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  • Writer's pictureClaire Higgins

What Can Positive Psychology Learn from Martial Arts & Self-Defence?

Balancing our needs in life, work, and sport (or whatever physical activity you happen to engage in regularly and enjoy) can sometimes feel like a juggling act.

Without skill and attention, the effort to perform and achieve in one area may mean that a ball elsewhere may have to be dropped. At least until some degree of mastery is achieved over the juggling process so that less effort is needed overall.

Of all the "sports" I've engaged in over the years, it has been martial arts that have repeatedly drawn my interest on performing under pressure, and learning how to manage mental, emotional, and physical energy.

While all sports require skills training and practice, and may lead to mastery one day, martial arts offer the immediate threat of physical pain and instinctive drive to avoid it. From a survival-based perspective, our common fears of extinction/death and mutilation/physical injury (Albrecht, 1997) can create a significant stress response. Acquiring these skills under pressure requires mastery of self, emotions, and skills in a threat-based environment. They are also linked to character development.

Although most martial arts today cannot compare with the reality of military battle or surviving a criminal attack, they do offer a safe space to train under pressure and cultivate mind-body performance skills and character traits such as respect, integrity, perseverance, compassion, and leadership.

My own martial arts journey has taken from a rather strict and critical upbringing in Shotokan Karate (JKA), to the more playful and competitive aspects of Judo and BJJ, and then the harsher world of a UK reality-based self-defence system, DEFOF. Along the way, I've transitioned from a political scientist and humanitarian professional to an executive coach and positive psychology practitioner. I have also trained as a self-defence instructor in a military system designed for the reality of violence and crime.

Throughout this journey, my love and curiosity for martial arts has remained. I've been fortunate to meet both good and not-so-good (morally speaking) teachers, and train with martial artists at both beginner and advanced levels.

I've also been fortunate to find a mentor who continually challenges me to question what I have learned and develop my learning process beyond this through personal practice and research.

This post focuses on what can be learned from research on Judo (which translates to "the gentle way"). It then questions what Positive Psychology could learn and explore in this regard, particularly from the perspective of strengthening qualitative research and building broader evidence-based interventions. It then questions how this exchange could continue to evolve through creating interventions that combine martial arts philosophy, psychology, and physical training with Positive Psychology.

In case you haven't yet read the first post in this series, Martial Arts as a Positive Psychology Intervention, please click here first and then read on!


Jigaro Kano, the founder of Judo and instigator for bringing this martial art to the Olympics, taught his students three levels of practice:

  1. Judo for self-defence

  2. Judo for mind-body development

  3. Judo for energy efficiency and effectiveness

While the first level is a topic of debate for another time, the second and third levels offer much food for thought when it comes to juggling (or throwing) metaphorical balls.

Kano, like many martial arts masters, believed that physical training was intrinsically linked to character development. The rigour of physical and mental training was designed to cultivate discipline and humility in students. Through attention and observation skills, the student becomes more adept at noticing what is happening internally (e.g. thoughts, emotions, physiological changes) and what is happening externally (e.g. social environment). They also learn how best to respond.

With consistent practice, the martial arts student learns to feel content with their training and pleasure or satisfaction at mastering a skill. In particular, their sense of timing for receiving and executing attacks on the mat sharpens and flows. Belief in their ability to use their physical and mental energy effectively (in theory) lessens their anxiety and increases their feeling of hope (Kano, 2015). How they train (e.g. frequency, intensity, skills, fitness, social environment) affects the outcome of this learning process.

In Kano's words:

"Feelings of regret and worry occur when you have not done what you should have, or when you cannot make up your mind to do what you should."

Kano's wish was that people would learn to apply judo to all aspects of human behaviour. In his book, Mind Over Muscle: Writings from the Founder of Judo, he proposed that more research needed to be done in this regard. As an educator, he believed that practicing judo could alleviate the mental fatigue related to regret and anxiety. He was also a strong advocate of social connection and community engagement. Yet he was also ahead of his time on the scientific research front.

Sadly, Kano passed away in his late seventies, almost three decades before Judo made it to the 1964 Olympics. He was traveling home to Japan on a ship from Cairo, where he had attended an International Olympic Committee meeting, a journey that was quite symbolic of his dedication to his martial art. Although he died before he could realise all of his judo dreams, his teachings and legacy have survived. You'll be hard-pushed to find judoka (practitioners of judo) who don't pay their respects to this master and his lessons, no matter where they are based in the world.


Kano would have likely taken interest in contemporary research studies on judo as athletic performance, and judo as a way of life beyond the tatami mats.

What we don't know is what he would have thought of how judo has since progressed!

Some argue that Kano may have been less interested in judo as a "sport" and more as a way to connect people at a global level through "competitive exercise". As judo became "sportified", commercialised, and globalised, some of the early traditions changed. For example, the white gi (uniform) was adapted from the spiritual colour of white to include the competitive colour of blue. With globalisation came the internationalisation of technical development with each country taking various leads (Sato, 2013).

