Below you will find an article published by Dr Jim Lantz. Dr Lantz is director of the Midwest Existential Psychotherapy Institute, a professor at The Ohio State University College of Social Work and an instructor at Central Ohio Tae Kwon Do in Columbus, Ohio. This is a Doctorate level, peer reviewed article. Lending scientific support to what we know from practice – families and couples who train together develop stronger bonds.


jgd-1466-3This article outlines the results of a grounded-theory, phenomenological study about the impact of the martial arts on the process of family development. Thirty-two couples and families with at least four months of martial arts study experience were interviewed to identify data and data themes about how the martial arts enhanced family development. Themes identified were self-defense, self-confidence, physical vitality, concentration, respect, friendship, moral development, spirit, training for life, grades, respect for life, and the importance of the martial arts instructor.

Over the past 30 years, increasing numbers of families have been utilizing the martial arts for recreation, exercise, and/or experiences of family development (Lewis, 1996). Several martial artists have suggested reasons for this expanding popularity (Lewis, 1996; Payne, 1997), but as yet it does not appear that systematic research has been conducted into the reasons why more families are finding the martial arts to be an important family activity. This article presents findings about family participation in the martial arts that are the result of a
phenomenological, grounded-theory research project on family utilization of the martial arts that was funded and conducted by the MidwestExistential Psychotherapy Institute and by Central Ohio Tae Kwon Do in Columbus, Ohio. It is hoped that the findings of this study will be helpful to family therapists who are or will be working with increased numbers of couples and families who are involved with the martial arts. Such a study may also discover family concerns sometimes ignored by traditional family therapists as well as some good reasons to refer a treatment couple or family to a complementary martial arts training experience.


The martial arts originally developed in the ancient world out of a human interest in finding more effective combat methods to defeat an enemy. In their original form, martial arts were studied by soldiers and were considered a military art. With the development of more lethal military arts, such as guns and bombs, the martial arts decreased in popularity as a combat art and evolved into a set of activities and methods for personal self-defense and self-development (Lewis, 1996; Payne, 1997). Over the past 100 years, the martial arts have been
consistently described as good exercise for the promotion of physical vitality, as a method of character development and as a method of “moving meditation” to enhance spiritual development (Lantz, in press; Lewis, 1996; Payne, 1997). What has yet to be reported in either the martial arts literature or the family therapy literature is the potential of the martial arts to help couples and families develop and change.


Although there are literally hundreds of different forms of martial arts practiced around the world, the five most popular forms seem to be Judo, Aikido, Karate, Kung Fu, and Tae Kwon Do (Lewis, 1996). Aikido and Judo focus primarily on using your opponent’s energy and desire to defeat you in a way that paradoxically causes your opponent to lose. Karate, Kung Fu, and Tae Kwon Do rely on kicking and punching, and all five martial arts are performed most effectively from a defensive stance and attitude (Lewis, 1996). All five martial art systems are extremely effective for self-defense but are not quickly learned. Skill development in each martial art requires considerable commitment and lengthy practice. Traditionally, the martial arts have been practiced by individuals, but in recent times are more often being practiced by couples and families. Some Judo, Karate, and Kung Fu teachers do not allow children under the age of 16 to study and practice their particular martial art. Occasionally a martial arts instructor is unwilling to teach women.


jgd-0759Inductive, phenomenological grounded-theory research methods were used in this study because theory has not yet been developed to explore the subject population of families who participate in the martial arts. Phenomenological and grounded research methods are generally considered to be the best way to identify the themes and meanings connected to a minimally researched phenomenon such as family participation in the martial arts (Curry, 1967; Taylor & Bogdan, 1984; Van Kaam, 1959). Phenomenological grounded-theory research is designed to inductively study a research interest that has not had much study to develop knowledge that is “grounded” in observation about the phenomenon under study (Curry, 1967; Lantz, 1978, 1993, 2000).
Phenomenology is at times criticized as “too subjective”. However, many researchers have pointed out that phenomenological methods of “working towards credibility” and “transferability by thick description only” are more appropriate when studying natural human groups than are experimental research methods that depend upon the concept of “external validity” such as is used in most deductive studies (Glasser & Strauss, 1967; Spiegelberg, 1972). The methods used in this study to “work towards credibility” included prolonged observation, snowball sampling, data and methodological triangulation and reflection by the researcher on the self of the researcher as the researcher collected data and data themes (Glasser & Strauss, 1967). The stages of inquiry used in this study included: gaining access to the folk of the study, working towards credible observation and data collection, and the identification of consistent and re-emergent data and data themes. In this article
the emergent themes of the study will be presented but will not be “interpreted”, as it is the author’s long-standing belief that it is important for couples and families who participate in phenomenological studies to “speak for themselves” (Greenlee & Lantz, 1993; Lantz, 1978, 1993, 2000).


