Martial Arts For Discipline: Truth Vs Myth

Many have heard the saying “walk the line”. This refers to two types of discipline. One is where others set boundaries for your actions with associated consequences. The other is when you hold yourself to a narrow set of rules. In either case, martial arts instructors claim to have a high success rate using the martial arts as a tool. Is there truth to this claim?

Using martial arts for discipline and self discipline can be done with great results. There are naturally claims that overstate its effectiveness, but in general martial arts can be a great tool to develop discipline in yourself and your children.

What are some of the myths associated with discipline in the martial arts? What does research say about how effective martial arts actually is at controlling behavior and establishing good habits? Let’s endeavor to separate fact from fiction in some of the claims that martial artists make.

Discipline Versus Self-Discipline

To describe discipline as unnecessary or to limit its role in modern day life would be an easy proposition to discredit. One only has to look at the role of law in our society and its enforcement.

As similarly stated in a paper published in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, the law stands as a guide that instructs us on a cooperative corporate basis how to coexist. Without these boundaries violence is the inevitable outcome as the strong vie for ever increasing amounts of power and systematically confiscate the possessions of the weak.

Discipline in this instance is the pervue of the judicial branch of the government that decides when a community or its members has overstepped boundaries. They step in with punitive measures to ensure that the net outcome for the transgressor is too ‘expensive’ on their time, money, or possessions to continue to forsake the rule of law.

Martial arts instructors imploy discipline with this in mind. They are teaching techniques that can be misused with disastrous results.

It is imperative that they set up a system of discipline within the class, student group, and one that even reaches out into the students everyday life. Instructors should hold themselves responsible for teaching techniques only to those who will only use them for lawful and moral purposes.

We all know this, though there are some in our society that wrongly wish for a system of the strong taking what they can from the weak. These people believe as many do when they glamorize the life in the middle ages. They see themselves as kings and queens, wielding power and enjoying wealth.

They are blind to the fact that only a very small fraction of a percent of people were in those positions during those time periods. As with those envisioning themselves as nobility in centuries past these anarchist minded individuals see themselves as the ones at the top of a power pyramid of their own making. They would be shocked at how reality actually unfolds.

This is even ignoring the fact that this is incredibly immoral and we should stand against this way of thinking. I will and do.

A former anarchist who saw first hand how the rule of law has a place in society and that boundaries exist for a reason explains in an article the real inter workings of these anarchist groups. Here is is article published in Quillette for anyone interested in reading further about his experience with this alternate and dark reality.

Discipline And The Need For Imposed Boundaries

This same concept can be applied to children and the dynamic that families live by in their homes. Much of the problem with teen and adult crime and violence could be remedied if more care, energy, and attention was put into ensuring parents were in the home and educated about the importance of boundaries for their children.

If boundaries aren’t set, and strictly enforced by an able parent, children are sent down a path of failure. They push boundaries everywhere they go trying to find someone who cares enough to push back.

Children need both caring mothers and strong fathers in the home. In an article written by a researcher at the University of Minnesota the statistic on fatherless homes shows a sobering picture. The reality is that delinquency and crime in boys of fatherless homes is seven times higher than boys in homes with both biological parents.

This speaks to the fact that not only does there need to be boundaries set in all children’s lives, but there needs to be strong authority figures in the home to back up the rules and enforce compliance. Without discipline in the form of consequences, these boys step over lines until they finally feel someone stop them. Statistics show, many times it has to be the police.

Discipline in the form of redirection and consequences is essential in the development of children into character filled, contributing members of our communities. This goes for the family group as well as the more public associations.

If you want to see some miserable parents, find some (and it is sadly not that difficult) who haven’t set boundaries for their children in the beginning and now are dealing with the results of unruly teenagers. This sort of disrespect is not as uncommon as you might think.

A quick search on YouTube will show what these types of teens upload. The picture they paint may scare you into taking some martial arts classes, going to the gym, and setting boundaries for you kids.

These kids can’t feel safe enough to pursue a character filled vision of how to be. They practically turn into monsters as they grow into adults without proper guidance. They want someone to care enough to say, “enough,” and mean it.

This is what these teens want and it is sad they aren’t getting it at home where it should be.

