What are the Psychological Benefits of Karate for Children and Adolescents?

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The personal strengths we seek to develop through our study and practice of Karate – our strengths of heart and will – are as vital as the physical strengths.  One of the core understandings of Karate – indeed, of all Budo (Warrior Ways) – is that in our lives we will face a variety of circumstances that will challenge us.  We’ll face adversity and personal defeat.  We’ll also face success and even triumph. We cultivate the strengths of the warrior as our own personal strengths to meet these challenges, and engage with them constructively.

Most of us readily grasp the importance of our strengths of heart and will in meeting and overcoming setbacks and adversity.  The personal strength of Resilience is a good example – our ability to bounce back from reverses and defeats.  How we meet and engages with success and prosperity demands our personal strengths as well.  Self-Respect is a strength that applies here – we recognize and appreciate our success, but we’re also guided by our core personal standards to use it wisely.  We don’t squander it in idle boasting or gloating.

As your child studies and practices Karate, they’re gaining understanding of these personal strengths.  They’re also cultivating these strengths of heart and will for themselves – strengths that will stand them in good stead not just in Karate, but throughout their lives.

1. Optimism:

Optimism is our attitude toward the future, and the positive potentials it holds for us.  We’re positive and upbeat, focusing our attention and our energies on the upside – the positive outcomes we know are possible.  We don’t just expect these positive outcomes to happen on their own – we work to achieve them.  This is also sometimes called “Future Orientation” or “Future-Mindedness”, or even “Hope”.  Casey Kasem expressed the basic nature of Optimism well when he said, “Keep your feet on the ground and your head in the sky.”

Orville and Wilbur Wright are good examples of this personal strength – two bicycle makers from a town in Ohio who believed they could work out a practical method of powered human flight.  This was something that the leading scientists and engineers of their time had so far failed to achieve, despite their best efforts.  Wilbur and Orville struggled for several years with a series of prototypes and tests that either underperformed or outright failed.  What kept them going was applying this strength – their fundamental Optimism.  They were both convinced it was possible to accomplish powered, heavier-than-air flight.

We’re not going to ask your child to build their own airplane.  What we will be doing in every lesson is consistently anticipating and working for success. As your child studies and practices Karate, our focus is on positives – helping them see and understand the opportunities before them, and working to make them happen.

2. Confidence:

This strength is related to Optimism, but they’re not quite the same thing.  Optimism is our general outlook.  Confidence is our belief in our personal capabilities in specific situations.  We trust in our abilities, capacities and judgements – we believe we can meet the challenges of our lives.  Confidence grows out of our understanding that our actions influence our results – we can exercise positive control over outcomes.

As we work together in your child’s Karate lessons, we’ll be laying the foundations of genuine Confidence.  We do need to distinguish carefully between false confidence and genuine (or real) confidence.   False confidence is fundamentally irrational – someone’s baseless belief that they can jump in and master a situation they don’t really understand, and aren’t equipped to cope with.  Custer’s ill-fated attack on the Sioux encamped by the Little Bighorn river is an example of false confidence in action.

The genuine Confidence your child is developing through Karate has 4 essential elements:

  • Accurate Self-Assessment: We know both our strengths and our shortcomings.  In our lessons together, your child learns to recognize and build on their own strengths – and also to recognize and work to improve areas where they are weak.  They develop an accurate assessment based on their direct experience.
  • Positive Visualization: We have a strong positive image in our own mind of success.  This is more than just a pretty picture of the happy outcome.  Your child learns to visualize the actions they take to accomplish it.
  • Accept Critical Feedback: We don’t react with hostility or resentment when someone offers us a criticism.  We’re willing to accept critical feedback as information that can help us to grow and improve.  Your child learns to recognize critical feedback as a tool to increase their level of success on their next attempt.
  • Supportive Community: We’re part of a community that supports us by acknowledging and praising our efforts rather than just our outcomes.  Your child doesn’t have to buy acceptance and approval by constant success.  In the dojo, your child is part of a community that values their personal effort and commitment.

