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Could mixed martial arts help children to learn?

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There is plenty of evidence that martial arts training provides children with educational benefits, including improved attention and alertness. So should we be rolling out the training mats in classrooms? Simon Creasey investigates

Could martial arts help children learn?

If you’ve ever watched an MMA (mixed martial arts) fight, you would probably think the presence of such a sport in a school environment would be inadvisable, if not outright wrong. To the untrained eye, these vicious, bloody bouts are akin to a barroom brawl.

However, the martial arts training these individuals undertake not only provides self-defence training, but some argue it can also bring physical, social, intellectual and emotional benefits.

Edwin Edelstein, a sensei (instructor) who teaches physical and mental discipline for children at Martial Art Education, claims that as well as helping kids to develop their core strength, they also learn to get on with one another. By undertaking complex activities together, it teaches them self-regulation and it helps create attachment to their instructor, which Edelstein says is an important part of their emotional development.

“As for the academic benefits, as soon as children develop enthusiasm for anything, that enthusiasm swings to other areas,” says Edelstein. “I taught a kid at a school who was considered a problem child, but he loved my classes and he would only come to school because of my classes and with time that spread to the rest of his school activities and he ended up doing very well.”

So far, so anecdotal. But there is actually plenty of academic research out there that suggests Edelstein may be on to something.

Ashleigh Johnstone is a PhD researcher in cognitive neuroscience at Bangor University. Her PhD is specifically focused on assessing cognitive changes related to martial arts practice and last year, she published a paper showing that martial arts training can lead to increases in alertness and vigilance. And she says that much of the research that has been undertaken to date looking at the beneficial effects of martial arts training has actually been done with children.

“Kimberley Lakes is a US researcher who has done a lot of research looking at the positive effects of taekwondo,” says Johnstone. “Some of her studies have involved replacing standard PE classes with taekwondo sessions, and she noted that this produced improvements in memory and attention in the children. We know that being able to remember information and concentrate are vital in an educational setting, so this really shows how martial arts could provide children with educational benefits.”

A fighting chance

As well as cognitive benefits, Johnstone says there is also a lot of research that discusses the positive effects martial arts training can have on behaviour.

“Children who take part in martial arts training in school have been shown to have better classroom conduct – they show more pro-social behaviour and are generally better behaved,” she adds. “Some research has even used martial arts training as an anti-bullying programme – martial arts training teaches children strong self-control and how to calmly react when they feel heated, and this can help reduce aggression levels in children, resulting in less bullying and bad behaviour. Similarly, the training can improve a child’s self-esteem by improving their coping mechanisms.”

Another advocate of teaching kids martial arts is John Ozmun, professor and chair of the Department of Physical Education at Indiana State University. He co-authored a paper entitled Martial arts: an exciting addition to the physical education curriculum, with Jason Winkle.

In the paper, they highlight a host of different benefits ranging from physical fitness, psychosocial domain benefits, such as decreased tension, anger and depression, and cognitive domain benefits. As a result of their research, Ozmun thinks a school’s physical education programme would benefit from offering beginner-level martial arts training.

“I believe one of the goals of a physical education programme is to expose students to a wide variety of physical activities and sports that they can participate in throughout their lifespan,” says Ozmun. “With that exposure comes an introductory level of skill instruction. For safety purposes, skill instruction and practice should be ‘non-contact’ and individual in nature.”

So should schools all erect an MMA ring in the school hall? Probably not, argues Joseph Strayhorn, a US-based psychiatrist who has authored a number of books including Exercises for Psychological Skills.

“Teaching children to do anything proficiently can have benefits, particularly if they are also taught to be respectful to their teachers,” says Strayhorn. “The techniques of proficient kicking and hitting of another person fall close to the bottom of the skills that should form the useful curricula for our youth.”

Strayhorn carried out his own research project looking at whether or not there was any evidence that martial arts training enhanced or worsened children’s psychological skills and his conclusion was that there are numerous other “skills” such as dancing, playing chess and learning how to program computers, that all yield the same benefits that children might get out of martial arts training, but without the drawbacks.

“I can’t deny that there are sometimes benefits [associated with learning martial arts], and for some children the degree of positive benefit is sometimes large, but there is harm also,” says Strayhorn. “Our examination suggested about an even balance of good and harm with a net effect size very close to zero.”

His main concern about children being taught martial arts is that they may use the skills in an inappropriate way that could be harmful to other pupils.

“Psychological research has shown over and over that the more you practise behaviours, the easier it becomes to do not only those behaviours, but others in the same ‘response class’,” explains Strayhorn. “The more children practise aggressive motions, the easier it should become for them to carry out all sorts of aggressive behaviours.”

Hit and miss

Despite his scepticism, plenty of academics believe the upsides of teaching children martial arts far outweigh any potential downsides. And one of the biggest advocates, the aforementioned Kimberley Lakes, associate professor of psychiatry and neuroscience in the School of Medicine at the University of California Riverside, says rather than making violent behaviour more likely, martial arts actually increases self-regulation and makes it less likely.

For her research paper Promoting self-regulation through school-based martial arts training, she examined the impact of school-based taekwondo training on the self-regulatory behaviours of children ranging in age from nursery up to Year 6. Groups of kids were randomly assigned to an “intervention” group, where they were taught martial arts, or a “comparison” group, where the children undertook traditional physical education activities, for three months.

At the end of the period, the results indicated the martial arts group showed greater improvements than the comparison group in terms of cognitive self-regulation, affective self-regulation, pro-social behaviour, classroom conduct and performance in a maths test. In short, she does not see the same need for panic as Strayhorn.

“Research does support that certain types of martial arts training could promote self-regulation in children; it is well-known that self-regulation is important for success in school and in life,” says Lakes. “The educational benefits that martial arts training could help promote include learning how to pay attention, control your impulses, manage frustration, and remain persistent when working toward goals. All of these can help lead to better educational outcomes.”

Perhaps, then, an MMA “cage” is not such a bad idea after all...

Simon Creasey is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 10 May 2019 issue under the headline “Fight for your right…to learn”