The Mental Benefits of Taekwon-Do

The mental benefits of Taekwondo

By Jonathan Anscombe V Degree written in 2009


In the Taekwondo encyclopaedia, the General discusses at length the physical, mental and moral benefits of the practice of Taekwondo.  From a personal point of view, practicing Taekwondo has clearly bought benefits to my overall level of fitness. A recent medical also demonstrated the cardio-vascular and pulmonary benefits; low blood pressure, low heart rate, high pulmonary capacity, ideal body-mass index and high aerobic capacity.  There is little doubt that I would not have gained such a clean bill of health at the age of 51 had I not being doing regular exercise.

However, the mental benefits are harder to assess.  I  have subjectively felt that it has helped me to be more successful in my career and life in general, but as there is no “control” against which to compare this (I do not know what my mental state would have been otherwise), it is not possible to reach a firm conclusion.

In this Thesis I explore if the claim to the mental benefits of Taekwondo is justified by evidence, and if so, what a Taekwondo instructor can do to encourage these benefits.



A review of available literature identified several academic studies which demonstrated that there is good evidence that practicing Taekwondo – or indeed any other Asian martial art – does appear to encourage the development of positive character traits and brings a variety of psychosocial benefits, and that these benefits are greater than other sports. However, it is less clear exactly what mechanisms underpin this.

After examining a number of possible factors, I have developed a hypothesis that there are several related factors at play. Firstly, the structure of training has many similarities with modern approaches to behavioural change, and self-actualisation. Secondly, the inherently dangerous nature of the activity encourages discipline and care for others. Thirdly, the emphasis on self-development rather than competition encourages self-actualisation. Lastly, and most importantly, the behavioural norms which define the way classes are conducted adhere to strict neo-Confucian principles which align closely with the positive character traits that martial arts have been demonstrated to bring. I have noted that Taoist principals are not so well represented, and might offer an opportunity to improve the mental impact of Taekwondo training.

I conclude the thesis with observations about the how classes might be conducted to emphasise the mental benefits of Taekwondo.



The evidence for the “mental effect” of Taekwondo

Claims made for the “Mental effect” of Taekwondo

In the Condensed Taekwondo Encyclopaedia, the General makes a series of quite specific claims for the mental benefits of Taekwondo. Specifically, he says that Taekwondo:

“ one of the best means of developing and enhancing the emotional, perceptual and psychological characteristics that enable the younger generation, regardless of age, social status or sex, to effectively learn and participate in the social and play demands of his peers”

Specific traits that he believes Taekwondo enhance are:

  • Self confidence
  • Humility
  • Courage
  • Alertness
  • Acceptance by peers
  • Elimination of prejudice

In addition, the General asserts that Taekwondo can have a positive impact on academic performance though tenacity and concentration. He also suggests that Taekwondo might also help address the disadvantaged “the guiding hand of a qualified instructor may serve as an aid to the misguided, insecure and physically weak”.

The General suggests a number of aspects of Taekwondo that lead to these benefits:

  • A significant emphasis on the trainer as a role-model
  • The scientific basis of the movements
  • Working together to improve communication
  • Relief of tension through exercise
  • Learning to concentrate
  • Enabling young people to gain their own view of life


The evidence for “mental benefits from Taekwondo

To answer this question, I examined the evidence to address three questions:

  • Is there any evidence that Martial Arts in general have a positive mental impact?
  • Is there any evidence that Martial Arts are better than other sports at improving mental health?
  • Is there any evidence that Taekwondo is better or worse that any other martial arts?


Do martial arts bring mental health benefits?

Perhaps the best summary of evidence was a meta-study literature review on the Phsychosocial Benefits of Martial Arts carried out in 1999 by Brad Binder Ph.D[i]. He reviewed some 55 academic studies addressing the impact of sport and exercise in general to mental state, and specific studies of the effect on psychosocial health of Judo, Akido, Hapkido , Taekwondo, Karate, Boxing, Wrestling and Tai Chi. Study groups included Children, Adolescents (normal and delinquent), Adults, and the Disabled.

Dr Binder’s overall conclusion was that practitioners experience both short and long term psychosocial changes through practicing martial arts, and that this occurs in all groups regardless of age or sex.  The evidence was quite weak on short term benefits, but far stronger when considering the long term impact of martial arts, though most of the evidence looked at the impact over time on the personality characteristics of practitioners rather than comparison of martial artists against control groups. His major conclusions were that:

  • Martial Arts reduce the level of anxiety in participants, and that the longer people practice, and the higher the belt they hold, the lower the level of anxiety
  • Study of martial arts decreases hostility, anger, vulnerability to attack and increases self-confidence, and this again increases with grade and time spent in training
  • Martial Arts practitioners are – in general – more warm hearted and easygoing than non-martial arts practitioners


Are martial arts more effective than other types of sport?