Much of this can be avoided altogether if parents set boundaries, enforce them without fail, and employ outside role models and guides that inspire. Steroid soaked professional athletes will not do. A good, character filled, and disciplined martial arts instructor can change lives by aiding in this discipline.

Self Discipline: Training The Mind, Body, And Spirit

Self discipline is a different story. It is the self regulation that is taught by owning failures, setting long term goals, and using the fortitude instilled by parents and quality role models. This the other side of discipline.

The military is also a very good example of this. After the discipline from outside is established and consequences are known, the goal is to get the soldier to self regulate within acceptable parameters. This is no small task seeing that many come from broken homes and have no sense of either discipline or self discipline.

Once boundaries are established with children and they are taught how to properly aim their efforts toward higher truths and admirable goals, then self discipline can begin to be developed. The springboard of a stable family and social interactions allows them to self direct and learn their own limitations and abilities.

This proper orientation of the self is only accessible once proper discipline is in place. Self discipline is the betterment of the self and an effort to rise to meet hardships. The efforts of the individual are directed and focused on a loftier goal than simply securing themselves and their environment.

Self Discipline Of The Mind

Education is the major way for a child to open exponentially more possibilities for their future. This is not simply the mantra that is pushed today so fervently by public schools on all children without respect for their differences and preferences. This mantra being, “Go to college.”

For a great discussion about this by my wife Jackie (who happens to be a highly educated and experienced teacher), follow this link to her article about going to college and many misconceptions people share about it.

Disciplining the mind can be done in so many ways. Holding yourself to mental and learning goals is a vital part in training the mind how to have fortitude. Fortitude is ability to resist being easy on yourself. For some goals this is important, and for others it is required.

Here is a short list of many of the things that can train a child’s mind or an adult’s for that matter.

  • Learn a foreign language – this has the added benefit of learning to appreciate another culture. Culture and language are inextricably linked.
  • Learn to play a musical instrument – The amount of dedication, fortitude, and effort needed is a great way to develop self discipline
  • Learn a martial art for discipline – There is both the physical and the mental side to the martial arts that requires a strong grasp of delayed gratification, patience, and fortitude.

In the next major section we will begin the look at how martial arts for discipline and self improvement is one of the better tools you can employ. Let it suffice here to say, that any self discipline plan of action has to include some sort of program that develops the mind and toughens the resolve.

Self Discipline Of The Body

The physical side of self discipline is something many struggle with, especially in the United States. There are some grave statistics around Americans and obesity that may shock you.

According to numbers and statistics provided by the Center For Disease Control And Prevention (CDC) the percentage of obese Americans is nearly 50% and this is true across lines of ethnicity and sex. These depressing numbers lead to some dire results for people falling into the trap of a sedentary lifestyle and excessive eating habits.

A note should be made here that in some cases, weight gain will be due to injuries that restrict movement or medication that artificially increases body fat. Yet, like most situations that have claims about outliers and extreme caveats to the norm, I have a motto.

You are not the exception, you are the rule.

If these Americans don’t change their eating and activity habits, some serious and deadly consequences can be on their horizons. The CDC lists several of the leading conditions associated with obesity.

  • Heart Disease
  • Stroke
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Certain Types of Cancer

According to a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health, a division of the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services, the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States is obesity and the conditions caused by being over-weight.

The study also concluded that those that are at the upper end of the obesity scales lost an average of 14.5 years of their lifespan due to their excessive weight. This is a decade and a half of life they would have otherwise enjoyed.

Is self-discipline of the body an important aspect of the human condition? You bet it is. Does this make you want to get your child and yourselves active? It should.

Each and every individual is unique and of infinite worth. Much of our society is designed to convince you not to discipline your body and to teach your kids the same errant message. Stand against this.

You can take control today, make the choice. Start a directed class to have someone help you set these goals. Martial arts is a great way to do just that. Most martial arts instructors would be glad to have you in their martial arts themed exercise class if for instance a full Karate or Jiu Jitsu program is not your thing.

Utilizing the martial arts for self discipline of your body could literally save your life.

Self Discipline Of The Spirit

Here we need to be clear. There are martial arts instructors that claim that religions are associated with certain styles of martial arts and that it is integral to learning. This is blatantly false.

