Character Development Through Martial Arts Training
In Japanese martial arts, the first lesson a new student is typically taught is that of respect (rei), usually through the physical movement of bowing towards the instructor (Sensei) or in the direction of an image of the founder of the martial art while entering the training room (dojo).
Often, this bow is accompanied by a verbal declaration of respect (oss! or osu!), which carries various interpretations that point towards a formal greeting. One interpretation from Kyokushin Karate suggests that it may even be a combination of two Japanese characters (oshi = push; shinobu = endure) that could translate to "combat spirit" or "advancing with a positive attitude" (The Martial Way, 2020).
The student then walks around the room bowing to and shaking the hands of other students who have arrived before them, acknowledging their presence in the room and making their presence known. The same process is enacted at the end of training, sometimes accompanied by the physical cleaning of the dojo floor.
In between the start and end of training, the demonstration of respect is practiced continually through the overt bowing and verbal articulation of 'osu!', for example at the start and/or end of formal patterns of movement (kata) or basic training exercises (kihon) or sparring (kumite) or throwing/grappling (randori), or implicitly through the control of emotions and energy or strength in partner-based movements.
Numerous principles and training rules (dojo kun) point towards respect. For example, the first of Gichin Funakoshi's Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate: "Karate begins and ends with rei" (Funakoshi, 2003).
Whether this demonstration of respect is authentic or not is irrelevant at the start of learning a martial art. The message to the student is that respect for the martial arts lineage, the teacher, other students, and the training space is a phenomenon that is embodied and overtly expressed. It is the first of many future lessons around the importance of respect when conducting oneself in public situations.
Being able to control emotions and personal conduct in public situations through martial arts training has been linked to numerous research studies. For example, a reduction of juvenile delinquency (Trulson, 1986) and an improvement in self-regulation among adolescents, particularly in boys (Lakes & Hoyt, 2004; Nakonechnyi & Galan, 2017). There appears much less research oriented to the experience of girls and women around the practice and embodiment of respect through the martial arts.
As a female martial artist and researcher, a question I have reflected on is, "Is it respect that we need to learn first?"
Research Disclaimer: The following reflections focus on my own experience of character development through martial arts training. It is important to share in advance that while I contrast Karate and Judo training in a particular way, my experience and my interpretation of what I experienced may not mirror that of other practitioners, nor is it complete. I have also been selective in sharing certain memories for the purpose of this blog entry, which creates a filtration bias in what I write. There are many moments from training that I have omitted and not discussed, some of which may contradict what I am about to write. With this in mind, if you read further, please view the entry as part of an ongoing conversation around research.
Over the past few years, I've found myself reflecting on the topic of respect. Whom do I respect and not respect, and why? Who respects me and doesn't respect me, and why?
One of the reasons for this curiosity is a parallel interest in the concept of personal power, which is related to the process of building self-respect. When self-respect is present, it is easier to access personal power. I say this with regard to everyday social interactions where boundaries may need to be drawn in order to preserve energy or self-protect, and with regard to the physical, mental, and spiritual practice of martial arts where the concept of "kime" or somatic codes reside (Cohen, 2006).
As a young Karate practitioner who was high in conscientiousness, obeying the Sensei's instructions to bow and articulate 'osu!' came fairly naturally. The movements and words were easy to follow. While somewhat awkward to begin with, the fact that everyone in the room behaved in the same manner made the ritual easier to adopt. Social conformity can be a powerful phenomenon, particularly when the desire to belong to a particular group, as I did to Karate, is present.
Abiding by social norms can make us say and do things without further critical reflection on our part. These norms can become comforting rituals that we perform without question and without ever really understanding why. Sometimes these norms are designed to maintain public order and group harmony, and serve a greater purpose such as that of peace; sometimes they are designed to control. The problem with the latter is that without critical thinking, both our minds and bodies may end up being controlled and our subsequent behaviours may damage us as well as others.
The cultivation of character traits related to respect and social codes of conduct, such as perseverance and self-control, was familiar to me. I grew up in a fairly strict environment in the Middle East where social conduct was particularly important. How we behaved in public was also related to law and order. For example, the way we dressed and if we showed any romantic affection could invite attention from the public and police.
Unlike wider public spaces where I was vigilant in a negative way about my body and behaviour (sometimes rebelling as a youngster), order, routine, and discipline in my martial arts training created a space where I could trust the people around me and relax and fully engage my mind and body in training. Unlike others who bolted at the prospect of being told what to do, I felt very much home. I didn't mind dressing like others or engaging in repetitive or strenuous tasks.
