As most of you probably know I’m a strong advocate for the benefits of Karate in relation to mental health. As with everything in life there are two sides of the coin and rarely things are black and white.
For some individuals or groups Karate might have a negative impact on health both physically and mentally. Whether or not a person benefits positively from training depends on several factors such as:
- Personal circumstances
- Group social setup
- Training methods
In the case of personal circumstances, an individual might have an underlying mental health condition, which Karate training can make worse if not conducted properly. Most people who start a martial art will have to face fear in some form. For example, fear of sparring, public performance or overcoming the fear of breaking stuff. Without positive mentoring the result of these fears might have a negative impact on a person.
Sometimes an instructor, or the head of an organisation, might be charismatic but lacking in understanding of the needs of students or is simply unaware of factors impacting their students health.
If training instructions are given in a form that pressurises a student to do tasks this might lead to a negative impact on health.
Often, especially in more “traditional” branches of Karate, there can be a culture of power and bullying. This can create a mental vicious circle where bullied students either quit as they feel not worthy or tough enough to be a part of the group or result in the creation of more bullies who then take revenge on new students. This situation was recognised in the Polish army and is named “the wave”. This situation is very difficult to eradicate.
This culture was very popular in Karate in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. I believe that conditions have improved now, but “the wave” is not completely gone.
Group Social Setup
Karate is an activity that can make people feel that they belong to a group, which can easily turn into a sect or cult like organisation. This is a world wide problem that sports and social clubs face everyday from football, rugby, wrestling and Karate, leading people to feel that they are better than those who don’t belong to the tribe.
Browsing through forums, Facebook pages or YouTube comments we can easily come across conversations or comments about the superiority of a given branch of Karate. Many claim that their style of Karate is the original one, supporting their claims with lineage, or that their system is the strongest as they <…insert whatever you want here…>.
This cult thinking can lead people into developing a delusional view of themselves as the better person. From history we know that this kind of brain washing activity can lead to the abuse of power and abuse in general. Resulting in traumatic experiences for members of that group and/or others.
Another factor to consider in terms of benefit outcomes is training methodology. Here again “traditional” ways can creep in, where people hold the belief that past methods are always superior to modern ones. The problem here is that even just 50 years ago we didn’t know aspects of sport science, mental health and physiology in general. So, as the masters of the past relied on their knowledge at the time, now we know we can train better, safer and more efficiently.
The term traditional can also be used to hide a lack of knowledge of modern methodology, to create an illusion of exclusivity, or be used as an excuse for the barbaric treatment of students in the name of worthiness and commitment to the only true style/system.
In every aspect of life all things can be used in a positive or negative way, Karate is no different. If you pop into a Dojo and would like to start Karate, please have a look first at how the club is set up. Consider asking yourself a few questions. How is the instructor treating the students?
How are the students themselves treating each other? Do the students look happy? How does the instructor refer to the competition?
Search for things that are not said – the body language of people within the dojo, the approachability of the teacher, the overall atmosphere etc.
All of these aspects can give you an appreciation of the feel of the club and I would recommend that you only join it if you feel good about it and you feel welcomed. Your gut instinct is usually a great indicator of things being good or not for you.
I hope that most dojos now have moved on from being cult like and provide motivating and fun classes.
If you enjoyed this chapter of my new book “Karate For Mental Health” and are interested in reading my previous work, the book can be purchased from Amazon:
ANXIOUS BLACK BELT
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Les Bubka is a dedicated practitioner of the way of the empty hand and has been for over twenty years. He is the founder of LB Posture Training, which incorporates the art of Karate with his personal training qualifications in order to help people.
Les has experience in running projects in association with mental health charities and other institutions, introducing Karate as a tool to help build confidence, self-esteem and physical activity to disadvantaged members of the community.
Les runs an inclusive club in Guildford (UK) where everyone is welcome.