn, 1998, 311).
Others have investigated the extent in which martial arts practice among youth can
lead to anti-social behaviour (e.g. Daniels & Thornton, 1990). Especially the relationship between martial arts involvement and aggressiveness in youth has been studied on
several occasions. As indicated by Maxwell and Moores (2007), in the field of sport,
scales measuring aggressiveness have probably been most extensively used in martial
arts. While some longitudinal studies have provided evidence that there was no increase in aggressiveness among the participating youngsters (e.g. Reynes & Lorant,
2001, 2004), other research findings appeared to point in an opposite direction (DelvaTauiliili, 1995; Endresen & Olweus, 2005; Reynes & Lorant, 2002). And although
some of the latter findings have been contested because of methodological problems
(Nosanchuk & Lamarre, 2002), it has become clear that further research in this area is
required.
However, martial arts practice has also been associated with possible sociopsychological benefits (e.g. Cox, 1993). A variety of studies have been reported on the
positive impact of traditional martial arts practice on participants’ psychological health
and personal development (e.g. Baron, 1993; Cummings, 1988; Lamarre & Nosanchuk, 1999; Seitz et al., 1990; Skelton et al., 1991; Weiser et al., 1995). Specifically
with regard to youth, several studies have provided some evidence that an involvement
in martial arts can be regarded as beneficial in relation to various domains (e.g. selfregulation: Lakes & Hoyt, 2004; stress reduction: Wall, 2005; school violence prevention: Smith et al., 1999; Zivin et al., 2001; juvenile delinquency: Gonzalez, 1990; Gorbel, 1991; Nosanchuk, 1981; Trulson, 1986; Twemlow & Sacco, 1998). Others have
also reported on the usefulness of martial arts in, among other things, family development (Lantz, 2002), conflict management (Rew & Ferns, 2005; Gleser & Brown,
1988) and liberal education (Levine, 1990).

Experiences in martial arts
While research has provided some evidence for the occurrence of positive sociopsychological effects of martial arts practice among youth, thereby giving support to a
growing number of initiatives that specifically make use of martial arts in their work
with young people (Brown & Johnson, 2000; Hendrey, 1997), it has also made clear
that more studies are needed, as not all findings point in the same direction. One of the
perspectives from which to obtain more insight into the effects of martial arts practice
is to analyse the experiences of those directly involved (i.e., martial arts participants).
Steenbergen (2004), for example, pointed out that in the discussion on the social acceptability of boxing, the views of act
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ual participants on their own sport are rarely
heard. To date, only few studies have been conducted in which views and experiences
of martial artists have been analysed. Most of these studies were conducted with boxers (e.g. Burke, 1998; Sugden, 1987; Wacquant, 1995). These studies, mostly using
participant observations or in-depth interviews, have provided an interesting insight
into the world of martial artists. For example, according to Wacquant (1995), boxers

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do not perceive their sport as violent or immoral, nor as a canalization of aggression.
Instead, they characterize it as a skilled bodily trade requiring sophisticated technical
know-how and an abiding moral commitment. He indicated that boxers relate to boxing with distinctly different meanings, such as courage, self-development, selfconfidence and self-control. Using Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, Wacquant refers to
“embodied capital” when indicating that boxing is regarded as much more than fighting: it equates to “being a fighter”.
To date, however, little is known about the way children experience martial arts.
For example, it remains unclear how they deal with harder martial arts. Will the practice of this kind of martial arts, according to them, have an influence on the way they
deal with violence and aggression? As indicated by Mitchell (1992), it is important to
take children’s mental immaturity into account. He referred to the fact that a nine-yearold black belt is not a martial artist, but “(…) at best he is a nine-year-old child who
has been trained to use potentially dangerous techniques” (Mitchell, 1992, 105). Consequently, various questions can be asked, relating to children’s participation motives,
the way they deal with the fighting skills they learn, how they handle conflicts, if they
experience any behavioural or psychological effects of martial arts practice, if they
consider the martial arts they practise as a sport or a way of life, etc.

The study
A study was set up to analyse experiences of young martial artists through qualitative
research methodology (in-depth interviews). 40 Flemish1 children (23 boys and 17
girls) between the age of eight and twelve years were interviewed (M=9.7 yrs; SD: 1.2
yrs). All of them were at least one year involved in martial arts training. Children were
randomly selected from clubs that had a specific youth section. Eight different martial
arts were included (i.e., judo, karate, taekwondo, aikido, wrestling, kickboxing, wushu
and boxing). From each sport, five children were interviewed. The main purpose was
to collect data with regard to children’s experiences and opinion of their own martial
arts involvement (e.g. participation motives, training and competition experiences, effects on behaviour). Semi-structured interviews were audio-taped and inductively content analysed. With the exception of the children that were involved in aikido, all
children had the opportunity to take part in competition.

