Does play-fighting fall under the category of ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ or is the martial arts to blame?

Does play-fighting fall under the category of ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ or is the martial arts to blame?

Is it natural for boys to play-fight regardless of their exposure to superheroes, cartoons and martial arts?  I think so.  I know there are some people who believe that the martial arts manifests aggression and gives kids who already have aggressive tendencies the tools to more accurately hurt others.  But the truth is, that quality martial arts instruction exposes a child to a combination of positive attributes like humility, patience, physical and mental discipline, and the life-long skill of self-defense.  These integral lessons in a martial arts program need to be acknowledged by the parents so they become part of a dialog at home.  Furthermore, parents need to communicate with their martial arts instructor if their child exhibits any unacceptable aggressive behavior or un-kind treatment of others.

A unique paradox exists in teaching martial arts to young children. While you may be teaching kids mental and physical discipline, you are doing it in an environment that encourages physical contact and teaches kids, including potential bullies, how to throw, grapple, kick, and/or punch correctly.  Without sounding like I am picking on football and hockey, I actually believe that the skill of tackling and clipping someone is more violent and – is far more unpredictable in how it damages the body.  In fact, I have personally witnessed the use of tackling in playground ‘play’ amongst boys more often than I have ever seen punches and kicks launched.  For the record I am a supporter of all athletics for kids, I just feel it is a valid observation.

Martial arts is universally accepted as a holistic hobby for children.  It is even recognized as a form of therapy.  Martial Arts Therapy has been used since 1999 to build self-esteem, teach self-discipline, enhance gross motor skills and control stress and aggression  .

A Little Research on the Topic

In researching this topic over the last few weeks I have come across some articles that specifically look at aggressive behavior and martial arts.  I certainly have not done a study on my students over the years and every once in a while it is good to survey the literature on topics that directly relate to your profession.

In 2010, Jikkemiem Vertonghen and Marc Theeboom wrote an article for the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine that looked at the social-psychological outcomes of martial arts among youth.  They essentially reviewed the literature on this topic, which included 350 papers.   The papers were generally favorable towards martial arts for youth, but I agree with the authors’ comments that it is, “difficult to make general statements about the social-psychological outcomes of sports participation, without taking several influential factors into consideration, such as the type of guidance, the structural qualities of the sport, the characteristics of the participants and the social context.”

I have copied and pasted some of the most interesting studies and conclusions made in Vertonghen and Theeboom’s JSSM article.

  • "In most cases, specific target groups were used, such as middle or elementary school youth at risk (Edel- man, 1994; Zivin et al., 2001). All these studies reported positive outcomes, with decreased post-test scores on hostility and aggression. While most of these studies made use of martial arts in general, only a few have inves- tigated differences between specific styles of martial arts."
  • "Steyn and Roux (2009) used the “Buss and Perry Aggression Question- naire” to examine the aggression levels of 15 to 18 year old taekwondo-in compared to hockey players and a non- sport group of the same age category. Findings revealed that the verbal aggression and hostility scores of tae-kwon-do participants were significantly lower than the other two groups."
  • "As indicated by Jones, MacKay and Peters (2006), it is not only important to take the kind of martial art into account, it is perhaps more important to look at the role played by the instructor, which can create different styles within one martial art. The effect of the martial arts being taught can be very different depending on who is teaching. It can be noted, however, that many authors did not describe the type of guidance used within the selected martial arts."
  • "Several pedagogues and welfare workers have used martial arts in their work with this target group (referring to youth with aggression and anti-social behavior) and employ it as an instrument to improve their social and personal development (e.g., Fleisher et al., 1995; Ham, 2008; Nuchelmans, 2008; Theeboom et al., 2004)."

Another Personal Note

As a martial arts instructor and youth fitness coach, I am always focused on how doing physical activity is empowering, how it makes the body healthier and ultimately like a superhero, how it can be used to feel strong, become fast and be skillful.  I don’t condone youth sparring or fighting in a play setting or its use to intimidate, harm or manipulate others.  But I do want a child’s martial arts training to be there if they need to defend themselves.  I used it my whole childhood.  Most of my staff began studying to stand up to the bullies.  But it does wound my heart when I hear of bullies using the most amazing skill in the world to hurt others. I expected to find that science and psychology would back up this stance - that play-fighting is always a bad thing.  Imagine our surprise to find that scientific tests have determined that play-fighting is socially and psychologically beneficial!

Here’s some advice on how to tell Play and Real Fighting apart:



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  • There are always "role models." About 25 years ago my about 5 year old nephew gave his 3 year old brother a "Rude Awakening" on a basement rug (right over the concrete). We lectured the older on how his uncle was once smaller than his father, but no longer is. Anyways, the 3 year old is now the one with the brains.

    The question you seem to raise is whether children should learn martial arts in a controlled environment or from TV. Other than that, boys will act out.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thank you for your comment. I agree, boys are very physical and use their bodies differently than girls- they express using shoving, play fighting etc... I was not trying to even blame Tv per se. I have recently been brought in on a discussion at a school where children in martial arts were using their skills to hurt and bully others. It makes me sad and my heart is wounded by this. The martial arts has not been used like that since the 'Karate Kid I' days where some schools were using their powers for evil (so to speak). That has changed so much in the past 25 years.

  • "The martial arts has not been used like that since the 'Karate Kid I' days where some schools were using their powers for evil (so to speak). That has changed so much in the past 25 years."

    Again it differs from the fitness classes to the TV. The male MMA writers discuss the Octagon and the "Ground and Pound," which arose in the last 25 years, and I am sure have nothing to do with the martial arts you describe, just like Greco-Roman wrestling has nothing to do with the WWE.

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    Girls can enjoy to play fight too :) My daughter does because she sees her Dad watching karate videos, DVD, youtube videos, training at home. However, at this age it is tough for her to understand the essence of martial arts. I am opening up a Pleasanton karate school for active adults and then to get young kids in it like my daughter so they understand fighting, or not fighting, to feel empowered about themselves, confident, and to always use their head not their fists and feet when put into a threatening situation.
    The Karate kid movies were great, I miss Mr. Miyagi from the series :)

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