I carried these character traits into my school and university studies, working hard and earning high grades, and then into the workplace. My desk was usually spotless and my work files in order, a character trait that prompted teasing and envy at times. My belief that perseverance led to recognition results was rewarded most of the time, at least enough for me to feel that such respect was a two-way process. I sidestepped the unfairness of life and chose to focus on what worked for me, and what lay within my domains of control.
I could usually spot people in the workplace who had trained for several years in a martial art, if only as a child. The high degree of conscientiousness in relation to their work and respect for others around them, coupled with their physical posture, self-control, and quiet presence was usually a sign that they had trained in a movement-based art that demanded discipline and respect. When I began teaching yoga, I could also spot these people in the yoga room. Their quiet and calm energy, and fluid movement patterns, particularly during transitions, often gave them away.
They were also very nice people. "Nice" meaning that others had a habit of taking advantage of them and they had a habit of moving away and choosing the higher moral ground. They strived for excellence and were prone to feelings of anxiety and depression, and spent much of their energy quietly battling emotional pain. Yet they hid these deeper feelings so well that others tended to see only the final product. They were reliable and pleasant to work with, and often inspired others to be better people.
Only one martial artist I met through work was a surprise to me. A Judo practitioner who didn't fit the norm of "good character" as I had come to know it through Karate. His appearance was sloppy and his attitude towards women demeaning. He may have had a sharp mind and been competent at his work but I didn't trust him. He could be charming one moment and flare up in anger the next. His charm and experience meant that management overlooked his poor behaviour.
Looking back, I see he might have struggled with self-regulation and an overdose of ego but back then, I couldn't quite put my finger on it. I still had so much to learn. Having a senior martial arts belt, for example, didn't equate to respect. The concept of respect and how it is embodied and expressed is much more nuanced than that.
A few years ago, I sat down to interview a number of martial artists, one of whom was a teacher of karate. One of my first questions was, "Do martial arts cultivate character in the person?" His response was, "No, it is the character of the person that is drawn to martial arts."
Initially, and rather naively, I assumed that the character of a martial arts practitioner would be good. My self-image was that of a "good person" and my belief was that marital arts training offered a way for me to develop that state of "goodness".
Without critical thinking, a sense of self-righteousness crept in to my way of thinking. People who took up martial arts and soon dropped out were "lazy" or "incompetent". I judged their characters as "weak" and their inability to endure criticism or repetitive training a flaw in their personality. I disliked witnessing people who whizzed through the ranks without having gone through sufficiently demanding training. In my view, they hadn't earned the right to progress so quickly. I believed that training hours were vital to character development (that part at least is still true).
I also judged myself harshly, focusing on what I needed to improve rather than what was going well. A typical Karate class included so many corrections of my stance and performance, all of which fueled further desire in me to "get it right", usually while having my image in a floor-to-ceiling mirror peering back at me, reminding me of all my flaws. There was always something to improve and very little that was "good enough" to enjoy.
The list of what I needed to improve was endless. When I finally passed my second black belt (dan) grading, instead of celebrating I sat down in an exhausted daze. That a representative from Japan had passed only myself and one other person in the line-up of students taking exams that day had very little impact on my self-worth or self-esteem. Rather than feel empowered by this moment that had been over twenty five years in the making, I felt defeated. Where was the powerful person I was somehow destined to become? And when would the self-critical voice in my head finally give up?
While preparing to grade for my second dan, an urge to write a book interpreting Gichin Funakoshi's Twenty Guiding Principles from a female perspective led me to reach out to three people I admired: An Aikido practitioner and author of Tao books, Diane Dreher, a Karate teacher known for his writings on integrating mind, body, and spirit through the martial arts, Mike Clarke, and a Martial Arts and Self-Defence expert who taught Positive Psychology, Reece Coker. All of these people had a positive impact on my growth.
I expected the book writing process to come naturally, and that the book I was set to write would empower other women's lives. I had written a couple of books before this one and anticipated that the process would take 6 to 12 months. Instead, writing the book took a very difficult two years while Dreher, Clarke, and Coker stood by. It led me into the dark side of myself, where I was forced to acknowledge and ultimately, over a further two years, start to accept some challenging truths around my own character flaws. I realised along the way that I myself was not yet empowered and that respect was the Achilles' heel standing in my way.
While writing this book, which I called Cherry Blossom Dojo: The Way of Inner Strength, I took up Judo and trained as a Self-Defence instructor. Ironically, a smaller book within this book also emerged, which I called Inner Sensei: 20 Lessons in Personal Protection and Development. While Cherry Blossom Dojo focused on my journey, Inner Sensei (or inner teacher) was the one intended for others. It was a book I wrote twice before realising that it was first a process that I would need to live and lead for myself.