This study was conducted with couples and families currently studying a popular martial art at five reputable martial arts studios in Central Ohio. Couples and families studying Karate, Tae Kwon Do, or Aikido for at least four months participated in the study. The author was not able to gain access to couples and families studying Judo or Kung Fu. The number of couples who participated in the study (using snowball sampling procedures) was nine, and the number of families was 23. Two conjoint interviews were conducted with each couple and family to obtain data and to identify re-emergent data themes. The second interview was used to conduct a member check for each couple and family. The reader is asked to notice that most study data were positive. This is most likely explained by the fact that dropout couples and families were not interviewed. The following section of the article explores the data themes identified in this study.


For almost all of the 32 couples and families who participated in this study, the issue of learning effective self-defense methods was an important reason for studying the martial arts. Fathers were particularly impressed with the need to teach their daughters and sons how to defend themselves in a dangerous situation. For example:
• “It’s scary out there. It’s not like it was. Crazy, mean people will hurt you in a minute if they think they can! I want my son to be able to defend himself. I don’t want him hurt or killed.”
• “A couple of years ago, a girl in our neighborhood got raped. Apparently, she didn’t know how to fight at all and she still feels guilty about not fighting back. I want June [daughter] to know how to fight if something like that happens to her.”
• “If any boy gets out of line with her, I want her to be able to kick his ass.”
• “Last year she had a date with this guy, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. She kicked him in the knee and he still don’t walk so good. Nobody at her school messes with her now. It got around.”
• “My wife works in a bad neighborhood. It’s a tough place. Mostly Karate has made her more alert. She looks around and checks stuff out. I’m still afraid for her but not as much as I used to be.”
• “We started Tae Kwon Do after my son came home from school all beat up. The principal didn’t do nothing, so I told my kid he had to learn to fight. Well, he’s not the toughest kid in school, but he ain’t no easy mark anymore. He’s pretty good at protecting himself now, and I’m proud of him.”
• “My kid had no self-confidence. It’s like he had a sign on him that said hit me. So he got hit a lot. Not anymore! Now he can fight. He doesn’t start stuff, but kids don’t start stuff with him anymore, either. It was money well spent [Tae Kwon Do lessons].”


Family members consistently reported that martial arts practice helps improve self-confidence and self-respect. At times parents want to provide martial arts training for their children in order to enhance their children’s self respect, and at times couples see the martial arts as personally beneficial in this area of concern.
• “I always felt afraid. I never had any self-confidence, and then I see my son starting to have the same problems. So I got my kid into Karate, and then I thought, why not me? We both got the same problems. So I started taking lessons, too. And it’s working.”
• “I love my wife, but she is afraid of her own shadow. So one day she tells me she wants to take Karate. So, like hell, yes! Now we both take it. I took it just to be supportive, but hell, it’s been great for us both. It’s helped our marriage. She’s more confident, and I’m not so protective. Right now our kid’s too young, but when she’s older, she going to take lessons, too.”
• “The biggest problem my son has is me. I’m too overbearing and bossy. I don’t give him much room, and I can see how it’s been bad for him. You know, it shakes his confidence. Like, he’s taking Tae Kwon Do to learn to deal with me. The instructor makes me leave, kicks me out of the studio when he’s practicing, and she works with him. He says he’s learning to stand up to me. He is! He’s getting more and more confidence. It’s great! I’m
proud of him!”
• “My husband is just the nicest man. He is so kind! He wouldn’thurt a flea. Sometimes he’s too damn nice. He lets people push him around. Well, he’s taking Karate for me. I want him to stop being so . . . so . . . easy to push around. Anyway, he likes it and he’s getting tougher. He’s got a great teacher.”
• “It’s helped her in so many ways. Her self-confidence is up. At her last test, she broke three boards with a turning side kick. I tell her if she can do that, she can pass algebra. She laughs and tells me I’m right.”
• “My dad wanted me to learn to fight so he had me take Tae Kwon Do. I love it. It has given me lots more confidence.”


