Shihan Romany McGuffog: Psychological Processes and Benefits of Karate

Psychological Processes and Benefits of Karate

Romany McGuffog

Karate was first developed in Okinawa centuries ago, as a system of combat techniques. O’Sensei created Chitoryu after studying various Okinawan arts. He was also a medical practitioner who was concerned about the effects the old methods had on health, and so O’Sensei based Chitoryu on a combination of medical, physiological and scientific principles in order to promote health. However, karate also provides many psychological benefits to students, some of which are caused by the physical activity involved in karate. Some naturally occurring group psychological phenomenon are affected and improved by karate and there are also certain skills that karate teaches that promotes psychological well-being. 

Naturally occurring psychological phenomenon within various types of groups are called intragroup processes. These processes can be either positive or negative, however certain factors can affect and change them. Within karate training groups, these processes are improved or enhanced to create an atmosphere that is effective for learning. One of the processes that is decreased is social loafing. This is where individual effort decreases when performing in a group. Social loafing is caused by the feeling that there is less reason to exert yourself when you are in a group, feeling a lack of responsibility for the group outcome and feeling that as an individual they can hide in the crowd. It is also caused by the belief that others are social loafing, so they loaf as well. The original experiment was performed by Ringelmann in 1913, who tested participants by asking groups that varied in numbers to all pull on a rope. As the number of individuals in each group increased, the amount of effort exerted by each participant decreased. This experiment has also been performed with activities such as shouting – different sized groups standing in a circle and all shouting – which also showed social loafing. 

Karate involves a combination of working in groups (such as bunkai, kumite and team kata) and working on the same thing but individually (such as kata), and hence, social loafing is also present. Whilst it is difficult to completely remove social loafing in any situations, there are certain “cures” that can be applied, some of which occur in the karate environment. These include making the individual realise that they are responsible and that their level of effort is distinguishable from others, making a task more appealing and meaningful, and rewarding good performance. In Chitokai karate, these “cures” are constantly in effect. Whilst students train in groups, Senseis and Sempais walk around the dojo monitoring and helping students, making students realise that their effort is distinguished from others. Karate is taught through auditory, visual and kinaesthetic ways, making tasks appealing and meaningful to all types of learners. Finally, karate rewards good performance with proceeding to the next belt, or with trophies in a tournament, which encourages students to perform their best. Therefore, karate is able to improve the naturally occurring process of social loafing.

From a biopsychological perspective, physical activity in itself and various sports include many psychological and physical benefits, such as better sleep, improving mood, lowering stress and boosting energy, however, different cultures affect different sports. In Western sports, the focus is on competition and winning, whilst Asian martial arts emphasises self-improvement, self-knowledge and self-control. Martial arts teaches self-defence, values and attitudes,  and emphasise the integration of mind and body. These non-physical aspects also have long-term psychological effects. In 2007, Binder found that when compared to other physical activities, karate and other martial arts provide more psychological benefits than physical activity alone, suggesting that the non-exercise aspects of martial arts are important in psychological well-being. This is also seen when comparing traditional karate (more meditation, respect, rituals and kata) to modern karate (more competition and physical activity). Both forms of karate led to improvements in general mental health, however students who trained in traditional karate showed significantly lower aggression and higher self-acceptance. Studies have found that as the length of time that a student practices martial arts increases, so does their independence, self-reliance, self-confidence and self-esteem. It also leads to a decrease in aggression and hostility and increases in self-control, a calm nature and compassion. Karate specifically has been found to show a decrease in anxiety in individuals. 

