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Iain Abernethy
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Study finds no evidence for martial arts promoting self-esteem, self-confidence, etc in children

I’ve not seen this previously, but here is a link to a 2009 study on “Martial arts as a mental health intervention for children.”


I’ve copied the summary below and drew out some parts I found important.

The conclusion is that, on average, there is no evidence to support the idea that martial arts practise will promote mental health outcomes such as self-esteem, self-confidence, concentration, and self-discipline in children.

However, they do note that the “average” may be a result of the good and bad schools effectively cancelling each other out i.e. one school does help develop self-control, another fosters aggression.

I’m sure all here can recount the tales where martial arts have done wonders for children. I’ve certainly seen that many times. And as someone who started practising as a children I know that it has had a hugely positive effect on me.

The bottom line, it seems to me, is that this underlines the need to avoid “average schools” and go to ones that get demonstrable results.

It’s an interesting one for discussion and thanks to @LJAthletics on Twitter for making me aware of it.

All the best,



Martial arts studios for children market their services as providing mental health outcomes such as self-esteem, self-confidence, concentration, and self-discipline. It appears that many parents enroll their children in martial arts in hopes of obtaining such outcomes. The current study used the data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten class of 1998-1999, to assess the effects of martial arts upon such outcomes as rated by classroom teachers.


The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study used a multistage probability sampling design togather a sample representative of U.S. children attending kindergarten beginning 1998. We made use of data collected in the kindergarten, 3rd grade, and 5th grade years. Classroom behaviour was measured by a rating scale completed by teachers; participation in martial arts was assessed as part of a parent interview. The four possible combinations of participation and nonparticipation in martial arts at time 1 and time 2 for each analysis were coded into three dichotomous variables; the set of three variables constituted the measure of participation studied through regression.

Multiple regression was used to estimate the association between martial arts participation and change in classroom behavior from one measurement occasion to the next. The change from kindergarten to third grade was studied as a function of martial arts participation, and the analysis was replicated studying behavior change from third grade to fifth grade. Cohen's f2 effect sizes were derived from these regressions.


The martial arts variable failed to show a statistically significant effect on behavior, in either of the regression analyses; in fact, the f2 effect size for martial arts was 0.000 for both analyses. The 95% confidence intervals for regression coefficients for martial arts variables have upper and lower bounds that are all close to zero. The analyses not only fail to reject the null hypothesis, but also render unlikely a population effect size that differs greatly from zero.


The data from the ECLS-K fail to support enrolling children in martial arts to improve mental health outcomes as measured by classroom teachers.

Interesting Extracts:

An important limitation of this study is that the ECLS-K gathered only one bit of information on the child's martial arts participation at any given measurement occasion. A study designed specifically to assess the effect of martial arts would have gathered data on the start and end dates and frequency of training, and the specific curricula of the various studios. It is conceivable that we failed to find effects because too few students persisted at the study of martial arts long enough. We would be very curious to know the average length of training.

… It does seem to us that if martial arts were, on the average, as effective an intervention as its proponents believe, participation as measured by the simple answer to whether the child is participating in martial arts would have revealed at least a tiny visible effect, given the more than adequate sample size and given the reliability of the behavior rating variable.

The claims of martial arts studios and the expectations of many parents that martial arts will improve self-control and self-confidence contrast with the near-zero effect sizes found in these analyses. Changing students' behavior outside the classroom in a way that generalizes to the classroom is, we suspect, in general not an easy task. This study fails to find evidence that martial arts training achieves this goal.

It's important to remind ourselves that educational interventions such as martial arts are not homogeneous. Martial arts as taught by one practitioner may be totally different from that taught by another. One practitioner may emphasize self-control and emotional regulation, whereas another might emphasize self-defense or preparation for competition, and a third might actually promote aggression; the intervention can be very different depending on who is teaching it. Thus it is possible that the close-to-zero effects that we report here are an average of positive and negative effects. Thus our results do not rule out the possibility that some studios regularly achieve positive effects, and others achieve negative ones. It could also be that even within individual studios, there are net positive effects on some children from encouraging self-discipline and respect, which are cancelled by net negative effects on others from practice of physical aggression. The current study probably offers a reasonable estimate of the effect on classroom behavior of enrolling an elementary school child in "the average" U.S. martial arts studio; and continuing training an "average" length of time. The estimate for such training is a zero effect.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Another related study shared by @RMoeller1


One think that caught my eye was that traditional styles tend to have better results:

“Regarding the structural qualities of the martial arts, it can be concluded that some researchers have tried to take this into consideration by making a comparison between different martial arts styles. Such studies revealed the importance of taking the specific martial arts style being practiced into account. Also some attention has been paid to the type of guidance, by comparing traditional with modern training methods. In general, the former showed more positive effects than the latter.”

All the best,


Michael B
Michael B's picture

It has been said (sorry, I cannot give a reference) that children who already have self-esteem, self-confidence, concentration, and self-discipline, self-select for the arts. People who don't have these qualities when they begin, don't practice an art for long. 

