By: Julius Park
Mixed martial arts and realistic combat sports get a bad rap. To outsiders, combat sports appear to be nothing more than physical displays of aggression, domination, and violence. But this mistaken belief clouds the positive aspects of martial arts. It also ignores the research showing how effective martial arts is at reducing impulses that precede criminal behavior—particularly in young men.
The iconic martial artist Bruce Lee once said,
“Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”
Lee’s philosophy gets to the heart of how martial arts can influence the socio-economic challenges many young men at-risk face: learn to endure trials with grit and discipline—and you’ll be better prepared for success than even the most intelligent Ivy-League graduates.
The research on this wild claim is striking.
In this article, we’ll first explore the nature of criminal behavior in young men and how the male competitive drive fuels it. Then we’ll look at the unique role martial arts plays as a potential solution for reducing criminal impulses in young men.
Young Men Are the Majority in Criminal Statistics
Young men are by far the most representative group of all US criminal activity. The data on this is clear:
- More than 50% of all homicides in 2014 were committed by young men between the ages of 15-29 years old (despite only making up 20% of the total population)1
- The median age of arrest is younger than 30 years old for most crimes2
- One study showed that homicides are carried out mostly by young men who are unemployed, unmarried, and have a “taste for risk”3
- 41% of male homicide victims were killed as a result of “trivial altercations”4
Do these numbers hint at the effect of modern society on young men? Or is there something more biological going on?
While society has changed drastically over the past 20 years, there’s more to the story than that.
The Biology of the Male Competitive Drive
Let’s consider the biology of young men from adolescence to adulthood.
Young men have marked increases in traits such as strength, stamina, sensory perception, and speed of movement between the ages of 25-30.2 Testosterone, which has been described as “the main driver behind the physiology of status”5 and the “fuel for dominance”5 is most active between 18-30 years old. From this, it’s clear that the biological makeup of young men predisposes them—and almost guides them—to use these newfound traits to gain status and dominance.
To an outsider, competition, risk-taking, and “trivial altercations” may seem pointless.3 But to a young man, this is exactly what his biology has wired him to do. And competition can actually be a good thing6—but it can also lead to self-destructive criminal activity.
However, it would be wrong to suggest that we suppress the male competitive drive. Instead, we need a way to guide this biological force towards something positive from the moment of inception.
How Martial Arts Can Keep Young Men Out of Trouble
Numerous studies7 have shown reductions in aggression with martial arts training. One study demonstrated improvements in violent and delinquent behavior after 10 weeks of a martial arts training program.8 The longer participants remained in the program, the lower their scores on aggression and hostility fell.
Legal Benefits of Martial Arts
Martial arts also has a positive effect on attitudes toward violent conflict resolution.9 Martial arts appears to teach young men how to deal with conflict without resorting to criminal, or even homicidal, acts.
What’s behind these results?
As a formal discipline, martial arts teaches you how to concentrate and reduce impulsivity by measuring your every move. As a skill-based activity, even the most basic blocks and counter-strikes require intense concentration if you hope to gain an advantage over your opponent. In this context, impulsivity can lead to failure. This is the same impulsivity at the heart of the “trivial altercations” that lead young men to prison or worse.
But even more than just impulse reduction, martial arts becomes a healthy outlet for the male competitive drive. A young man can use his newfound traits all at once to focus on overcoming his opponent. Instead of letting these physical traits go idle and fall prey to criminal temptations, they’re actively disciplined and honed to gain advantage in a more honorable setting.
But while these skills seem important, are they enough to prepare a young man for the harsh realities of life? Absolutely—even more so than IQ or innate talent.
The Role of Grit in Martial Arts Training
Grit is defined as the perseverance and passion for long-term goals.11 And it’s a better indicator of success than IQ or talent.
The research is clear thatyour level of success is directly related to your willingness to endure pain, suffering, and a lack of progress with discipline and a smile…and it’s worth more than an Ivy-League education.
And here’s the truth—anybody, regardless of socio-economic status, family upbringing, or education level can develop grit. In fact, “smart” children who come from loving, stable homes and show talent in their pursuits often fail to succeed unless they know how to push through failures and achieve their goals in the face of setbacks.11
Mastering grit can also help a young man learn self-control. Researchers at Duckworth Lab in Pennsylvania have shown that grit is a safeguard against impulse behaviors like binge-drinking and drug use.12 These risky behaviors are all-too-common in crime scenes involving young men.
Realistic martial arts are uniquely set up to teach young men grit. The physical and mental endurance it takes to control your body over time is grit—manifested. For example, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a grappling style focusing on chokes and joint-locks, has an average of ten years of training in order to achieve Black Belt. In order to be successful competitively, an individual needs to commit himself to training – leaving very little time for other activities. Martial arts training, therefore, is a reliable strategy for steering young men away from criminality and towards success.
Mixed martial arts and realistic combat sports get a bad rap for the wrong reasons. With more education regarding the real societal benefits this discipline has on our most at-risk young men, we can start seeing martial arts as an evidence-based method for keeping young men off the streets and out of trouble.
- “Why Do Young Men Commit More Crimes?”
- “Age and Crime”
- “Competitiveness, Risk Taking, and Violence: The Young Male Syndrome”
- Just Boys Doing Business?: Men, Masculinities and Crime
- “Men and Status: How Testosterone Fuels the Drive for Status”
- “Is Competition Between Men Healthy?”
- “Judo—The Gentle Way: A Replication of Studies on Martial Arts and Aggression”
- “A Review of the Effects of Martial Arts Practice on Health”
- “The Social-Psychological Outcomes of Martial Arts Practise Among Youth: A Review”
- “What Is Grit, Why Kids Need It, and How You Can Foster It”
- “How Much Grit Have You Got? Duckworth Will Help You Find Out”