Methods and procedure
Interviews
Owing the nature of the study (i.e., analysing views and experiences of a specific
group), a qualitative approach (Gratton & Jones, 2004) using semi-structured in-depth
interviews was used. All parents were informed of the study via letter and signed an
informed consent form. Prior to conducting the interviews, all children were read an
assent form and asked to sign their name. The interviews were conducted as open as
1

Flanders is the northern, Dutch-speaking part of Belgium.

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Experiences of children in martial arts

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possible with the respondents constantly being encouraged to talk freely about all aspects of their martial arts involvement.
A pilot test, consisting of ten interviews with youngsters involved in martial arts,
lead to minor adjustments (mostly with regard to wording and probing) in the interview schedule. In total, two interviewers with a personal background in martial arts
were involved, each conducted half of the five pilot interviews and each did 20 interviews in four different martial arts in the actual study.
All clubs that were contacted were willing to co-operate. The majority of the interviews, which ranged in duration from 25 to 45 minutes, took place before or after
practice in a quiet and separate room. Because of practical reasons, a few children had
to be interviewed at their home, also in a separate room.
Prior to the interviews, the interviewers observed a training session which allowed
them to have some insight in the organizational and teaching approach within the specific club. To
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facilitate these observations, a checklist was used which included the
following items: teacher-children relationship, provision of feedback, level of involvement and reactions of children during practice, and the purpose of the training
session according to the observer.
All interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed verbatim afterwards. Interview
data were content analysed inductively. Based on the methodology described in Scanlan et al. (1991), raw data units (i.e., quotes) were clustered into common themes (first
order), which in turn were then grouped into five second higher order themes. A similar procedure was used by a second (external) assessor. Both schemes were then compared, resulting in a final selection of four second-order themes: motives (reasons why
children started to practise and continue doing so), training (aspects dealing with experiences of children during training practices and with their teacher), competition (specific competition-related experiences) and behaviour (experienced effects of martial
arts practice on the children).
Besides the individual interviews, a third interviewer (first author) subsequently
conducted afterwards three group interviews each with ten children in a karate school.
The aim was to collect additional information and experiences among these young
people. However, no relevant new data were found.

Results
Results of the study are presented thematically based on the four second-order themes
and, where relevant, frequencies are reported in absolute numbers and illustrated using
raw data (i.e., quotes). It was decided only to report on those findings that are specifically related to martial arts involvement. Although data were collected with regard to
other, more general, aspects (i.e., participation motives, relation with teacher and competition anxiety), it was felt that these data did not provide any additional insight. As
these topics have already been extensively documented in the existing literature on
youth sports (e.g. De Knop et al., 1996), it was decided not to report these general
findings in the present paper.

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Marc Theeboom, Paul De Knop and Jikkemien Vertonghen

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Participation motives
A majority of the children in this study (29) indicated that being able to defend themselves against others is an important reason for taking up a martial art. Although some
children (4) referred to actual self-defence against physical assaults, most children (25)
regarded their martial arts involvement as a way to resist bullying by peers at school.
Most of them (16) had prior experience of this.
(...) they bullied me a lot and then they kicked me and stuff and I
didn’t do anything back and then I always had to go to the teacher (…)
to tell her that, but they didn’t do anything about it and said ‘do something back’ (…). I didn’t dare and then I started with aikido classes
(boy, nine years, aikido).
It is interesting to note that, according to a considerable number of children (20), they
were also encouraged by their parents to learn how to defend themselves against acts
of street violence. No differences were noticed here between boys and girls.
(...) to defend yourself when they want to attack you (…) murderers
on the streets (...) my mum and dad have said that to me (…) such as
from TV (girl, eight years, judo).
Data showed that the preference for a particular martial art is based more on practical
reasons (among others popularity of a club, distance to home), than on specific characteristics of a martial art. Findings also seem to indicate that children do not know the
difference between various martial arts types. Only a few children (7) indicated that
they (or their parents) had deliberately chosen a specific martial art. In those cases, it
was indicated that types of martial arts which they regarded as too violent were left
aside. For example, one boy indicated that he did not want to practise karate: “(…) because it is so violent, you learn to kill someone (…)” (boy, nine years, judo). Some other
children (7) had started practising martial arts because they saw it on TV or in movies.
Others (6) said that they started with martial arts for health reasons. “(…) and if you do
nothing, you become tired, lazy and fat” (boy, eleven years, wrestling).
Half of the martial arts that were selected in this study make use of coloured belts.
Although the children indicated that the colour of their belt shows which level they
have reached, there was only one child that explicitly said to regard the colour as a
motivation to continue practicing the sport. Most children (15) did not consider this
important.
(…) if it remains
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white, it is also OK. As long as you can keep practic-

ing aikido, if you cannot succeed in your exam, it does not matter.
You can still learn (boy, nine years, aikido).