Dr Binder’s research indicates that the answer to this question a tentative “yes” .The evidence suggests that martial arts appears to be more effective at reducing aggression and violence, anger, anxiety and improves self-confidence than other sports. Surprisingly, study of martial arts also seems to reduce the incidence of nightmares!

The overall conclusions were that “martial arts training produces positive psychosocial changes that are greater in magnitude and diversity than those produced by many other physical activities”

It is  interesting to note that “traditional” martial arts training which emphasises philosophical, moral, and technical aspects was far more effective in reducing aggression  than “modern” styles of teaching that emphasise competition[ii].

In supporting his conclusions, Dr Binder tentatively proposes that it is likely that the non-physical aspects of martial arts, and role model of the teacher, were probably the most important elements.


Is it likely that Taekwondo is more or less effective than other martial arts?

An evidence review of the impact on Personality Traits of Taekwondo was carried out by the United States Sports Academy[iii]. The review covered many of the same sources as Dr Binder, and included 6 specific studies on the impact of Taekwondo.  These covered:

  • A study of the impact of eight weeks Taekwondo training on the “self-concept” of 51 young women which demonstrated measurable improvements in self-esteem
  • A study of 68 children which demonstrated Taekwondo reduced aggression
  • A study of 72 boys that showed that the higher the belt, the more demanding, enthusiastic, optimistic, self-reliant and socially perceptive the students were
  • A comparison of 30 adults that showed that the longer people study Taekwondo, the lower their levels of anxiety, higher levels of independence, and probably mental health

Despite these specific studies of Taekwondo, there does not seem to be any comparative evidence of the impact of Taekwondo against other martial arts. However, there is evidence from Dr Binder’s review of the features of a martial art that make it effective at improving psychosocial health:

  • A more “formal” and traditional environment tends to increase the level of “self-acceptance” of students
  • Students will tend to adopt the same aggression characteristics of their teacher (a high degree of role-modelling). The more the teacher leads by example, the greater the mental change.
  • If a martial art has complex and foreign concepts, the psychosocial impact appears more slowly

Reviewing these characteristics, I would draw some tentative conclusions that Taekwondo as practiced in my club is likely to be effective at improving personality traits.  Teachers in the class are friendly inclusive and sociable, which is likely to improve social skills through role modelling. Furthermore, the emphasis of Taekwondo on “natural” movement and rooting in scientific explanation means that changes are likely to take place quicker than other more “difficult” arts.



Conclusions on the evidence for the “mental effect” of Taekwondo

It appears that that the General’s assertions on the mental benefits of Taekwondo are generally supported by empirical evidence. If anything, the General could have been more assertive in its role as a potential therapeutic approach, in particular for delinquency.

The General’s emphasis on the role of the Instructor as a role model is particularly perceptive, as this has been identified by the evidence as a significant the influence on the behaviour of the students.

So, the evidence demonstrates it works, but the question is, why?


The mechanisms underpinning the “mental” effects of Taekwondo

The “mental” effects of Taekwondo as described both by the General and by the evidence reviews focus on encouragement of socially desirable behaviours, reduction in anxiety and improvement in “self-actualisation”.  To explore what might be causing these effects, I have first looked at the psychosocial mechanisms that underpin modern approaches to behavioural change and addressing mental health issues, and then suggested how these mechanisms might be exercised through Taekwondo and other martial arts.


Mechanisms of behavioural modification

How best to bring about behavioural change is a broad field of enquiry.  From the turn of the century to the 1950s, behaviouralism and concepts of operand conditioning as proposed by Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) and Prof. B.F. Skinner (1904-90) were the predominant theories. This assumed that humans were primarily rational in nature, and that behaviour was largely driven by people reacting logically in response to direct stimuli.

These concepts were largely superseded by the 1980s by Cognitive Theory which presented more a more sophisticated understanding of human behaviour, seeing humans as problem solvers and seeking self-actualisation (the motive to realise all of one’s potentialities). The limitations of behaviouralism are well documented by the psychologist Alfie Kohn in his book “Punished by Rewards” in which he points out that using rewards to encourage behaviour merely encourages people to try to achieve the reward – they remain unmotivated to demonstrate the behaviour. Despite being largely discredited, behaviouralist concepts are still widely present in our society. Arguably, these ideas are at the root of the greed driven culture in global financial services that contributed to the recent global collapse of financial markets.