Many parents felt that their children did not get enough exercise, were overweight, got too many colds and needed some sort of physical activity to promote health and well-being. Some families started taking martial arts lessons in order to lose weight, increase stamina and do something positive for their health.
• “It’s like he was a couch potato. He didn’t like baseball or basketball or soccer or anything. He liked TV and video games. He decided to take Tae Kwon Do ’cause I made him and because it was like one of his street fighter video games. Well, he likes it. He’s eating better. He’s got better muscle tone, and I can get him to practice. He actually likes it as much as his TV.”
• “My daughter liked horses, but I can’t afford that. So, like, second choice was Karate. It’s not that expensive, and she can do it two or three times a week. She sleeps better, she eats better food and her stamina is way improved.”
• “My kid was soft. He did homework, TV, and video games. That’s it. Eleven years old and he was already fat. So we did it as a family. We got a family rate. My kid feels better. So do I, and so does my husband. It’s working out good for all of us.”
• “First, I got my kid into it ’cause he has ADHD and I thought it would help. Then I got into it ’cause my health was bad and I needed to exercise more. I got heart disease, emphysema, sugar diabetes, and arthritis. Tae Kwon Do is great exercise. I think it’s keeping me alive.”
• “My wife wanted to lose weight, and I was all gimped up with arthritis. The guy down the street goes with his kid. He introduced us to our instructor. It’s surprising how much it helped. I got lots more flexibility and a lot of relief from pain. My wife thinks it’s much more fun than simple exercise classes. She likes
it a lot.”
• “I’m 60 years old and I’m getting my red belt next week. My husband’s just a green belt. We started taking Tae Kwon Do after he retired. You know, for exercise and our health. The thing that’s so great is we both have so much more energy.”


jgd-0753In most telephone book yellow pages, you will find martial art studios advertising that they can help children and adolescents to focus, concentrate, and pay attention. Many martial art instructors believe that martial arts training is especially useful for children who suffer with attention deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADHD) (Park and Leibowitz, 1993). Many participants in this study agreed! For example:
• “My grades were bad so dad took me to see a psychologist. Then I saw a psychiatrist who had me take Ritalin?. It helped a lot, and my grades got better. The psychiatrist recommended that I study Aikido. He said it would help me concentrate. He gave me the name of this teacher. I been going for two years. I graduated from high school and now I go to college. I think Ritalin helped but I think Aikido helped more.”
• “He didn’t sleep and he couldn’t stand still. It’s like sometimes he was in another world. He just couldn’t concentrate. We took him to see a therapist. Then he got on medications. The therapist had us use a lot of behavior modification stuff and that helped a lot. Finally, we were given a referral to a Tae Kwon Do instructor.
I take classes with my son. It helps him pay attention, and he does a better job concentrating. It all helped : the medications, the family counseling, and the Tae Kwon Do.”
• “Like, I’d get mad at him and yell at him when he didn’t pay attention. It was all part of the ADHD. What really helped was watching the Karate teacher work with him. It was all matterof- fact. He’d have the kid do a push up! No yelling! Then he’d find stuff to compliment my son. He’d touch him on the head and say, ‘Good job’. I learned to do this stuff from the Karate teacher. So I do it at home. It helps a lot.”