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Experiences of children in martial arts

25

Training
Various reasons were given why children like training sessions. This was often related
to specific parts of practice, such as warming up, games and free fights. Regarding the
latter, several children (19) indicated that they like to “kick and fight” during practice.
When we are allowed to fight with each other, we can amuse ourselves. And when you have had a hard day at school, you can work off
through sparring (boy, twelve years, kickboxing).
According to the children, this kicking and fighting is not about hurting and inflicting
damage on others. They indicated that they greet each other before and after a fight
and that they are expected always to respect their opponent. The children interviewed
regard this as a test for themselves and an opportunity to go “all the way” against a
partner who can also defend himself.
Most of the children (28) indicated that through martial arts practice they learn
how to defend themselves. Although some referred here to “learning to fight”, it was
always stipulated that their sport was not intended to attack other people, but purely to
defend oneself. It is interesting to note that learning did not only occur on the sports
technical level, as several children (18) also mentioned gaining more self-confidence.
Before I started boxing, I didn’t go out and always watched television.
I was also afraid of the taller children at school. This has changed now
(boy, eight years, boxing).
Children indicated to believe more in themselves, which according to some (6), even
resulted in better learning at school.
I had difficulty with learning because I was not sure of myself, but
now I know how to learn (girl, eleven years, boxing).
A number of children (9) also mentioned that through the practice of a martial art, they
also feel physically stronger. Some of them (7) even said that they are more appreciated by their friends as they are not skinny anymore and their muscles are more developed. They added that they are no longer laughed at.
They now appreciate me more. I used to be tiny and small, but now I
have more muscles and they don’t laugh anymore (boy, twelve years,
kickboxing).

Competition
Most children (30) from this study had some experience of martial arts competition.
There were a number of reasons why other children where not involved. For example,
in some martial arts there is simply no competition (e.g. aikido). A lower martial arts
level or younger age were also reasons why they did not have competition experience.
In most cases, it was up to their trainer to decide if they were allowed to enter competition. However, there were children (8) who were permitted to decide for themselves. A

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Marc Theeboom, Paul De Knop and Jikkemien Vertonghen

26

number of them (7) indicated that they considered themselves too young and not experienced enough in their sport to become involved in competition. However, most of
these children (6) indicated that they wanted to experience what a competition feels
like and regarded this as an opportunity to make new friends.
Some children (5) were also interested to find out if they would like fighting
against other children. And, finally, a small number of children (4) did not want to take
part in competition. The reason here was their fear of the pain they might feel.
I’m afraid I’ll hurt myself, then you’ll have to fight a girl or a boy and
you can get beaten up (girl, eight years, kickboxing).
Data showed that also children who did not take part in competition could encounter
situations in which there are similar experiences (e.g. fear of failure during public performances).
The participation motives that were reported by the children are enjoyment, being
together with friends, getting to know other children and being able to compare themselves with others. “I do this for fun and not really in order to learn how to fight” (boy,
ten years, kickboxing).
Most children (17) indicated that they hardly ever have painful experiences. They
consider martial arts competitions as harmless because of the strict rules during fights.

Behaviour
It was mentioned earlier that the children in this study indicated that they learn several
things during practice. This does not only involve the more technical aspects of sport.
One girl mentioned that she had learned in her club how to deal with others
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. They also
mentioned that they feel they have more confidence, they show less aggression and
they ask more of themselves than before.
(...) because I learn to defend myself, through which I feel more confident (boy, nine years, aikido).
I used to become angry easily and would want to start fighting right
away. But now I usually try to stay calm (boy, twelve years, boxing).
It is difficult to determine to what extent there are possible behavioural changes as a
result of practising martial arts for these youngsters. However, it is interesting to note
that almost all children (34) have indicated that they experience positive changes
which have an effect on the way they feel and behave. Despite the question whether or
not there are real behavioural changes, data show that children believe that their selfimage is influenced in a positive way.