In terms of psychological treatment, research has shown that karate can benefit and enhance an individual’s therapy. Women recovering from psycho-sexual abuse, eating disorders and dysfunctional families reported that karate training was helpful in their recovery. This is most likely due to the parallels between psychotherapy and martial arts including concepts of breathing, energy, centring, and self-awareness. A common technique used in psychotherapy is mindfulness. Mindfulness has its origins in Buddhist Meditative tradition, and has been clinically adapted to be used in psychological treatment. Mindfulness involves paying attention to what is taking place in the present moment, and not thinking about the stress and anxiety in the past or future. It promotes focusing on sensations experienced by the body at the present moment, and tuning into one’s breathing. Karate employs elements of this in the meditations at the beginning and end of classes where students reflect on what they have learnt, and calm themselves. Kata teaches students to heighten their self-awareness to connect their breathing with their body and energy. This is reminiscent of the goals of mindfulness, which teach individuals to connect with their body by using their awareness and breathing. 

Mindfulness has been found to have effects on cognitive performance, mental health and even personal development. It can increase one’s ability to focus their attention and increase the speed of their information processing. Mindfulness can support the development of creativity, and enhance interpersonal skills and empathy. In psychotherapy, mindfulness is used in a variety of ways, such as learning to cope with stress and helping individuals deal with their mental illnesses. Mindfulness can be effective in anxiety disorders, where therapy attempts to pair relaxation and calm breathing with the things that make individuals feel anxious. Karate applies this calming technique in meditation, but also in the breathing and centring that occurs in kata and bunkai. When performing kata, at the beginning, students take a deep breath and centre themselves. This prepares them for their kata by calming them down and focusing their attention on the current task. Students also monitor their breathing throughout the kata, which allows them to remain focused and calm until the end. This technique of calming can be used in many situations to promote psychological well-being. Individuals can do this when they are starting to feel anxious about something, such as a speech or a performance, when they are feeling angry, to calm them down, or when they may be in a situation when they need to control another person to prevent a fight. 

Therefore, karate combines both physical activity with elements of mindfulness, which have both been found to reduce stress. This is an important psychological benefit in modern society, where levels of stress are constantly rising. Prolonged stress can actually kill cells in the brain and lower our immune system, so being able to use these skills to calm our minds, not only has an effect on our psychological aspects (having a clear mind and an increased mood) but also on our physical health. When an individual becomes stressed, the body shuts down bodily systems that are not required to deal with the stressor. If the stress response is not shut down (someone is experiencing constant and unrelenting stress), then it can damage the body severely, using up proteins and fatiguing the body, inhibiting growth (which can have negative effects on children and adolescents) and suppressing the immune system, which increases the chances of infection and disease. Steroid hormones called glucocorticoids are released during times of stress. These hormones are important in functions such as metabolism and controlling blood sugar, however, researchers have found that these hormones can be neurotoxic (deadly to the brain), with prolonged periods of stress killing off cells in the hippocampus (the area of the brain involved in memory and awareness). Hence, with karate’s combination of physical activity and breathing skills, karate promotes physical well-being of the body, which also promotes psychological well-being. 

Overall, karate can be seen to combine a number of factors such as physical, medical and psychological. The environment and values of karate enable the improvement of psychological phenomenon that occur in any group situation. Karate uses particular techniques such as breathing and physical activity which aid psychological well-being. Some of these techniques also affect physical health, which in turn, affects psychological health, like in the case of stress. The psychological benefits of karate involve improving one’s self. They include things such as self-acceptance, self-control and self-esteem, all which are important to maintaining a healthy mind.


Binder, B. (2007). Psychosocial benefits of the martial arts: Myth or reality? Journal of Ryuku Karate Research Society.

Bullis, J. R., Boe, H. J., Asnaani, A., & Hofman, S. G. (2013). The benefits of being mindful: Trait mindfulness predicts less stress reactivity to suppression. Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry45, 67-66.

Kolb, B., & Whishaw, I. Q. (2011). An Introduction to Brain and Behaviour. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Ringelmann, M. (1913) Research on animate sources of power: The work of man. Annales de l’Institut National Agronomique12, 1-40. 

Vaughan, G. M., & Hogg, M. A. (2010). Essentials of Social Psychology. French Forests, NSW: Pearsons.