Martial arts parents consistently reported that their child’s involvement in the martial arts had helped their child develop and practice respect for both the self and for other people. Many parents were extremely pleased to discover that good manners is an important part of the martial arts.
• “We have always tried to teach our son manners. But you don’t get much help. Not at school, not on TV, nowhere. The first day he goes to Karate class, they got him bowing. He says, ‘Yes, sir, yes, ma’am’. He asks permission to enter and leave the studio. It’s great! He’s learning manners.”
• “His Tae Kwon Do teacher asks him stuff like, ‘Did you clean your room?’ ‘Do you help out your mom?’ ‘Do you do dishes?’ Stuff like that. It’s a part of his belt test. She won’t let him get a belt promotion unless he gets good grades, helps out his mom, and treats his parents with respect! Where else are kids expected to show respect?”
• “When he first went to Karate class, he was never serious. He goofed around a lot and they made him do a bunch of push-ups. He’s more serious now, and he respects his teachers, his fellow students, and himself more than he did at first. He’s learning about respect.”
• “I like the formality of it all. You bow when you come and go. You call your teachers sir and ma’am. You repeat an oath at the end of every class. It’s formal, it’s got rules! Expectations are clear, and it makes for an atmosphere where everyone gets treated fair. You know, with respect.”
• “There is no racism in Tae Kwon Do class. In my kid’s class, there are boys and girls, white kids, black kids, oriental kids, a muslim kid, all kinds of kids; everyone’s the same. Nobody gets teased, everyone’s treated as special. It’s safe. Kids are taught to respect each other.”
• (Comment by a lesbian woman) “It’s unbelievable, who would think that in a Karate class that a couple of lesbian women would be accepted and respected? We get treated fine. We work hard and everyone is great. We even get a family rate. Karate people don’t put other people down. It’s not part of the code.”
• “I took my son to Tae Kwon Do class for lots of reasons, but one of them was to learn respect. What was a big surprise was that I learned that I was disrespectful to him and was showing him by my actions how to act disrespectful. The instructor helped me learn to put limits on my kid in a respectful way without getting mad. Both me and my kid get a lot out of it. We do respect now when we never did before.”


For many couples, parents, and children, martial arts study offered many opportunities for friendship, socialization and community development. Martial arts parents were happy to be in contact with other martial arts parents whom they felt they could trust and who had similar interests and values. Children also enjoyed the opportunities to make new friends.
• “It’s turned into a community for us. Billy has been studying for about two years and he has made all kinds of friends! We know his friends’ parents. We all go to camp together [a day-long outside nature-based training experience], and we go to competitions together. We root for each others’ kids. So we end up having sleep-overs, cookouts and stuff. It’s like we have a big Karate family.”
• “Sarah’s my best friend. We met at Tae Kwon Do. I was ahead of her and so Master Smith had me help her out. We became real good friends. We have sleep-overs with our other Tae Kwon Do friends. I’ve got some school friends, but my best friends are my Tae Kwon Do friends.”
• “My son has problems making friends. He’s a little off socially. It’s called Ausberger’s syndrome. Anyway, he has trouble making friends at school. Sometimes he gets teased. Not here. He’s included. No one teases him and he has lots of friends. I think it’s all the structure at Karate. That’s what helps him make friends.”
• “We met Joyce and Bob at class. They have two kids taking Tae Kwon Do, and we have three. Our kids get along and we get along, too. They have become our best friends.”
• “You make good friends because you have the same goals. You want your kids to learn respect, to have a sport they can do. You want your kids to learn how to defend themselves. So you have other parents with the same goals and so you make friends, and well, it’s nice to have friends who feel like you do about kids and stuff.”
• “You can go to a class every day. Each class has both adults and kids, and so you get to know lots of parents and lots of kids. It’s just a lot of people, and you hit it off with some of them. It’s a good place to make friends.”
• “The structure and the rules keep it safe, and so kids don’t get into big fights. The instructors nip that stuff in the bud. So, kids have the safety to make lots of friends. Parents, too!”