Conflicts
Children experienced behavioural changes mostly in the way they responded to conflicts (e.g. during a quarrel or when friends were in need). Different reactions were

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Experiences of children in martial arts

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mentioned: threat, defending oneself or their friends, hitting back, patching up a quarrel, walking away or simply ignoring were the most frequently described strategies.
(...) then I would go straight to them and pretend I’m going to fight
and then they will surely stop and run away (girl, ten years, wushu).
(...) then I would immediately defend her and then I would ask why
they argue and say to them that they should make up again and be
friends (girl, eleven years, judo).
It was mentioned that in most cases children would try to talk first when there is a conflict. Only when this does not work, would they try other things. Children indicated
that only in extreme circumstances would they use force to defend themselves and
others. They also indicated that when a fight was inevitable, they would only defend
themselves or the others without hurting the attackers.
Not causing any pain, nor hitting a bloody nose or something like that.
Only make him stop. I might hit him lightly just to scare him (boy,
twelve years, taekwondo).
A number of children (8) even said that if they would have hurt others, they would
apologize to them afterwards.
I would mind a lot if I had caused any pain to someone who is innocent. Then I wouldn’t feel good about this and would apologize (boy,
eight years, aikido).
There were also children (9) who said they would withdraw if during a quarrel children would start a fight, because of the fear of being hit. It is also interesting to note that
almost all children (37) believed they would react in a different way now than before
they started to practise martial arts.
(...) I used to react immediately, and would hit them at once. And now
I don’t do that anymore. In fact this is strange, others kick and hit you
and you don’t do anything back (…) but I won’t (boy, ten years, judo).
It is important, however, to mention here that the majority of children (32) in this
study indicated that they have not encountered these situations for real. This means
that they only reported on their intentions. The interviews also showed that the behaviour they described was encouraged by their trainers. Often they indicated that, if
they behaved differently (e.g. by starting to fight on the street or challenging others),
they would be suspended and even in some cases would be forced to leave their club.
It is interesting to see that many of the children (19) of this study said that they did
not talk to others about their sport (i.e., friends at school or in their neighbourhood).
They indicated that they preferred to keep this to themselves and did not feel the need
that too many others know about their martial arts involvement. A number of children
(10) explicitly indicated that they simply not like to be made the center of attention
through this.

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Marc Theeboom, Paul De Knop and Jikkemien Vertonghen

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Media
Despite their aversion to violence, most children (29) have indicated that they like
watching martial arts films. They make a clear difference between what is shown and
reality. A number of children (12) also explicitly indicated that these films did not correspond to that what they learn in their club.
(…) you see them lying on the ground hitting and shooting and grabbing each other. That’s not like here. Here it is done gently and we
don’t grab and hurt each other (girl, ten years, wushu).
According to the children, showing violence in the media does not have an impact on
their behaviour, nor does it affect their attitude towards
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the use of violence. However,
a number of these children (11) are worried about the fact that violence in films and on
television might set a bad example to others.
I think this is bad. In fact it sets a bad example if there are children
that say: “We will also try this”. A friend at school always says to me:
“Let’s do like in the movies”. We then always pretend to fight, but he
doesn’t know how to do this (boy, nine years, taekwondo).
According to some (8), these films should not be shown on television. Only a few
children indicated that they have bad dreams about it afterwards, while others said they
deliberately did not watch, because they did not like this.
I always think about this while I go to sleep. My parents say that I
should not think about this, but then I’ll do it anyway and dream about
it (girl, eight years, kickboxing).
(…) in these films there is more violence and guns, and I don’t like
this (girl, eleven years, kickboxing).

Discussion
The effect of martial arts involvement on participants has drawn the attention of social
scientists as contrasting images seem to appear. On the one hand, there is a common
belief that participation in martial arts can be related to increased levels of aggression
and violence among participants, which has resulted in a considerable amount of studies that have looked at this relationship. Interestingly, this research has not only
looked at “harder” types of martial arts (e.g. boxing and kickboxing), but has also investigated effects of other more commonly accepted disciplines, such as (Olympic)
judo and karate. On the other hand, however, there is the conventional wisdom that
(traditional) martial arts appear to have positive socio-psychological effects on its participants. Because of this ambiguity and the fact that many youngsters are involved in
martial arts, there are many studies that have looked at the effects of martial arts practice on youth. While the majority of studies seem to provide evidence for the positive
effects martial arts practice has on young people, it has been indicated that the often

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Experiences of children in martial arts

