Black Belt Pedagogy – Part 3

Black Belt Pedagogy – Part 3

Why Girls Need Martial Arts – Pt 3 of Black Belt Pedagogy


Here we go again. We are living in yet another age of cultural upheaval. The roles of men and women are changing amid enormous political and social pressure to re-affirm what it is to be male or female, in order to promote a gender equal world. This is a good thing, and girls and women can’t achieve gender equity unless we change our perception of gender roles. The fallout, however, is that our children hear conflicting messages all around them, and both boys and girls appear to be troubled. Anxiety is of increasing concern. Children seem to be alienated from their communities, their families and their sense of self. It is a clash between nature, nurture and culture where the three don’t seem to be aligned.

Let’s take a look at girls. Jonathan Haidt, in The Coddling of the American Mind, wrote that rates of depression have gone crazy since 2010. For boys it is alarming that rates of depression have gone from 5 to 7%. But for girls the numbers have increased from 12% to 20%. For girls aged 15 to 19 there has been a 62% increase in depression since 2010. For the ages 10 to 14, the rate has increased since 2014 by 120%.


It is not coincidental that Facebook was introduced in 2006. By 2010 50% of teenagers had a phone. And this may have had a huge impact on girls and anxiety. Researchers note that boys overwhelmingly use phones for gaming and porn. But girls use phones for social media. When we look at bullying, relational bullying is most common with girls. Girls damage each other by threatening social relationships. Social media hypercharges relational bullying. There is no relief, or distance allowed from the ongoing tension when the phone can ping at any time to announce the next awful message. And this can be further assisted by the anonymity that can be claimed from fake accounts. Social comparisons are also intensified, particularly through the ability to doctor one’s appearance before posting. The fear of being left out is intensified when it is possible to track both the number of likes you get, but also the friends who pointedly don’t respond. Imagine the fear a socially conscious girl could feel when something is put out on social media and we can monitor everyone else’s reaction to it?


So why are girls so susceptible to anxiety caused by social issues? It is worth looking at the way a girl’s brain works when considering an issue of concern. Researchers like Michael Gurian refer to the “rumination loop”. This is where a problem is perceived that stimulates emotion in the Amygdala. Messages then go to the executive prefrontal brain where options and consequences are considered, then to the mid brain, the cingulate gyrus, the area for focus, then back to the emotional centre, the amygdala. This triangle repeats itself in what has been called the “rumination cycle”. Add to the formula the presence of mirror neurones (more in females) that allow social mimicry, and oxytocin which is much higher in girls, promoting connection and empathy, and we have a perfect storm. What is needed to break this cycle is an interruption to the pattern, a step into action. This is often different to boys where the problem is often that the cerebellum dominates the process, which induces a rapid move to action, sometimes with the negative consequences that we could devote another article to.


So, where does martial arts come in? In traditional karate, we think about the balance between body, mind and spirit (or emotion). The balance between the three is the key. It is a balance between nature, nurture and culture. We have always assumed that boys require active play in line with their “nature”, and through active and even roughhouse play they learn boundaries, self-control and self-regard. But many of our girls are encouraged to develop more of their emotional and social self. This is nurture. But what of their nature? Why shouldn’t girls also be encouraged to play actively, even to roughhouse, in order to explore their “natural” self?  We want to create a culture of equality (while recognising that gender is a spectrum), but how does nature feel about this? We don’t know until we “nurture the nature”. We do this by offering our girls a wide range of activities to see what happens.


Some girls love to wrestle, others love the beauty of the karate form, others love to compete while others will prefer the lure of a worthy goal. And who wouldn’t dream of being a black belt? We don’t know until we make the offer. Traditional parenting is bi-strategic. This combines the concept of aggressive nurturing (usually associated with dad) with empathetic nurturing (often mum’s role). It is important to note that these roles can be reversed, and often a single parent must try to be both. This is where options such as karate can be particularly useful. In a good karate class, the child learns to play with rules, physical and social boundaries to improve focus, self-esteem and respect for others. They importantly learn the difference between violence and rigorous play, and to understand the importance of connection and friendship while recognising that in the right environment we can all find our backbone (our anti-fragile, resilient self).


I asked my wife Sandy, a fourth degree black belt and Shihan (master Instructor), what benefits karate has given her.


“I learned at 15 that it‘s OK to be physical and not always cerebral. It also taught me that I could push past the boundaries in terms of physical or even violent action, of what you would expect a normal person would ever consider doing. As a competitor, it taught me how to lose, and to find the valuable lessons in that. As a female? It taught me to explore my tough self and to develop that. And then it taught me that I didn’t have to walk around with my tough self, because I could call on it when and if I needed it. It taught me too that unless I truly believe I am someone worth standing up for, then it would all be useless.


And lately? As a woman I have overcome some serious physical and emotional hurdles, and it was karate that got me though both. My parents were my role models, that’s for sure, but they also encouraged me to take up karate to learn both to defend myself in a dangerous world and also to make social connections. It also, as a business owner, taught me how to be a leader of people. My parents were leaders of themselves, self-reliant and robust, but as independent farmers they couldn’t teach me how to build and lead a team. Running 5 dojos has certainly given me that opportunity.”


In the face of all this modern social pressure it is essential to give your kids, and especially your girls, not self- esteem, but the capacity that can build self- esteem. They must learn to appreciate their own unique self, their own qualities and their unique strengths. This is  their own inner compass that they need in order to navigate through an increasingly complex world.


Author Brian Hayes is a 7th degree black belt and Chief Instructor of the Australian Chitokai Karate Association. Along with his wife Sandy he manages 5 martial arts studios in the Hunter Valley with over 1400 students. A schoolteacher with 26 years’ experience, he is also Australia’s most experienced Master Instructor of the internationally renowned Rock and Water Program, teaching educators, youth workers, counsellors and community organisations how to deliver this social/emotional skills program to young people and families.