As your child studies and practices Karate, they develop confidence through “I can do it!” events where their success is recognized and celebrated.  Your child’s accomplishments in the dojo, recognized by their fellow students, instructors – and most importantly, by you as their parent – provide them with these important confidence-building events.

Interestingly, people with chronically low Confidence do also accomplish things – they do most certainly have successes.  The critical difference is that their accomplishments and successes are unnoticed or treated as things of no genuine significance.

3. Self-Respect:

Self-Respect is our solid conviction of our own worth as a person.  Our actions and our words demonstrate our respect for ourselves – and our respect for others.  The old adage “treat others as you would have them treat you” is a basic expression of self-respect.  This is founded on treating ourselves with proper respect, as well.  Respect is a reciprocal bond – we show this when we bow to each other in our lessons.  In Karate, we treat each other as people of worth and dignity.

The core of our Self-Respect is knowing clearly what our personal values are, understanding them thoroughly, committing to them, and living by them.  In your child’s Karate lessons we work together to strengthen the basic foundations of their Self-Respect.  We’ll identify and examine carefully selected personal values – Integrity, for example.  Your child learns what Integrity means, how we apply it in our lives, and why it is important.

We strengthen our Self-Respect as we develop and pursue core personal standards guided by respect for ourselves and others.  Our conduct and bearing encourages others to treat us as someone of dignity and worth.  Self-Respect is also the personal strength your child draws on to make hard decisions between right and wrong – when they need to say “no”.  When your child respects their own standards, respects their own judgement, and respects themselves – they’re able to commit to that “no” and make it stick.  Our emphasis on respect and personal values in our Karate lessons extends and strengthens the foundations of your child’s Self-Respect.

4. Stress Management:

Increasing levels of psychological stress are, regrettably, a fact of life both for adults and for our children.  “Stress” is a feeling of emotional strain and pressure – a type of psychological pain.  We experience stress when we perceive a situation as threatening – and we believe our resources for meeting this threat are insufficient.  We feel the demands placed on us in that environment exceed our ability to cope with them.

Some occasional stress may be beneficial and even healthy for us, motivating us to take needed actions or to meet immediate challenges that we act to resolve.  Chronic stress, by contrast, is physically and psychologically damaging.  In our Karate lessons together, your child enhances their abilities to manage and counteract stress.

We react to stress both physically and psychologically.  Physically, our adrenal gland releases the hormones cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine into our systems.  This increases our blood pressure, our muscular tension, and our energy levels.  Our digestion slows down markedly, and our pain sensitivity drops as well.  This is an “alarm reaction” – we feel nervous, tense and on edge.  Both our physical and emotional energies are being mobilized and focused to meet an immediate threat.

This is an effective reaction to an immediate crisis – say someone sails through a stop sign and we have to slam on our brakes and turn the wheel hard to avoid hitting them.  The problem with chronic stress is that these energies are mobilized so constantly that we are gradually physically and emotionally drained.

Studying and practicing Karate enhances your child’s abilities to manage and counteract stress in 3 important ways:

  • Participating in Karate lessons, your child is physically active on a regular, consistent basis. This combats some of the physical effects of stress – chronic fatigue and reduced cognitive functioning.  Being up and active in Karate improves your child’s sleep, reduces fatigue, and enhances their mental alertness and concentration.
  • Coming to the dojo for Karate lessons gives your child a needed “Time Out” from stressors. Your child is part of a structured, positive and supportive community where they feel safe.  They can focus on Karate and take a small vacation from stress.
  • Working off stress physically in that safe and supportive dojo community also enhances your child’s emotional control. Strong negative emotions – frustration, anger and despair – feed on stress, growing more powerful and unmanageable as stress increases.  A good, brisk training session helps cut these feelings down to size, so your child can exert more effective emotional control over them.

5. Reduced Aggression:

“There is no ‘First Strike’ in Karate” is one of the founding principles of our discipline.  In our lessons together, your child learns that their skills are for use in self-defense – not to frighten or harm others.  We don’t allow ourselves to be needlessly provoked into a quarrel or a fight.