Even the monks that developed martial arts systems with their walking staffs to protect their monasteries did not do it for reasons of spiritual growth. It was for protection of lives and property from thieves and marauders.

Most systems of the martial arts were designed for military and personal defense purposes. In more recent times, some martial arts have even been designed specifically with sport applications in mind.

Religion has been added to the mix by instructors making that conscious choice. We see this more frequently with the Chinese styles than with other forms.

With this being said, self discipline of the spirit is an important component of every person’s life. Though character traits and good habits can be reinforced and enhanced by physical and mental self discipline, they in no way define it.

There has to be a higher truth and a perfection at end of human focus. Without this we devolve into base pragmatism and despair. We were designed for more than that. We are defined by these universal truths.

Each one of us has limitless intrinsic worth simply because of our humanity. Self discipline of the spirit through focus on these eternal truths and helps us to be what we are intended to be.

Aristotle put his finger on this truth thousands of years ago. As is discussed in a study done by researchers at Notre Dame Law School on the ideas of ‘Natural Law’ and Aristotelian thought, the ancient philosopher described a justice that exists in the fabric of the material world, in nature.

This justice is far removed from the desire to take the possessions of others due to some imaginary personal oppression we see today. Justice is based on love, willing the good of the other, all others. These are the sorts of truths that we must discipline ourselves toward.

Martial Arts For Discipline

With this as a backdrop, how can the martial arts help with discipline and self discipline? Is it the philosophies of personal responsibility taught with the techniques? How about the lessons of delayed gratification and long term goals?

The truth is, there are many great benefits of using the martial arts as a tool to develop discipline in ourselves and our children. With this acknowledgement we also have to be aware of the overstatements and misleading claims some advertisements make as some instructors compete with other sports and activities for the attention of concerned parents.

Let’s look at the Myths and Facts associated with martial arts training and discipline.

Myths About Using Martial Arts For Discipline And Self Discipline

One problem we have as instructors dealing with children and adults in the martial arts is the unrealistic expectations developed in people due to unscrupulous advertisements. Some claim ultimate defense, others claim children’s grades can go from failing to top tier results.

These are advertisements and overstate in the same way ‘click bait’ titles on videos and main stream media stories overstate or distort facts in order to gain attention. It is akin to the old advertising problem of ‘bait and switch’. Customers and clients are promised one thing, but after parting with their money they get something completely different.

Don’t get me wrong, the martial arts in general is a great tool in developing self discipline and setting up boundaries and utilizing proper forms of discipline. On the other hand, there are several old and newer claims that students and instructors make that are not entirely truthful.

Here is a list of some you may come across and a short explanation of why they are not entirely honest.

  • Martial arts improves school grades in children. This is not supported by scientific study or by any evidence other than the personal and anecdotal. What martial arts does is prepare the child in many ways to be able to improve with concerted effort. Yet, the practice of the martial arts itself does not directly relate to better school grades. My wife was a teacher for decades with many children that took martial arts in her classrooms. These children only succeeded past what they would have normally achieved if they used the benefits the martial arts gave and then added significant effort to succeed. Simply learning to kick and punch is not enough. There has to be role modeling, goals set, etc.
  • Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) can curb aggression and violence in children and adults. This is only partially true. Like boxing for troubled youth in the inner city, it can give them goals to strive towards that leads them back to a sense of normal. There is no further intrinsic code of ethics involved in mixed martial arts. Traditional martial arts comes with military history including its own codes of conduct and familial loyalties attached and ingrained. Mixed Martial Arts was developed around the Gracie family’s attempts at promoting their particular brand of dueling as superior to other sport dueling systems. This combination of sport and pride based superiority is not the basis for full self development. The physical is not supported by the mental and spiritual discipline.
  • With martial arts training you will lose weight and get into shape. This is also only partly true. I have seen many martial artists that are obese and out of shape in many ways. The martial arts are tools. Tools have to be combined with considerable and consistent effort before they are useful. Using the martial arts for health and fitness is an amazing way to develop self discipline where your body is concerned. Just know, that simply going to class a couple times per week is only the start. Regular daily self motivated training is necessary to master the techniques and tone your body to use them effectively.
  • Teaching individuals martial arts techniques breeds self control and discipline. This is blatantly false. Simply studying the martial arts is not enough. There has to be a regulatory role on the part of the instructor to identify those with the potential to misuse the arts. It is true that for the vast majority of students learning the martial arts, a sense of responsibility for being a protector and not an aggressor is instilled by quality instructors. Though this is not the case for a portion of students and sadly instructors alike. This is parodied in the roles of Johnny and Cobra Kai sensei John Kreese in the Karate Kid film series.

