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How Martial Arts Tackle Social Exclusion

Ikkaido started out as a martial arts club for people with disabilities. Since then, we have evolved into a multinational organisation, designing courses and qualifications that improve the quality of life of all socially excluded people. However, we continue to use martial arts as a tool for the physical, psychological and social development of people at the margins of society.

Over the years, we have witnessed extraordinary testimonials from our participants about how inclusive martial arts has transformed their lives. There is also a considerable body of literature that demonstrates the range of psychological and social benefits of martial arts practice. We would like to share some of the potential impacts inclusive martial arts can have, as well as some of our powerful and uplifting success stories.

What does the research say?

Martial arts practice has been shown to increase brain white matter (Roberts et Al., 2015), which makes up the connections between different regions of the brain.


Martial arts are shown to positively influence psychological well-being by providing an increased ability to deal with stress (Douris et al., 2015; Budnik, 2010) and anxiety (Vertongen et al., 2010). This could better equip any socially excluded person to participate in professional and social contexts and contribute especially to addressing behavioural issues amongst people with psychological disabilities. Evidence shows that martial arts practice led to greater calmness and decreased behavioural issues amongst people with Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD (Milligan et al., 2013).

Traditional martial arts also incorporate repetitive and meditative elements that have been shown to maintain mental and emotional health. One such element is Kata or “forms”, a detailed choreographed sequence of martial arts movements that can be considered a form of meditation (Martinkova and Parry, 2016). Kata has been shown to improve psychological well-being, self-control and even mental acuity (Gallant, 2016). Repetitive exercises such as these can develop self-efficacy and self-regulation and an increased ability to cope with societal and general responsibilities (Sandford and Gill, 2018). These benefits could therefore contribute not only to improving the lower mental health rates of socially excluded people but also to inspiring them to engage more in social contexts with their newfound self-efficacy. Studies have highlighted similar well-being benefits amongst marginalised people who practice martial arts, particularly people with psychological disabilities such as those who are more likely to suffer poor mental well-being


One of the major similarities and key defining factors of all martial arts is the concept of self-development. Our experience shows that a trained inclusion coach can foster additional social competencies that improve participation and achievement in an array of personal, professional and social dimensions. Engagement with this concept of self-development is associated with improved educational opportunities (Theeboom and De Knop, 1999). This could be attributed to improvements in sharpness, mental focus and concentration amongst participants (Burke et al., 2007).

Martial arts practice impacts positively on higher cognitive processes of executive function (Douris et al., 2015), which includes aspects such as memory, problem-solving, reasoning and planning. Functions like these are highly applicable to social contexts and will improve the likelihood of successful participation of people at the margins of society who normally struggle to take part and achieve.

More recent studies have highlighted the relationship between martial arts and self-development towards improved quality of life (Harris, 2021). This is largely due to the development of several highly transferrable soft skills, including introspection, self-regulation and self-reflection (Gallant, 2018). The self-development aspect also improves the decision-making and goal-setting capabilities of practitioners, which contributes to improved participation in education, employment, and other social dimensions. Furthermore, with a knowledgeable coach, the enhanced self-confidence could inspire marginalised people to participate more actively in social contexts in general.

Success Stories - Improved Lives Through Martial Arts:

Hannah (25), a young woman who has suffered poor mental health

I was so physically weak when I was depressed that I struggled to walk longer than 30 minutes. Ikkaido engaged me in weekly martial art sessions, which gradually improved my fitness. I'm now the most fit I've been in years and work out regularly, especially through karate.

Kit (22), a transgender man with disabilities

“I don’t have to hide who I am, and I don’t have to worry about hiding my disabilities either.”

I'm so glad I did it. Having something that I can escape to and throw myself into, and where I can forget about everything else that's going on in my life has been great for my mental health. I've also found it to be a great emotional outlet. It feels good to be good at something again and to connect with other disabled people. I don't have to hide who I am and I don't have to worry about trying to hide my disabilities either.

Ray (64): CEO of Ikkaido, a person with autism and visual impairments

I saw the changes in me that had come about through practising karate. I realised that I could use this to help other people. Martial arts are empowering. They encourage people to become better versions of themselves through increased self-confidence, self-motivation and self-development. Good coaches inspire people to respect the Seven Virtues of Bushido, which are benevolence, sincerity, politeness, patience, bravery, loyalty and fairness. The adoption of these characteristics develops leadership qualities.

Anyone can learn to become an inclusive coach in martial arts. If you would like to increase your student numbers or create your own martial arts club, check out our qualifications on our website.
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