Modern views of how to achieve behavioural change focus on the importance of role models and influence of peer groups rather than sanctions and rewards. The Hawthorne experiments in 1939 identified the importance of interactions within social groups in defining shared values and social norms of behaviour. These ideas were further developed by psychologists such as Argyris and Maslow. The management scientist Edgar Schein[iv] has described the importance of the role and behaviour of leaders in defining the culture of an organisation and the values, beliefs and behaviours of people within those organisations.


Approaches to treat mental health issues, and to improve functional behaviour

Clinical treatments for non-physiological mental health issues (anxiety, depression, phobias etc) have also seen a rapid growth in therapies based on Cognitive Theory.  Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) uses psychological and behavioural treatment components to alter behaviour and reduce emotional distress. The aim is to help an individual examine how a situation impacts on their thoughts, emotions, physical feelings and actions and typically includes problem solving, challenging likelihood or validity of worries, identifying and challenging beliefs about worry, progressive muscle relaxation and reassurance.[v]

Many of the approaches within CBT are quite similar to non-clinical approaches to improving mental capabilities, motivation and self-actualisation. Probably the most highly developed modern method of self-actualisation is a branch of applied psychology called Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).  NLP was develop by Richard Bandler and linguist John Grinder in the 1970s as a model of interpersonal communication chiefly concerned with the relationship between successful patterns of behaviour and the subjective experiences underlying them. They coined the title to denote a supposed theoretical connection between neurological processes (‘neuro’), language (‘linguistic’) and behavioural patterns that have been learned through experience (‘programming’) and that can be organised to achieve specific goals in life. While there is little empirical evidence supporting this system (which has meant it has been largely ignored by academia) it is recognised as being effective by those who are less concerned with academic rigour and more interested in outcomes. It has therefore become the basis of much sports psychology and is widely used in my own company (a consultancy) and many others to improve personal effectiveness and communication skills.

Core elements of NLP include the need to identify a clear mission, taking a positive attitude, setting clear and measurable goals, building self-confidence, and equipping individuals with tools to be successful. A core belief is that “you have all the resources you need to be successful”, that within each individual there are latent capabilities which will allow people to achieve their own goals.




Mechanisms of behavioural change and self-actualisation in Taekwondo

Taekwondo training appears to encompass many of the mechanisms that are described above.  Clear goals are set through the progression of belts, each with set criteria. There is a strong role model in the instructor and senior belts, and a belief that – with effort and focus – everyone can become a black belt. Furthermore the class is conducted within a group with a strong “culture” and defined norms of behaviour. There is frequent discussion of the reasons for a particular technique, with an emphasis on scientific and practical explanation.

However, many of these factors appear in other sports. To understand why martial arts are particularly effective at improving behaviour and enabling self-actualisation, it is necessary to identify if there are any unique factors that might re-enforce some of these mechanisms. I believe there are several such factors.

Firstly, Taekwondo is evidently a potentially lethal activity. Its inherent dangers mean that everyone in the class immediately understands the need for control and discipline.  This means that there is a clear legitimacy for the role of the instructor and a disciplined environment.

Secondly, unlike nearly every other sport, “traditional” martial art lessons focus on the goal of self-improvement, not winning against an opponent. Even competitive bouts emphasise the need to adapt the level of aggression to that of your opponent. This is an important lesson in particular for children. It teaches that exerting force over someone weaker only demeans yourself, and that just because you are capable of beating someone does not mean you should. This is probably a major reason why martial arts are so effective at discouraging bullying.

However, I believe that the factor which clearly separates Taekwondo and other martial arts from other sports is the Asian ethos in which they are conducted, which in the case of Taekwondo is predominantly neo-Confucian. Neo-Confucianism emerged in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) as a combination of Buddhism and Confucianism. Korea had always been influenced by China and had long adopted Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian teachings, and Neo-Confucianism was widely adopted during the Joseon Dynasty from 1392 onward.  The importance of this philosophy to Taekwondo is obvious through the naming of patterns (Yul-Gok, Toe-Gye), and many of the formalities, tenets, and beliefs follow classical Confucian thought.

Confucius in particular had quite a modern take on how to encourage good behaviour, or “virtue”.  He believed in leadership through merit and role modelling rather than through blood lines, rewards and punishments.  “If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will become good.” [vi] This is remarkably similar to many of the arguments against behaviouralism. Confucius argued that “virtue” could be developed through the practice of ritual, which would teach people appropriate behaviour without the need for transgression and punishment.