For those wanting a trip down memory lane or if you some how have never seen original Karate Kid movies I highly recommend getting a copy for you and your family. There is a complete series set with all three movies that you can get for a great price. Here is the link on Amazon if you want hours of martial arts wholesome family fun.

Truth Surrounding Martial Arts And Discipline

Martial arts is designed for the promotion of a way of life. This is true whether this was through military defense of a people or nation, or through self defense of the individual. There has always been an ethic of principled application.

So what is it that using martial arts for discipline and to better the self can actually do when used as a tool. When things are used for the purpose they were designed for, they function properly. What is it that martial arts was meant to do when it comes to behavior and character?

Let’s look at some of the research and what it says about the results of prolonged martial arts training.

In a article published in the Journal of pedagogic development and undertaken by researchers at the University of Bedfordshire, England, the positive effects of traditional martial arts training was studied.

By traditional martial arts we are talking about the more complete focused arts that integrate character development, history, and cultural appreciation into their self defense, sport, and physical improvement activities. These would include Karate, TaeKwonDo, KungFu, Kali, etc.

Non-traditional martial arts are those such as Muay Thai, Boxing, MMA and others that are nearly totally based around combat dueling competitions.

They lack the inherent regulations on who may train and what character traits one must posses to continue training. To be clear, some MMA instructors may try to impose their own sense of these on their system, but in a style that encourages full contact striking, strangulation, arm dislocation techniques and much more for children, it just doesn’t come across as genuine.

These traditional martial arts were shown in the study mentioned above to greatly benefit children with behavioral, emotional and social difficulties. They were taught self discipline through martial arts study within the framework of well structured external discipline programs.

If you would like to see how I use traditional martial arts to help my Little Ninjas develop self discipline, follow this link to find out all the info.

In another study conducted by researchers from Indiana State University, students of a traditional martial art were found to have a significant inverse relationship between martial art rank and their aggression levels. This means the higher they ranked up in this traditional based martial art, the less aggressive across the board their behavior became.

Following the findings of yet another study done by Texas A&M university, researchers concluded that traditional style martial arts programs were “effective in reducing juvenile delinquent tendencies.”

Children this time in middle school age groups found out that by setting goals and using the self discipline modeled for them by martial arts instructors they could benefit not only from the martial arts, but from regular school attendance.

As you can clearly see, it is not as simple as ‘do kicks and get better grades.’ It is about role models, goal setting, self confidence, and learning to set long term goals.

This means that even more than style, which is important, the instructor is the single most foundational element that can make a child or adult successful in developing Self discipline using martial arts discipline as a guide.

The Martial Arts For Discipline Takeaway…

There is a lot that relies on a good discipline plan. Self discipline can’t be effectively developed until first someone feels secure that others are following the rules around them and there are people that care enough to save them from themselves if needed.

Traditional martial arts programs have a built in system for just this. This doesn’t mean systems like mixed martial arts can’t have some of this added in by instructors. The issue is that it must be superimposed over top of an inherently aggressive and adult oriented sport style.

There are always exceptions, but studies show and I have experienced it first hand for decades, traditional martial arts for discipline and self regulation is far and away one of the best options.

To make sure you or your child get the most out of your martial arts experience be sure you choose the correct style, environment, and most importantly, instructor. It will be very hard to develop self discipline while being led by an instructor or group of advanced students that don’t display it in their own actions.

Mathew Booe

Mathew Booe is a father of four, husband to Jackie since 1994, retired international competitor with over 50 wins, an international seminar instructor, a master instructor of hundreds of Little Ninjas each week, and the one bringing you the great content like you just read. Sign up for the newsletter to hear about his upcoming books before they are released to the public.

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