As judo transformed into a sport, it appears to have drifted further from its noble origins that are connected to judo as a way of life. This has influenced how scientific research on judo has evolved.

Research studies over the past couple of decades have looked at the physiological markers of stress (Filaire et al., 2001; Morales et a., 2013) and psychological links between anxiety and self-confidence (Matsumoto et al., 2000) before, during, and after competitions. These types of studies have tended to focus on competitive performance rather than judo as a way of life. They may indicate what is happening for a judo athlete in relation competition, but they don't cover the application of judo to everyday life.

Some studies have dug a little deeper, exploring the relationship between psychological characteristics and physical fitness levels in judo athletes.

One study found that athletes who were in better physical shape experienced less anxiety, greater self-confidence, more internal locus of control (i.e. perception of control over the outcome of events), more tension and vigour, less anger and fatigue, and turned to more effective coping strategies during stressful periods than athletes who were not as physically fit (Matsumoto et al., 2001). The study drew on multiple psychological tests ranging from personality, coping, stress/anxiety/emotion to sport self-confidence and physical fitness.

While these studies are very interesting and useful from a competitive viewpoint, they do not necessarily illustrate the fuller experience of judo training and its impact on the judoka/athlete's experience of life beyond the mat. They also miss the role of culture and heritage, and how Judo's traditions and philosophical aspects can influence how a judoka is draw (or not) to practice, how they practice, and why.

In other words, quantitative studies gathering physiological data and physical fitness levels are valuable but they do not tell the whole story of performance.

Meanwhile, self-report questionnaires on personality, coping, emotions, and self-confidence are largely subjective and do not offer further inquiry into what the research participant means. Understanding meaning requires more thoughtful conversational exchanges and various methods of thematic analysis and interpretation.

Judo isn't the only martial art to be approached in such a way. Studies on karate (e.g. Ruiz & Hanin, 2011) and taekwondo (e.g. Estevan et al., 2014) have also followed suit due to the research community's focus on competition and "success". Qualitative studies on how the martial art is perceived by the practitioner may include a much smaller research population sample (often less than ten or twenty participants as opposed to the hundreds covered in quantity-driven research), yet these studies help to fill in the blanks on what dominant quantitative research may not provide.


Qualitative research methods include semi-structured interviews that are later analysed for group and individual themes.

They may cover a person's narrative or ethnography (e.g. their life history during a particular period of time), case studies, interviews, documentary analysis (e.g. filming a process for subsequent analysis) or a specific phenomenon (e.g. their engagement in martial arts). Due to the time required for conversations to unfold, and the potential need to return to clarify what has been said, such studies may take several months or more to design, conduct, and evaluate, depending on their focal point and objectives. Their outcomes are referred to as findings rather than absolute results.

Take, for example, a qualitative study on female Finnish judo athletes (Kavoura et al., 2018). Through conversation with the athletes, the study explored topics such as Kano's claim that "judo is for all" and contrasted this with the athletes' reality that judo was for them a male-dominant sport. It also reveals the process of how the female athletes transformed from shy and under-confident girls to social, mental, and physical aspects of confidence. Through conversation, the female athletes' stories were brought to life.

Such a study may have implications for how martial arts teachers can be more inclusive of girls in training and competition, and build female self-confidence, however it won't necessarily offer a prescriptive process for this, nor is this the point.

The value of applied research, in terms of learning and application, is to broaden and deepen understanding of a topic through debate, exchange, and inquiry so that the reader may interpret their own meaning and translate the research insights into how they practice or teach.

Another example, a qualitative and quantitative study ("mixed methods") on judo as a social integration tool (Carratala et al., 2020), drew on semi-structured interviews to explore how attitudes, values, norms, and capabilities cultivated through judo could reduce the risk of social exclusion among adolescents.

My own research on the motivation to teach self-defence and martial arts was based on interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA). Through semi-structured interviews with seven martial arts and self-defence instructors, nine themes emerged: (1) Perseverance (linked to fear and hope); (2) Creativity; (3) Mastery; (4) Curiosity; (5) Service; (6) Compassion (linked to kindness); (7) Leadership; (8) Optimism (linked to hope); (9) Love (linked to flow and engagement).

Of these themes, seven overlapped with Positive Psychology character strengths (perseverance, creativity, curiosity, kindness, leadership, hope, love) while one (mastery) linked to the embodiment of high-level skill and good character, and the final one (service) to altruism and the drive to make a positive difference in the world.

If I could return to this area of research, I would also explore the darker motives for wanting to teach martial arts and self-defence that may be hidden from view.

What about the deeper aspects of our psyche that may be driven by fear?

