Martial Arts Psychology – What Were You Thinking?

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There is a big controversy whether martial arts has a positive impact on the individual – specifically – and society in general. The martial psychology that a person develops plays – in no small part – a role in that controversy.

In this article, we will discuss the positive and negative effects of martial arts in terms of psychology. We will also attempt to shine a light on the martial artist’s viewpoint and – at the same time and with help from a non-martial artist – give the perspective of the other side.

See and Accept What Is

It is true that martial artists prepare for the violence of the world and train to meet that violence with violence if necessary. One martial philosophy is that “sometimes there is a peace that can only be found on the other side of war” – King Arthur.

Soldiers during war

The other side of the coin is that some people believe that we need to be taught to co-exist and accept others as they are. This – they believe – would reduce or eliminate the violence and promote a global peace.

The psychology underlying the philosophy stated above is that you have to see clearly what is, accept that it exists and then work to change it if it does not serve the greater good. Turning a blind eye on violence, disrespect and negative behavior will do nothing to remove it from society.

Martial artists – at least those who practice self-defense – believe that to shy away from the existence of violence is to promote that violence by letting the people who spread it have their way. At the same time, they believe that nothing is more important than life. To try to fight over a purse, wallet, necklace or watch is a practice in futility because each of those items is replaceable; human life is not.

Martial Psychology in Sports

So what about the barbaric sports  where people beat on each for money and the amusement of other? Isn’t that the general question of the people who abhor such events?

MMA Example

Now let’s look at the truth of the matter from a different perspective. Humans are omnivores; that means they can eat both plants and meat. Getting meat – from a historical perspective – meant hunting and that meant violence against another living being.

In today’s society, we have beef, chicken, pork and fish farms. We have grocery stores. That means that the hunter instinct – the killer instinct – passed on by our ancestors is being purposefully ignored. The visceral instinct is inevitably going to build up if it doesn’t find an outlet.

That is where martial sports come in. It is an outlet for that violent instinct bread in all of us, but found mostly in males. Sure, there are other outlets; hunting, fishing or even working out in a gym. A person can practice yoga or other forms of meditation to help control those instincts.

This would work very well for the people who practice the sport, but what about the millions of spectators with the same instincts that do not have the physical ability or skill to participate in these gladiatorial events? How would they find their outlet? The psychological effect on the spectators is just as prominent as the participants. The physiological effect are almost identical.

In their own way, the participants of gladiatorial sports – football, wrestling, boxing, kickboxing, MMA cage fights, etc. – are helping to keep the average, peace-loving citizen safe by finding an alternative outlet for violent instincts. Do the participants cause damage to each other and get paid well for it? Yes, they do.

Rules, however, exist that attempt to keep the participants as safe as possible while still allowing the participants to reach their goals, stay as close to real battle as is safely possible and provide the spectators with the excitement that only violence can provide.

Martial Psychology in Traditional Arts

Many traditional martial artists believe that there can only be peace outside one’s self if there is peace within. That means recognizing the weaknesses inside one’s self, accepting that it exists, finding a solution and putting that solution into action. Once the deficiencies in the individual are solved, they can start working on providing a positive influence  to the world at large and work toward a global peace through example.

Traditional Martial Arts
Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

Ironically, the controversy comes from an unexpected source; other martial artists. The peace-lovers of the world actually agree with this psychology, but the proponents of self-defense, combat systems and martial sports believe that traditional arts are merely for display and serve no practical purpose.

They could not be further from the truth. There is an old adage: “If you want to change the world, start in your own back yard.” No one knows exactly where the statement originated and there are many variations, but the message is clear. You cannot change anything until you solve the problems within yourself. What better way to make necessary changes than from the perspective of internal peace, clear thought and the willingness and courage to take action.

Martial Psychology in Combat Systems

The greatest and most fatal enemy for a soldier or other paramilitary operator is not the person trying to harm or kill them. It is fear. Fear will make a person freeze when they should take action, it will make them over-react when they should show restraint and it will cause a person to run when they should hold their ground. That same fear can get the soldier and their comrades wounded or killed when clear thought and definitive action could have kept them safe as a unit.

self defense training

The flip-side of the coin has no basis to form an educated opinion,  but the opinion is formed none-the-less. Some people believe that all soldiers participate in war and violence because they like to hurt others. Granted, some do, but it is not the norm. There was even a situation once where a soldier spent three tours in  a war zone and survived without a scratch.

He returned home (proud in his dress uniform), was approached by a lady who asked him if he was stationed in the country the war took place. Upon confirming he was there, the lady pulled a pistol, called him a “baby-killer” and shot him dead in the middle of an international airport. I don’t think she realized this, but by killing the “baby-killing” soldier, she was killing someone else’s baby. This hypocrisy is thick in this example.

Fact: A soldier, police officer’s or other paramilitary operator’s primary function is to follow orders and stay alive doing so. The fact that others are willing to resist that person’s need to fulfill their orders by resisting to the point of fatality means the operator needs to physically and psychologically prepare to meet that resistance.

Krav Maga – one of the most efficient and violent combat systems – teaches their students not to fear the danger, but become the danger; meaning to become more dangerous (mentally and physically) than the danger they face. This is the perfect psychology for a person in the position of combat.

Final Thoughts

To people who don’t understand or have never been in the position of being hunted or attacked, martial arts is a violent activity designed to do damage to others.

To the martial artist, the training provides clarity of thought, a love of life, the ability to protect themselves and others and an internal peace when all else is in chaos.

Who is right? I would love to learn your position on the matter. Please feel free to present your thoughts and add to the discussion.

Author: Brent Duncan

2 thoughts on “Martial Arts Psychology – What Were You Thinking?

  1. Well-written article. I agree with many of your points. The story about the woman killing the soldier is certainly tragic, where did you hear this story? Is there news coverage of the tragedy? I can’t believe that anyone would be so hypocritical. But then again, maybe I can believe it. And that’s somehow worse.

    1. The man was a friend of my father’s during the time of the Vietnam Conflict. I don’t know if there was any news coverage as it was in the late 60’s that this happened. It was a cautionary tale my father told me when I went into the military to warn me that all of our enemies aren’t just overseas. Gratefully, the support for our troops has greatly increased since that time, but it’s not just our troops that are attacked needlessly and under misguided principles. We ALL need to be aware of what is going on around us at all times.

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