Very quickly, through Judo training, my dark side came to the fore. While years of Karate training had kept me quiet and humble (or was it just self-critical?), the nature of Judo brought forth a more playful and competitive side of me. I quickly felt at home in throwing and grappling, and my competitive nature was unleashed.
Now some might say that competition isn't meant to be dark. Isn't it "good" to try to be our best? Doesn't sport bring people together? Doesn't it help us to become "good sports" and accept failure, and celebrate other people's wins, when things don't go our way?
As Coker would tell me often in conversation, in competition someone always loses and for those who win, their success is based on other people's defeats. Where is the honour in this? And why not simply strive to be your very best without the need to compare yourself to others? His views weren't that different from martial artists who believe that the biggest fight most of us have will be the fight we have within ourselves. They also stumped me as his first profession in life was as a professional athlete and competitive fighter.
We can learn from others' experiences to a certain extent, and then there are things that we have to go through and learn for ourselves. Understanding what happens when martial arts turns into a sport was a lesson I had to learn for myself. At first, it looked like a shiny horizon. Later on, the grimmer side hit. In me it brought forth ego and a desire to dominate others and win. Alongside that was a need to be witnessed and seen as powerful, all the while not quite sure I understood what that power really felt like from within. But I was convinced that if I competed more then I would finally achieve it.
Embracing this darker and more competitive side of me created a knock-on effect in my Karate training, an observation that wasn't lost on my instructor. On the one hand it boosted my self-confidence (or was that arrogance born of low self-esteem?) and reaction times; on the other, it reduced my ability to obey. I began to question my Karate training in more depth, breaking out of the child-like attitude that had formed at a young age where my teachers were always "right".
You could say that competitive Judo helped me to grow up. Sport can offer a wonderful playing ground for plenty of emotions to surface. Envy, jealousy, feelings of fear and insecurity about potential losses and wins. All of these feelings require expression and embodiment to process and move through. They also demand energy. Having not allowed myself such experiences, crossing over to a darker side allowed me the freedom to explore terrain I had seen in others, yet never dared to cross within myself.
Although respect was an essential aspect of Judo training, the nature of close-contact training meant that it was embodied and expressed in a very different way.
It is fairly easy to let a flying punch through the air and scoring of a point go in Karate. Only in an accident or as a result of a poor block would the punch actually land in your face, in which case the average Karate practitioner will apologise profusely (some of course may smile and think "it serves you right"). It is much more challenging to manage emotions when your training partner lifts you off the mat, throws you to the ground, and pins or pulls you into a choke. Fear and anger are much harder to hide when someone is controlling your ability to move and breathe.
Understanding the energetic elements of respect took on a different light in Judo. While in Karate I was used to sensing the energy and presence of my training partners from a comfortable distance, and could try to read their intentions through eye contact and body language observation, in Judo the process of "reading" my partners was different. For example, in grappling and throwing, there is very little eye contact. To predict my partner's next move, I had to physically feel what their body was about to do via muscle contractions and breathing patterns, rather than use my eyes to observe and predict.
In Karate, I had also kept an emotional distance from my training partners. The emphasis on self-control was perhaps the reason why. We just didn't get overly happy or overly sad. The range of emotion was fairly bland. The Sensei could appear angry as a means to motivate us but as students, we were expected to keep our emotions in check. In Judo, there was much less chance of doing that. Emotions surfaced quicker than I was used to, challenging my self-concept of being a self-controlled person. This forced me to confront feelings of vulnerability that had been easier to hide in Karate.
I also couldn't hide my physical exhaustion after intense training sessions of back-to-back throws, chokes, and grappling. Sometimes, I lay fatigued on the floor in a star fish shape, legs and arms splayed in opposite directions, unwilling to get up. In almost 25 years of on-off Karate training, I had never once conducted myself in such a manner. Even when exhausted during or after training, my remaining energy was spent on hiding that fact. To display my body on the floor of all places in such an "uncontrolled" way would have been considered disrespectful, not to mention "weak".
Needless to say, my Karate training was influenced by the conservative personalities of the instructors with whom I trained, who differentiated between males and females.
While we were both expected to train hard, less intensity was expected of females. This also became part of the Achilles' heel that held me back. A cultural norm of "respect for women" mean that we were never tested to the same extent. If someone isn't pushed to their limits, how will they understand who they really are?
This is probably why I never ended up star-fished on the floor at the end of Karate training. While I was trained hard, had I ever really given my training my all? Knowing that the most important part of my training was self-control, would I have really risked a situation where I could potentially lose it? Such an attitude will result in holding back and never really experiencing the depths and breadths of who we are.