Aggression is behavior intended to physically or psychologically harm others.  Some Aggression happens on impulse – an unplanned reaction when something unexpected happens.  When someone suddenly shoves us, and we react by shoving them back, that’s Impulsive Aggression.  It’s a momentary lapse of self-control, triggered by an unexpected event.

Predatory Aggression is a more serious situation.  This is also sometimes called “Instrumental Aggression” – which makes it sound more neutral than it actually is.  Predatory Aggression is carefully planned by the aggressor, using threats, intimidation and force to accomplish a set purpose.  A bully who frightens and hurts someone as a way to extort social acceptance from a group of passive bystanders is practicing Predatory Aggression.

Much aggressive behavior arises out of feelings of frustration, or of being treated disrespectfully.  In Karate, your child is part of a community practicing courtesy, respect and self-control as core values.  Your child is accomplishing things, and is treated as someone of dignity and worth.  We’re also reinforcing the understanding that we don’t harm others to get what we want.  All of this diminishes Aggression significantly.

Every so often, we have to deal with a bully – someone attempting Predatory Aggression toward us.  On other occasions, we’re dealing with someone who is deliberately difficult or provocative – someone whose favorite form of social interaction is the personal quarrel.  Your child will be learning constructive responses to these sorts of aggression, using Assertiveness Skills.  We’ll talk more about these in the “Social Benefits” section of your report.

6. Personal Resilience:

Resilience is the personal strength of heart and will we apply when we face and work to overcome adversity.  In Karate, we know this special strength as Indomitable Spirit – one of the core tenets of our discipline.  Resilience is our ability to adapt positively and effectively in the face of disappointment, threats, adversity, failure and loss.  We’re able to mobilize our personal resources to “bounce back” from reverses and defeats.  Resilience is also sometimes called Grit, Guts, or Backbone.

Frederick Douglass is a good example of someone who applied Resilience consistently as a personal strength.  Born into slavery, as he grew up he refused to accept a future for himself in which he would live his entire life as a slave.  He covertly learned to read and write.  In his late teens, he and three friends planned their escape – only to be betrayed by a close comrade and jailed a few hours before they were set to leave.  Douglass bided his time, determined to try again.  He learned from the mistakes he made the first time and planned more carefully and thoroughly.  His second attempt succeeded – he disguised himself as a sailor and escaped by train and ferryboat to New York.

Your child develops Resilience in our Karate lessons together in 3 ways:

  • We take a positive, optimistic attitude toward setbacks and reverses. The emotional self-control we learn and practice in our lessons helps us to better regulate our feelings.  We don’t allow ourselves to be incapacitated or overwhelmed by negative emotions if we’re initially unsuccessful in performing a new skill.
  • We understand that setbacks and reverses are part of the normal ebb and flow of life. We treat defeats as stumbling blocks on the road to success.  While frustrating and unpleasant, we can learn to succeed from failure when we put our minds to it.  We turn the stumbling blocks into stepping stones to move forward again.
  • We don’t attribute a reverse or a defeat to some sort of personal inadequacy – we don’t tell ourselves “I’m just not good enough to do it”. We hold the experience at arm’s length and rethink our approach.  We make a cool-headed analysis of what went wrong, work out ways to fix it – and then make a fresh attempt.

In Karate, we develop our Resilience by actively applying this personal strength in our lessons together.  For example, when your child is learning to apply a “Takedown” skill on a larger partner, it may not work properly at first.  We don’t say the other guy is just too big and strong – and quit trying.  Instead, we reassess what we’re doing, adjust how we perform the skill, and then make a fresh attempt at the takedown.

This may well take several attempts, and a goodly amount of time, effort and thought.  But as your child continues to work, they’re learning to develop and apply Resilience in small, manageable ways.  The approach “try/fail/reassess/re-adjust/retry” becomes a familiar working pattern for your child – one they know from experience will lead them to success in the end.  Your child is building their Resilience in a direct, “hands on” way.

*If you’re interested in learning more about how Resilience works and how to cultivate it as a personal strength, a good place to start is Grit:  The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth.

To find out more about getting started as a student at Broadway Family Karate, please follow this link:  3 Lesson Introductory Course.

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© T.R. Booker 2020

 

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