Karate is a centuries-old martial art that remains popular today. Hit movies and television programs have made Karate seem appealing to many people because of its emphasis on harnessing one’s inner power. If you’re considering learning Karate or thinking your child might enjoy it, there are benefits and disadvantages to consider before enrolling.
Karate helps in lowering your anxiety and improves self-confidence, posture, breathing, heart health, and coordination. Furthermore, it teaches mindfulness, which promotes well-being. However, it can be costly and poses risks of injury. Moreover, recent practices have become disconnected from the sport’s traditions
Karate might not be the right martial art for you, or it may be the perfect activity for your lifestyle and personality. Keep reading to learn more about the pros and cons of this historically significant martial art so you can decide if learning karate is a good choice for you or your child.
The Pros of Learning Karate
There are many benefits to learning karate. This ancient martial art continues to help karateka (people who practice karate) with physical, emotional, and mental improvements. With regular practice, you’ll probably experience lower stress, better balance, healthier sleep, and higher energy levels. These benefits are not only for individuals, either. Schools and communities also experience improvements when young people learn karate.
I’ll explain some of the pros below to help you decide if learning karate is right for you.
Karate Lowers Aggression and Anger
Karate is a great way to handle feelings of anger and aggressive behavior. Many people think of strenuous exercise as a way to manage or release their emotions, so karate does not always come to mind for anger management. But you don’t have to sweat out your feelings.
While karate is not as physically exhausting as some combat activities, studies show that learning martial arts reduces aggression over time. The breathing techniques and movements help build awareness and self-control.
Karate’s origins trace back to Okinawa, an archipelago in the East China Sea. Karate was developed as an underground defense style when Japanese invaders forbade Okinawans from carrying swords. Even though the goal was to fight, it was taught with an emphasis on control and restraint.
Those values continue to be taught today. Okinawa karate is built on three principles: healthy bodies, self-defense, and discipline of the heart. In Okinawan practice, the three are indivisible. Each one is equally important, and they are inter-connected.
Karate Boosts Your Self-Confidence
Practicing physical movement styles improves your self-confidence because the repetition and progress build inner peace. If you have ever learned a skill through repeated practice, you’ve probably experienced a rewarding sense of satisfaction. This personal victory translates through your body and mind. Other people have probably noticed a change in how you carry yourself.
Karate is a confidence-building practice. Behavior mirroring, eye contact, and projecting your voice in karate training improve self-confidence on a neuropsychological level. This means that you’re not only learning how to project confidence, but you’re also building neural pathways and creating a pattern in your brain.
Your brain will start to move through that confident pattern more frequently as you continue to reinforce it with your karate practice. When you participate in these practices over and over, you teach your body and mind to trust itself. And this confidence will spread throughout your life.
Karate practice also lowers bullying and suspension rates in elementary schools because children learn to overcome the insecurity and shame that lead to bullying. Both students who show aggressive behavior and those who are victimized improve in attitude and conduct after practicing karate for only a few weeks.
More extended practice showed that the improvements continued.
Karate Competitions Build Sportsmanship
Karate competitions, or kumite, are not organized as fights for physical domination. Points are awarded for form, speed, awareness, and attitude, and you can only strike certain areas of your opponent’s upper body (let’s all remember the infamous “sweep the leg” moment of The Karate Kid).
The goal of competition in karate is to display your knowledge and mastery, not to crush your opponent with strength or violence. Karate is built on values of character development and self-control. Kumite reflects those values by emphasizing sportsmanlike conduct.
Sporting attitude and awareness, or zanshin, are both criteria that promote sportsmanship in kumite. Both emphasize respecting the skills of your opponent over showing dominance or superiority.
A sporting attitude means that competitors are not malicious with their strikes. If the referees or judges see that a competitor is trying to cause injury, they will be scored low or disqualified.
Zanshin is also a mark of respect that is embedded in kumite. The concept of zanshin can be understood as continued focus, meaning that you stay present and aware after making a strike. In practice, this focus is maintained after each movement to build your zanshin. When sparring, your continued awareness is an acknowledgment of your opponent’s skill.
Staying present and prepared after striking your opponent shows that they have the potential to strike back even after your blow has landed. Zanshin may be wise for any kind of fight, but it is a rule of engagement in karate as a sign of respect for the power of your opponent and a humble recognition of your own limitations.