Central to the Confucian ideal is the concept of the “gentleman” or “chun tzu”, who should be a moral guide and role model. A gentleman has many of the characteristics that Binder et al would have defined as being “functional” in today’s world, and that characterise a good Taekwondo instructor.  Yi (righteousness), Li (manners), Ren (kindness) are three that come to mind.

While other sports have a “sporting ethos” it is not nearly as well defined and explicit as Taekwondo and other Eastern martial arts. My conclusion is therefore that a fundamental reason why martial arts are so effective at encouraging functional behaviour and self-actualisation lies in the closely defined definition of what “proper” behaviour is, the creation of a complete and consistent set of interactions to support that behaviour and the existence of clear “role models”. Furthermore, the structure of Taekwondo with set of belts to measure progress, and the progressive introduction of new tools to achieve those goals, enables clear goals to be set which supports the path to self-actualisation. 

In terms of reduction in anxiety, Dr Binder noted the similarity between the Taoist philosophies underpinning many martial arts and clinical approaches to psychotherapy, suggesting that some of the same mechanisms might be responsible the reduction in anxiety seen in martial artists. Taoism is not as important an influence on Taekwondo as in some Chinese martial arts. Taoism was an important part of Korean culture until the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) before it was subsumed by Neo-Confucianism, but its influence is still evident, not least through the I Ching symbol on the Korean flag.  However, the only reference to Taoist concepts in the Encyclopaedia is a passing reference to Lau Tzu and a discussion of “Do” – an essentially Taoist concept. Having practiced a more Taoist orientated Korean martial art in the past (Kuk Sool Won) the lack of Taoist influence is quite noticeable, and it is likely that arts with a greater emphasis on this philosophy have a bigger impact in reducing anxiety. Certainly, I had the opportunity to meet a master of the intensely Taoist art of Tai Chi at the recent Taekwondo show, and he exuded almost preternatural sense of calm.


How might training be adapted to enhance these mechanisms?

Having reviewed the mechanisms that will most impact behavioural change, I believe that there are some specific elements of the Taekwondo class that can be emphasised to improve the mental impact of classes:

Explain and emphasise the meaning of ritual. A core element of the Confucian approach is the use of ritual to encourage “proper” behaviour.  In particular during the early stages of training the instructor should take particular care to explain the meaning and importance of the rituals (tying a belt, bowing at start and end of the class, shaking hands, maintaining stance until told to relax, taking two steps back before turning away etc.).

Understanding of importance of role modelling. Instructors and seniors should spend time to understand the specific behaviours expected to be displayed to emphasise “proper” behaviour, and continuously reflect on how they behave in class.

Incorporate more reflective Taoist influence: Consideration should be given to introducing more “philosophical” aspects of martial arts, such a control of Chi, meditation and reflection on lessons learnt.

Implement a formal assessment of behaviour as part of the grading syllabus: At the international instructor competition Master Trân Triêu Quân outlined a formal approach for the teaching of “Do”, and there is an argument for its inclusion as a formal element of the grading.

Increase peer interactions and criticism; The effectiveness of peer interactions in improving behaviour and social skills has been well demonstrated. The instructor should find mechanisms to enable students to constructively criticise and encourage progress of their peers to teach this important life skill.

Ensure appropriate balance between competition and technical aspects of Taekwondo: Instructors should maintain a proper balance between the self-actualising and competitive elements of Taekwondo.

Emphasise belt as recognition of achievement, not a goal in itselfIt is important that students realise that the goal of Taekwondo is self-improvement, and that the belts are rewarded in recognition of progress, not as a goal in themselves. Students should not be allowed to “request” to take a grading, nor should “minimum” times be necessarily the expected frequency of grading.



[i] Psychosocial Benefits of the Martial Arts: Myth or Reality? – A Literature Review,  B Binder, Ph.D. 1999

[ii] The application of traditional martial arts practice and theory to the treatment of violent adolescents: Twemlow and Sacco

[iii] The Exploration of the Effect of Taekwondo Training on Personality Traits, Dr. Richard C. Bell, United States Sports Academy, Chia-Ming Chang, Tajen Institute of Technology, Taiwan, Republic of China

[iv] Edgar Schein – Organisation Culture and Leadership

[v] NHS Map of Medicne – Anxiety Pathway

[vi] (Translated by James Legge) {The Great Learning}

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