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Michael B wrote:
It has been said (sorry, I cannot give a reference) that children who already have self-esteem, self-confidence, concentration, and self-discipline, self-select for the arts. People who don't have these qualities when they begin, don't practice an art for long.

I certainly had little in the way of self-confidence, self-discipline or self-motivation before I started the practice of the martial arts. The 11 year old me grew in to a very different adult than he would have done without martial arts. My mother could recount many tales about the young me … including how uncoordinated I was (the devastation I caused in my Aunt’s house though a bumbling attempt to pick up a biscuit being a favourite tale!).

So although I was far from being a “natural” I did find something that fascinated me and I wanted to be good it (much to my parents’ relief). To get good, I had to be able to motivate and discipline myself … and the fruits of that caused a growth in confidence.

Over 30 years later and I’m still practising. So, in my case, the self-selection argument would not hold water. Anecdotally I also know of many, many tales were the “ugly duckling” student are the ones who more often become the “swans” because the lack of natural ability develops an intense work ethic. Those who are naturals tend to be naturals at lots of other things too, and hence they tend not to embrace the martial arts with the same passion. The martial arts are not “their thing”; they are instead one of the many things they are good at.

All the best,


Jamie Clubb
Jamie Clubb's picture

As some of you might know, I wrote about issues relating to this matter a few times in my Martial Arts Scepticism series. This one in particular.When I made my decision to teach a martial arts programme for children with pragmatic self-protection as its starting point I met a lot of contention from professional instructors. They first thought it was a great idea. That was until they realized I actually wanted to teach real self-protection skills. One of the best arguments I heard was, "Teach them confidence and that will develop self-defence". For me, good confidence comes from competence.

"50 Myths of Popular Psychology" is a great book on the subject. This debunks the idea that all children just need their self-esteem raised. Psychopathetic and narcissistic children certainly don't need that type of education! It was also part of a pseudoscientific postive thinking package that was sold to schools a few decades back.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Jamie Clubb wrote:
For me, good confidence comes from competence.

Absolutely! Confidence and false-confidence are two very different things practically and mentally.

Practically: True confidence requires a legitimate skill. False-confidence requires delusion (black belts in 18 months, etc).

Mentally: True confidence comes from an honest appraisal of skill, knowledge of shortcomings, and work to correct those known shortcomings. Humility and honesty are therefore part of the process. False-confidence can be based on arrogance and narcissism on the part of the student, and a lack of honesty on the part of the instructor.

All the best,


Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

This was no surprise to me..anyone who has taught kids knows that that you cannot teach someone character traits, despite all the marketing to the contrary. Kids can learn those things by going through the process of training, but it is the kids doing it, not the adults pouring self-confidence, discipline, etc. into their heads.

Th0mas's picture

The problem with these types of studies can be boiled down to one simple statement, namely; they don't account for selection bias.

This is true for both the dojo and the instructor and the child in question. For example, Parents of children who perceive their child needs to take an extra-Corriculum activity will actively seek out martial arts schools. This will automatically impact the findings and susequent conclusions of a study like this, because they don't have the datum points to be able to account for this type of bias in the results.

My gut feeling is that any physical activity, be it rugby, football, martial arts etc that provides a child with an alternative means in which to achieve some success and feel good about themselves, will have a positive effect on self-esteem. Martial arts does not have a monopoly on this.

The trick is to find something a child can relate to and wants to put in the commitment. Horses for courses.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Th0mas wrote:
My gut feeling is that any physical activity, be it rugby, football, martial arts etc that provides a child with an alternative means in which to achieve some success and feel good about themselves, will have a positive effect on self-esteem. Martial arts does not have a monopoly on this.

I totally agree. The difference is that martial arts tend to have character development being expressed as the overriding part of their ethos. We see martial arts actively promoted on that basis – as if we did have a monopoly on it – but you rarely see non-combat sports promoted that way i.e. football, athletics, rugby etc don’t boldly claim to be good for discipline, confidence, developing a strong work ethic, etc in the same way martial arts do.

Boxing is “The Nobel Art” and eastern martial arts adopt similar monikers. We espouse “nobility” (i.e. good character) and “art” in contrast and preference to the more combative aspects.

The more modern “do ethos” being a big part of this. For example:

“The ultimate objective of Judo discipline is to be utilized as a means to self-perfection, and thenceforth to make a positive contribution to society.” – Jigo Kano (founder of Judo)

This idea is later mirrored by the karate world (after they too stick “do” on the end of the name of their system):

“The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory nor defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants” – Gichin Funakoshi

You don’t see soccer coaches making similar claims. Compare the above with Bill Shankly’s famous quote:

“'Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”

Or American Football coach Henry Sanders:

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing”

While Football (both kinds) can also have great value in terms of character development, you don’t see that expressed as the raison d'etre for those sports. You do however see it with the martial arts.

All the best,