A Cure for Bullying Has Side Effects

Martial arts are often offered as a tool to help reduce bullying. Various studies show that children and adults attending martial arts workouts gain more self-confidence, learn better self-control, concentration, anxiety is decreasing, their psychological state is improving. This is good news for those looking for a “cure” for bullying. However, every “cure” has side effects too.

The results of a study conducted in Lithuania demonstrated that athletes who attended Kyokushin karate workouts and participated in competitions were at a high risk of experiencing psychological violence themselves.

Why Kyokushin karate?

Kyokushin karate was created by Masutatsu Oyama who emigrated from Korea to Japan after World War II. He promoted his own philosophy of Kyokushin, or the Ultimate Truth, which he derived from various Far Eastern trends of thought. It is believed that daily practices help to overcome personal weaknesses, pain, positively affect the psychological state of people promoting this style, help to form values, build good interpersonal relationships and find the meaning of life. In other words, Kyokushin karate could be one of the martial arts styles that should help build healthy interpersonal relationships. It was namely this circumstance that encouraged a deeper examination of interpersonal relationships of athletes themselves.

The study involved a total of 371 athletes between the ages of 20 and 30. Slightly more than half were men, and most of the athletes have trained in Kyokushin karate for more than ten years. So, athletes who have considerable experience and know this style of karate “from the inside” were surveyed.

Athletes who anonymously participated in the study were given a questionnaire, in which they answered questions related to verbal violence, social isolation, damage to personal reputation and health. Symptoms of experienced stress, anxiety and depressiveness were also measured.

How bullying, emotional states and qualifications are related

So, what did the research results show? It was found that about seven out of ten athletes had encountered negative behaviour from coaches or other athletes, which was positively correlated with higher levels of stress, anxiety and depressiveness. That is, the more frequent the incidents of psychological violence, the worse the psychological state.

It was also identified which forms of bullying were more common. Four out of ten athletes experienced some form of verbal abuse (e.g., shouting, swearing, insults). Slightly less athletes felt social isolation, rumours and gossip were spread about them, and their reputations were being damaged. Meanwhile, approximately two out of ten suffered physical and material harm.

Interestingly, with increasing qualifications and with more frequent participation of athletes in competitions, the likelihood to experience bullying was increasing. For example, those who participated in competitions 4-6 times a year were almost 2 times more likely to experience bullying than those who competed 1-3 times a year.  Thus, various forms of psychological violence can also be related to sports competition.

Bullying does not harden

The results of the conducted research do not deny the fact that martial arts help former victims of bullying to feel better, to “get back on their feet”. In this case, it was not examined how the emotional state and behaviour of people who had experienced violence in the past had changed, but attention is drawn to the fact that there is a high risk of experiencing bullying of one kind or another already while doing sports.

Thus, a person who practices martial arts may feel more self-confident and able to defend himself, but established attitudes, values and traditions may influence poorer interpersonal relationships. For example, research conducted by Xuan Dong in Shaolin martial arts schools shows that although bullying is strictly forbidden in these schools, it was particularly frequent, since violence was used to emphasize “toughness”, “masculinity” or simply to fit in with others. Other studies show that individuals who have been bullied in the past later become violent themselves.

Explaining the reasons for bullying in Kyokushin karate, more research should be conducted, as well as comparisons with other martial arts styles. However, the results of this study encourage coaches to draw attention to the existing problem, which, if left unaddressed, has a negative impact on athletes’ emotional state. In other words, despite the myth persistent in the sporting world, you do not get used to bullying and it does not harden you.

The study was conducted by Prof. Dr. Jolita Vveinhardt, Senior Researcher at Lithuanian Sports University, and Magdalena Kasparė, Kyokushin Karate coach. The results of the study are available in more detail in:

Vveinhardt, J., Kaspare, M. (2024). Connections of Bullying Experienced by Kyokushin Karate Athletes with the Psychological State: Is “a Cure for Bullying” Safe? Frontiers in Sports and Active Living Sport Psychology. Section: Sport Psychology. Research Topic: Protecting the Welfare of Individuals Operating in Organized Sport. Volume 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2024.1304285