My Judo instructors on the other hand were much less conservative.* They expected everyone to train hard and other than at competitions, where males and females were separated, the spirit in the training room was one of intensity for all. My instructors didn't let me off the hook. There wasn't one set of rules for women and one set for men; there was one set of rules for us all.
In Judo, I came across a more diverse range of personalities. That we trained in a mixed and open space alongside other martial arts and combat sports such as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Muay Thai, and Boxing, also opened up my mind. In the locker room, I met all kinds of women practicing some form of martial arts. While there was still an air of politeness that can present itself in groups of women, at least at the start of group formation, there was also aggression, independent thinking, and an unspoken hierarchy of confidence.
I may have learned just as much in the locker room as I did training on the mat. I learned that physical size and strength count for presence in certain situations.
Being in the upper weight category of 70kg+ and carrying muscle, I was known for being one of the stronger females on the mat. This created a type of respect that didn't feel comfortable or familiar. I saw the fear in some of the other women's eyes when they had to train with me, and it wasn't a reaction my gentle side liked.
At the same time, my larger size and strength gave me the confidence to train with the stronger men and in turn, them the confidence that they could train with me and not worry (or at least worry less) about hurting me. Experiencing the limits of my physical strength in such close contact and under pressure, quite literally, was another liberating moment. Once I knew my limits, I was able to see how much further I could go.
*Side note: Of course, there are less conservative Karate instructors out there and more conservative Judo ones. There are also Karate styles that include throwing and grappling (my Karate training unfortunately didn't beyond kata demonstrations). If my experience doesn't ring true for you, forget the martial arts names and focus on the deeper reflections I'm attempting to share around how character - for good and bad - is embodied.
With less of a grip on my emotions and ego, and experiencing a greater sense of enjoyment and pleasure, other aspects of my character emerged. I felt more relaxed during and after training, and this energy carried into my art. Parallel to Karate, I had also been a life-long amateur Arabic calligrapher. Yet after taking up Judo, my focus on creating intricate calligraphy waned and instead, I began to paint colourful abstracts.
I also felt less self-critical and self-conscious, and more accepting of who expressing who I was. Although Karate had helped me to cultivate a quiet and assured sense of self, I had also developed a pattern of being reserved and quite formal around others. This didn't lend itself easily to being authentic. I couldn't rely on demonstrations of respect; instead, I had to dive into the nuances of character, appearance, and emotion.
Keeping a neat appearance was part of the way I had trained. The wilder nature of Judo with hair and suit all over the place didn't allow for such illusions of self-control. Instead, I learned to show up as I was. I stopped fiddling with my belt and suit or wondering if my hair was tied back. I stopped worrying if my arm or foot was in the right place or if my knee was pointed at the right angle.
My Judo instructors focused more on cultivating training spirit rather than technical perfection. As a result, I stopped being so self-conscious of what my martial arts training looked like and instead, began to experience it from within. Interestingly, "Spirit first, technique second" was one of Funakoshi's other guiding principles, which makes me wonder if my instructors ever kept this in mind.
Having spent so many years upholding respect as a virtue and its related character strengths of perseverance and self-control in movement, experiencing other aspects of my character through Judo was like finding a missing piece. Unsurprisingly, my critical judgment of others gradually began to wane.
Outside of training, I began to face trickier emotional states such as anger, jealousy, defeat, and rage. Instead of being so self-composed and "Zen-like", as people often referred to me, I experienced uglier parts to my personality that I would have liked to neatly tuck away. Instead, they became more visible to those around me, including my life partner who is also a martial artist. His observation of these negative states brought them out of my blind spots and more acutely into my awareness, where I could then decide what I was going to do about them. Would I stuff them back down or would I allow them to run their course?
I also experienced many moments of much-needed tension release. Trying to uphold challenging Karate stances not to mention "good character" can be incredibly exhausting over time. Perhaps nobody is ever "all good" or "all bad", and martial artists are no exception here. While we may strive towards "good character", we also need to embrace the darker sides of our nature. If not, those darker sides may end up embracing us. Martial arts allows for this process, it just depends on how we train and who who is in charge of that training.
After years of practicing respect towards others, Judo also highlighted a need for me to turn that practice on myself. Can I honour and respect when I'm tired? Can I honour and respect my instinct to win? Can I honour and respect the wisdom and power of my dark side, as much as I can the brighter side? I was also forced to question if I could really stand up for myself when respect for me was compromised. Competition brings out the darkness in others, and I was at the receiving end of some pretty unfair tactics on the mat that were designed to bring me down for the purpose of another person's gain. What would I do in those moments? Would I defend myself or would I choose the higher moral ground?