Parents want their children to learn what’s right and wrong. Most of the parents in this study found that the martial arts helped their children develop a moral code.
• “The best thing is that our kids learn about right and wrong. It’s right to work hard, it’s right to respect others. It’s right to do your best. It’s wrong to steal. It’s wrong to start fights and pick on kids. The instructor lets them know that Tae Kwon Do is about honor, doing the right thing, and helping others.”
• “They have this code, it’s up on the wall in big letters. Everyone repeats the code at the start and end of class. Kids are expected to keep the code at home and at the studio. Parents, too. Where else are you going to get help teaching kids what’s right and what’s wrong? Not at school, not TV. At Tae Kwon Do!”
• “Students come to Karate thinking it’s learning about how to beat up people. It doesn’t work that way. The better the kid learns to fight, the more they don’t want to fight. It ends up the kid finds out that their greatest opponent is learning to control the self. It builds character.”
• “The older kids graduate from high school and most of them find a way to go to college. Most of the time, it’s good grades and scholarships. When people graduate from high school, they get an award. It’s called a spirit award because sticking with it calls for spirit. Younger kids see this and want to finish high school, too.”
• “Master Jones wants students (kids and adults) to do their best. He wants courage and spirit. But he knows what you can do and can’t do. He expects you to do the best you can do, not the best others can do. He values hard work and makes a big deal out of it when you work hard. He helps people do stuff they never ever believed they could do.”
• “Couple of kids picking on each other. She stops it! She gets on them about how Karate is finding out how you’re special and how others are special. Teasing is about putting people down, and that’s not Karate. She tells them that they’re acting wrong.”


Spirit and energy are an important part of the martial arts, and many families believed that the martial arts help develop spirit and increase a person’s level of energy.
• “There was an amazing increase in energy. My wife felt it, I felt it, too. It’s not just about feeling better physically. It’s weird! We both felt more powerful and that not much could stop us.”
• “The teacher has a way with kids. She believes in them and knows they can do more than they think they can do. She teaches them spirit and courage.”
• “My kid has more spirit. He used to give up when he faced something tough. Not now. He keeps at it.”
• “He has lots more energy than before, and it’s more focused. He knows that if he puts his mind to it, not much can stop him.”
• “When he got his black belt, he had to break a brick with his hand. He broke it like it was nothing. It was like he piled up some energy force and just broke it.”
• “She used to cry when something came hard. Not now. Now she gets this look and she just overcomes stuff that’s hard for her. She has spirit. She doesn’t just give up anymore.”
• “My husband was facing all kinds of problems after his heart attack. He had to drop out of Tae Kwon Do for a while. He couldn’t practice, but he took our son to practice and would just watch. He had cardiac rehab, he had to lose weight, and he had to do all this treadmill work. But he kept taking our son to his lessons. It was like watching the classes kept his spirit up.”
• “The instructor calls it Ki energy and thinks you can focus it and control it by breathing correctly! All I know is that my daughter has more energy and power and spirit!”


Parents and children consistently reported that the martial arts teach life lessons that help a person at work, at school and in other areas of life. For example:
• “Tae Kwon Do teaches you lessons you can use in life. It teaches strategy, focus, control and how to keep on going when stuff gets tough.”
• “It helped my kid a lot. He learned stuff he could do to help him at school. He’s more focused, and he does a better job figuring stuff out. He solves problems.”
• “Before Karate she had this idea that things work out okay just by magic or something. Now she gets it! You get what you put into things. Her grades are up. She does better at work. Karate helps her get life.”
• “I learned that to change things, you got to change yourself. My husband’s been telling me this for years, but I always just thought he was insensitive. Karate helped me get it. You can’t do much about others. You have to fix yourself.”
• “My wife learned that if you can control yourself, no one else can control you. Aikido helped her figure it out. She has more power. She sets goals, and she puts herself into a position that is hard to push around. She has this way about her. She can make stuff happen.”
• “Last year was a bad year. Bad grades. I got fired at work, and I wasn’t doing a lot of social stuff. I was going downhill. Mom and dad made me go to Tae Kwon Do. I started doing better right away. Tae Kwon Do teaches you work habits. It helped a lot.”