29

used cross-sectional designs do not rule out changes due to selection biases (Fuller,
1988). In his review on martial arts and psychological health, Fuller (1988) suggested,
therefore, the use of longitudinal studies to establish a more distinct cause-and-effect
relationship with actual martial arts practice. However, as some longitudinal studies
that were conducted more recently (e.g. Endresen & Olweus, 2005; Reynes & Lorant,
2002) did not provide more evidence for the positive effects of martial arts involvement among youth, it becomes clear that also other research methods are needed to
provide a better insight in this relationship.
Through the use of a qualitative methodology, the present study has analysed
views and experiences among children involved in martial arts. Findings seem to support the relationship between martial arts practice and positive socio-psychological
outcomes. Children that were interviewed in this study reported increases in selfconfidence, self-control and social skills, as well as adapted a non-violent attitude in
relation to conflicts. These results are clearly supportive to the findings of various other studies.
Results also show that, although learning self-defence skills was one of the most
important participation motives among the children in this study, these skills were
primarily regarded as a protection from becoming victims of bullying at school. It appears, however, that their parents were more concerned with their children’s safety on
the streets, as they encouraged them to start martial arts practice for that reason. To
date, studies have been scarce that have looked at participation motives of martial artists. Moreover, the majority of these studies have only focused on adolescents’ and
adults’ motives (e.g. Jones et al., 2006; Twemlow et al., 1996). Consequently, the data
of the present study can hardly be compared to available research data.
It is also interesting to refer to the finding that most children in this study seem to
be reluctant to talk about their martial arts practice to outsiders. While the interview
data did not provide a clear reason for this, it might be that the children simply try to
avoid being “tested” by others on their fighting skills (e.g. being challenged). Another
possible explanation might be that their “secrecy” can be seen as part of a moral code
of humility which is regarded as one of the fundamental principles within most traditional Asian martial arts (Najafi, 2003).
Another finding
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of this study refers to the perception of children with regard to
fighting an opponent. According to children that were interviewed, such fighting does
not relate to inflicting pain or causing damage to another person. Rather, they regard
this as a personal test of their skills against an opponent capable of defending oneself.
This feeling shows a similarity with Wacquant’s (1995) finding regarding adult boxers’ perception of their sport in which they see boxing as a skilled bodily trade and a
moral commitment. This brings, however, a moral discussion to the fore regarding the
acceptability of harder types of martial arts practice for youth, which has resulted for
some in a plea for stricter rules or even a ban (Parry, 1998; Pearn, 1998). At the same
time, though, others have described the effect martial arts appear to have with regard
to moral development or virtuous behaviour (e.g. Lantz, 2002; Twemlow & Sacco,
1998).

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Marc Theeboom, Paul De Knop and Jikkemien Vertonghen

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Conclusion
It is clear that analysing the experiences of children in martial arts requires a good insight into the specific context of martial arts practice, where actually fighting an opponent is often a basic characteristic and, as such, different to most other sports. In addition, because of the wide variety of martial arts styles, it would seem logic that different experiences might occur within this variation (e.g. “softer” styles such as aikido,
compared to “harder styles” such as kickboxing). To date, however, studies have not
provided conclusive evidence that outcomes will vary between different martial arts.
First, because of the limited number of comparative studies that have been conducted,
and second, because even interventions within the same martial art have led to opposite findings. But this does not indicate that no distinction can be made within the wide
variety of martial arts. For example, it might be interesting to take the different approaches of martial arts practice into account. As indicated by Theeboom et al. (1995),
the practice of martial arts my be categorized by means of three approaches: (a) “traditional”, (b) “sporting”, and (c) “efficiency”. Each approach varies with regard to the
nature of interactions between teacher and pupils and the kind of goals set forward. In
the traditional approach, participants strive for unity and coordination between internal
(e.g. spiritual and mental) and external (e.g. physical) elements as it is stressed that
physical excellence in martial arts will not go without spiritual or mental cultivation.
The sporting approach regards martial arts as sports with positive physical, mental and
social effects for its participants. The variety of fighting skills is restricted to what is
allowed according to specific competition rules. And, finally, the efficiency approach
emphasizes effectiveness and application of the techniques in a fight. Martial arts are
mainly practised for self-defence reasons.
A few studies have considered different approaches within the same martial art
when looking at effects on participants (e.g. Caine, 1989; Murray, 1981; Trulson,
1986). But as most of these studies have only described these differences in general
terms (e.g. “traditional” versus “non-traditional”), limited insight has been provided. In
addition, it has been indicated by Jones et al. (2006, 33) that “instructorship” is perhaps more important than the art being practised:
The importance of the instructors’ teaching/communication style implies that even for the same style of martial art, practitioner responses
will alter depending on the attributes of the instructor.
Consequently, future research which looks more closely at these variations might result in a better understanding of the effect martial arts practice has on participants in
general and on youth in particular.

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