For example, a desire to be better or stronger or more powerful than others and in perceiving ourselves to be so, boosting low self-esteem. Or a desire to impress others and be "liked" and in doing so, receiving the external validation and praise our reward system "needs" in order to find worth in our training and teaching, and within ourselves. And what about those with dark motives that drive them to use their positional power to manipulate, coerce, and abuse their students? The story of Kayla Harris, an Olympic judo gold medallist, reveals that martial arts isn't necessarily a safe or noble space.

Although martial arts studies reveal that training may alleviate the likelihood and impact of bullying and abuse (e.g. Twemlow et al., 2008) how the martial art is taught doesn't necessarily exclude bullying and abuse from the training delivery. In fact, some studies have challenged whether anti-bullying-based martial arts interventions actually work, and have proposed instead martial arts-based psychosocial interventions to foster emotional and behavioural problems, resilience, self-efficacy, and wellbeing (Moore et al., 2018).

Parallel to this, other researchers have questioned whether there really can be a constructed psychosocial benefit to martial arts training.

They caution against "psychologising" martial arts that were initially designed for self-defence purposes and turning them into psychological intervention models. One study in this regard (Binder, 2007) posed the following questions:

  1. Are the psychosocial changes gained from participation in the martial arts different from those gained from other activities?

  2. What specific aspects of martial arts training affect psychosocial changes?

  3. If martial arts practice is psychologically beneficial, is it an effective means for psychological treatment? .

As a martial arts practitioner, I find there is a valuable argument in such a cautious approach. Martial arts was not developed to "fix" people's psychological challenges, so why would we expect them to do so? Yet it may also be argued that psychological benefits are a viable outcome of some contemporary training methods.

Whether intentional or not, it is worth exploring the possibility of enhanced wellbeing and resilience - and by extension their potential compromise and erosion - through training in more detail as a martial arts researcher.


What can positive psychology learn from martial arts and self-defence?

While my training in martial arts and self-defence may have enriched my outlook on life, it has been my research and inquiry into this field, parallel to my training, practice, and research in Positive Psychology, that have helped to form and develop my understanding of this question.

As a self-defence instructor, martial artist, and positive psychology practitioner, I can see the potential for much exchange and mutual learning between various styles of martial arts and self-defence, and the emerging field of positive psychology, particularly around the negative emotion and state of fear and how this relates to the more positive emotion and state of hope (Coker, 2016).

Many mental health and wellbeing challenges are related to various types of stress, ranging from everyday stress to chronic and traumatic stress. At the more serious end of the scale are the clinically diagnosed states of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress where the ability of the person to function is considerably affected or reduced. Fear is related to anxiety (Coker, 2016) and both martial arts and self-defence training offer ways to experience fear in relatively safe settings.

Fear and hope are two sides of the same coin (Coker, 2016).

If fear is related to learned helplessness (Seligman, 1972), and hope is related to positive action (Snyder, 1994; Seligman, 2019) and learned optimism (Seligman, 2018), could martial arts and self-defence training enhance a person's ability to feel hopeful alongside (or in place of) a situation that provokes fear?

Positive Psychology may be better known for its emphasis on the brighter side of life. This is hardly surprising given its original drive was to fill the gap in broader Psychology where the emphasis on negative states and corrective or "fixing-oriented" interventions was in abundance. Yet as Positive Psychology enters its third decade of research and practice, there is a need for both aspects to mature and forge deeper links not only with other branches of and approaches to Psychology but also other fields of research and practice from which it may also learn, such as martial arts and self-defence.

As I move forwards in this area, there is much more to study, research, and learn. A richer study on the dynamics of fear from a martial arts and self-defence perspective remains to be explored, physiologically, philosophically, and psychologically. This study is set to take place under the Violence & Post Traumatic Growth Initiative at the Positive Psychology Guild, where it will build on earlier studies on hope and fear.


What about yourself? Is the intersection of positive psychology and martial arts/self-defence a topic that interests you?

My guess is that you've managed to read this post to the end, there may be something of value for you too here. If you are interested in furthering research in this regard, the Positive Psychology Guild offers research and training opportunities.

If you hold a Masters degree in Applied Positive Psychology, you may apply for a research study project in your area of interest. It doesn't have to be related to the Violence & Post Traumatic Growth Initiative. If you have an interest in martial arts, self-defence, embodiment and/or movement, the newly-launched Somatics & Kinaesthetics Initiative may be of interest. Alternatively, you could have another area of interest and may register your project as an independent research initiative.

If you don't hold a Masters degree in Applied Positive Psychology, there are still ways to engage in research by first training as a Positive Psychology Practitioner through any of the three professional pathways: (1) Coaching; (2) Training; (3) Facilitation. If you happen to be a qualified coach, trainer, or facilitator, please note that accelerated routes on each of these three diplomas are possible on application.


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.



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