Both parents and children reported that the martial arts had helped to improve their grades at school. For example:
• “His grades got better after he started Karate.”
• “My instructor takes grades seriously. You have to bring in your report card and show her. If it’s clear you’re working at it, she gives you a little slack; not much. You can’t test for a new belt unless your grades are okay. If you flunk, you don’t test.” • “Master Jones has this reward system. You can get a blue ribbon for academic achievement. You get a medal for honor roll, and if you make honor roll three times in a row, you get a trophy. If you work hard at school, you get a patch to sew on your uniform.”
• “Working hard in Tae Kwon Do teaches you to concentrate, to focus and to work hard. It helps your grades.”
• “Her instructor is a 22-year-old fourth dan black belt who has been studying Tae Kwon Do since she was seven. She’s great. Kids listen to her. It’s so nice not being the only one who gets on my daughter about how important school and grades and learning are. It’s a real help to the parents.”
• “The lessons he learns in Karate help his grades. He learns concentration. This helps a lot.”
• “The big thing about Karate is it keeps him away from TV and video games. This helps his grades.”
• “He gets bad grades, he doesn’t get to go to Aikido. He loves Aikido, so he studies hard.”
• “His teacher thinks grades are important. This helps a great deal.”


In the martial arts, it is called the “great paradox.” The great paradox refers to the fact that the better you can fight, the better you get at walking away from fights. Some martial arts instructors believe that teaching such powerful self-defense methods also teaches a respect for life.
• “It’s called control. You teach a kid how to hurt someone, you also have to teach the kid how to make sure they don’t hurt anyone.”
• “If one of the students goofs up in practice and accidentally hits someone, they do push-ups. You lose control, you do push-ups. You can’t be teaching kids to do this stuff if you don’t also teach them respect for life.”
• “Before my kid went to Tae Kwon Do, he was always getting into fights. Not any more. He doesn’t have to fight. He knows he can win so he just walks away. He learned to control his temper.”
• “I started Karate to be supportive to my wife. She wanted to take it. I used to fight a lot when I was a kid. Sometimes I still want to get into a fight,like road rage stuff. Karate helps keep me under control. It’s like, I know how bad someone could get hurt. And I don’t want that to happen, so I walk away.”
• “Karate can teach you that death is real. Every Karate practice makes you realize that death can happen. And so you end up respecting life.”
• “I used to like fighting. I had lots of fights at school. Since I started Karate, I do my fights at tournaments, and I walk away from fights that aren’t competition fights. It’s more fun to fight at Karate tournaments. You get better opponents.”
• “Since I started Tae Kwon Do, it’s easy to walk away from fights.”
• “Karate taught him to control his temper.”


Almost all of the couples and families interviewed in this study reported that the character and integrity of the martial arts instructor was of primary importance! For example:
• “It’s not just Karate. It’s the instructor. A bad instructor turns the Karate bad. A good instructor makes it good.”
• “Families have to watch out. There are a lot of bad martial arts teachers out there. You get a bad teacher, you get a bad experience. Parents have to be careful.”
• “Some martial arts teachers are fakes. They teach the wrong things. If the teacher thinks it’s just about fighting, get out of there quickly. The good ones know it’s about respect, control and morality. It’s a way to teach people how to act correctly. It can be a great experience or awful. It’s about the integrity of the
• “Some teachers just want to teach kids how to fight. They’re the bad ones. Good instructors are concerned about respect, grades, character, spirit and integrity.”
• “Some instructors are just in it for the money. They will try switch and bait techniques to get you in debt. It’s like a pyramid scam. Stay away from these people. They always teach the wrong
• “Before we found Master Blue, we had a couple of martial arts instructors who were just awful. They didn’t protect the kids. They tried to teach violence, not control. Good Tae Kwon Do happens when you got a good instructor. You get a bad instructor, you’re putting your kid in danger.”
• “The thing thatmakes TaeKwon Do so great is the teacher! Master Clements is great. She teaches the right things. She’s a great teacher, and you can trust her with your child. She’s the best!”


In this phenomenological grounded-theory study, nine couples and twenty-three families who were studying Aikido, Karate or Tae Kwon Do for at least four months were asked to provide their views about the usefulness of the martial arts in facilitating the process of family development. The couples and families consistently reported that martial arts study facilitates marital and family development, and offered 12 basic themes about how this facilitation occurs. These 12 themes are: self-defense, self-confidence, physical vitality, concentration, respect, friendship, moral development, spirit, training for life, grades, respect for life, and the importance of the martial arts instructor. The current study indicates that many couples and families experience the martial arts as a positive family development experience. This suggests that marital and family therapists should be more active in asking their clients to consider a referral for martial arts instruction as a useful complementary activity along with participation in marital and/or family therapy.


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