Respect may be a code of conduct that can help us to build more peaceful societies, but respect for others without respect for ourselves doesn't help to foster a sense of peace from within. A martial artist may look like the picture of respect and calm on the outside yet this may be learned performance rather than a lived experience.
Without exploring the dynamics and depths of respect, and the various roads to respect, a martial artist is only partly formed.
While my early martial arts training taught me how to perform acts of respect (e.g. bowing, greeting, controlling my emotions, cleaning the dojo floor), it took a long time to understand what respect as a pathway to character development really meant.
My reflections and various approaches to martial arts training over the years have led me to see the importance of understanding our own true nature, and the value of being authentic, before we concern ourselves with how others perceive us. Respect as a performance is all about upholding honour in social settings in order to avoid shame - be it shame for us or shame for the other person.
Respect as an authentic practice on the other hand looks and feels very different. It is less a set of rules to follow and more a way of being. Authenticity was ultimately the gateway to my experience of respect and the road to authenticity began with understanding who I was, what my limits were, and who I became when pushed to those limits and beyond. In those extreme places, any facade or pretence was lost.
Accepting who we are is a practice for us all and perhaps it is here - in learning to be authentic - that our character development through martial arts really starts. With this in mind, the first lesson for any student in my Cherry Blossom Dojo would be, accept yourself first. After this, the lesson of respect can be learned.
This order of lessons around character development may be of particular importance for those who have not experienced their full range of emotions and character traits before setting foot in a dojo. Without a lived experience of these, and the humility that comes with understanding and accepting that we are all flawed in some way, the effect of our martial arts training on other areas of our lives will be stunted.
It isn't enough to tell a person to respect themselves first, as some may suggest. If that person doesn't accept who they are, warts and all, how will they ever be able to respect themselves? Perhaps in this light, respect for self as well as others has to be earned, and this is a process that evolves through practice and training over a period of time. For those like myself, it may be several decades spent in learning.
While some of us may turn to martial arts as a way to foster greater self-control, others are there to feel empowered. Rather than seek power over others, it is power within ourselves that is worthy of practice and effort. Such personal power starts when we embrace and accept our character strengths, as well as our character flaws.
It is in accepting these flaws - or our dark side - that we stand the greatest chance of becoming whole. This isn't a new concept in Psychology; Carl Jung spoke of it often in relation to owning our "shadows" lest we project them onto others. Integrating positive and negative aspects of ourselves is also a familiar part of emotional healing, of which self-acceptance is an outcome. Given the emotional pain some may bring into their martial arts (a topic to be expanded on in another post), allowing for the integration of "good" and "bad" can only be a positive thing in the end.
Being able to access this dark side is also an essential part of practicing martial arts, and ultimately learning how to stay safe in a less predictable world where respect for self needs to be as deeply embedded and somatically coded as respect for all. I certainly wouldn't have understood this concept when I first set foot in a dojo three decades ago but today, it is quite possibly the most powerful lesson I have learned along the way.
This entry is the first of a 3-part series on personal reflections around character development, martial arts, and self-defence for girls and women.
It is linked to a research study project under the Positive Psychology Guild on embodying character development. The next blog entry will explore the concept of character development and staying safe through lessons from reality-based self-defence. The third and final entry will look at positive and negative traits and states in martial arts and self-defence training through the lens of Positive Psychology.
Claire Higgins is the Director of Inner Athletics. She is a Positive Psychology Practitioner (L7) with a Masters degree in Exercise & Sport Psychology, and leads operations, education and research at the Positive Psychology Guild.
Funakoshi, G. (2003). The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate: The Spiritual Legacy of the Master. New York: Kodansha America.
Higgins, C. (2018). Cherry Blossom Dojo: The Way of Inner Strength. Kindle Direct Publishing (currently unpublished).
Lakes, K.D., Hoyt, W.T. (2004). 'Promoting self-regulation through school-based martial arts training.' Applied Developmental Psychology, 25, pp. 283-302.
Nakonechnyi, I., Galon, Y. (2017). 'Development of behavioural self-regulation of adolescents in the process of mastering martial arts.' Journal of Physical Education and Sport, 154, pp. 1002-1008.
The Martial Way (2020). 'The History of Osu! / Oss!' Accessed online here on 14.11.20.
Trulson, M.E. (1986). 'Martial arts training: A novel cure for juvenile delinquency.' Human Relations, 39:12, pp. 1131-1140.