Karate Promotes Mindfulness
Mindfulness has become trendy as a stress management tool, but many Eastern philosophies and traditions are centered on self-awareness and being present. Karate’s foundations include mindfulness as a key principle.
Breathing is a major component of mindfulness. Often, this is where I start when I am trying to focus on staying present. Deep, measured breaths are grounding and calming. They help me become aware of my body and how it feels.
Take a deep breath, counting to 4 as you do so. Hold that breath while you count to 3, and then exhale slowly as you count down from 4. Repeat these steps a few times. Now, think about how you’re feeling. Check on your body and your thoughts. This is mindfulness.
Keep breathing, but speed up. Try counting to 2 instead of 4. Now add a movement: hold your hands, palms facing out, in front of your chest. On your next exhale, extend your right arm forward as you count to 2. Draw your arm back in as you inhale. When you exhale again, extend your other arm. Continue breathing and moving your arms. This is karate.
Of course, these are only small examples of larger practices, but the connection between mindfulness and karate is obvious as you go through these exercises.
The breathing techniques and movements that you repeat as you learn karate improve concentration and attention. This connection between breath and movement is a type of meditation, sometimes called embodied mindfulness. Embodied mindfulness practices like karate help us handle stress, remain calm in tense situations, and can even support PTSD recovery.
Karate Can Improve Your Physical Health
Learning karate lowers your stress and blood pressure, improves your posture, and increases agility and muscle tone. The movements, breathing techniques, and coordination involved in karate help build strong and healthy bodies.
Some people prefer martial arts that are more physically exhausting. If you’re looking for a workout with dance music, strobe lights, and buckets of sweat, karate may not be the right fit for you. You will probably break a sweat, but karate is a meditative practice that is less about burning calories and more about body awareness, fluid movement, and control.
Learning karate will improve your muscle tone and control. Deep breathing and moving through breath will build strength in your abdominal muscles, and your hand-eye coordination will improve with your karate practice. Kids who take karate lessons will improve their balance and stamina.
These benefits aren’t limited to children, either. Improving stress tolerance is highly beneficial for older children and adults. Stress is linked to a host of serious health problems, including cardiovascular and immunological issues. Regular activities that help our bodies and minds manage stress can minimize the negative effects.
Learning karate will help you form healthy responses to stress. Instead of becoming overwhelmed in stressful situations, your body and mind will have practiced routines that keep you calm, focused, and confident during difficult times.
Karate can help in later years, as well. A 2015 study of older adults showed that only 5 months of practicing karate significantly improved their stress tolerance, reaction time, and attention. The improvements after 10 months were even better.
The Cons of Learning Karate
I’ve explained a lot about the benefits, but there are potential cons that you should be aware of if you’re thinking of learning karate. Before you decide whether or not karate is right for you, consider these negative aspects.
Most Karate Practice Is Disconnected From the Traditions
Karate has deep roots but the traditional values have not traveled well to Western practice. Especially in the United States, sports emphasize winning and physical domination. Karate became popular here as a “deadly” martial art.
The image of a mild-mannered martial artist effortlessly defeating a group of enemies attracts many people to karate. Following the success of The Karate Kid (1984), there was an explosion of young people wanting to learn karate and become skilled fighters.
Basing your goals on a film is a bad idea for a few reasons. Movie magic can create the illusion of learning through montages and trained stunt actors. A level of skill that takes years of dedicated practice happens in just a few minutes on screen.
Movies also add drama to make routine activities entertaining to watch. The actual practice of karate is not really portrayed in movies. Instead, films create action sequences and stunts that will be fun for viewers. Karate in movies is a combination of martial arts with the goal of defeating bad guys.
Movies helped spread this image, but so did practitioners of karate who claimed to register their hands and feet as lethal weapons. This misconception causes some instructors to teach a warped version of karate that won’t give you the benefits it should.
Not All Instructors Are Effective
As the Japanese swordsman and philosopher Miyamoto Musashi said, “The teacher is like a needle, the disciple is a thread.”
Your teacher, or sensei, will greatly impact your experience of karate. If your sensei cares more about looking tough or promising that you’ll gain unrealistic fighting skills, you know that you’re not learning karate from a dedicated teacher. And that means you probably won’t get much out of the experience.
Karate’s sudden popularity in the 1980s increased the demand for instructors and dojos. Sensei offered karate lessons that were a combination of taekwondo, kung fu styles, and some karate movements. Some teachers are still offering classes like this, which are not designed or sequenced like traditional karate.
Also, the core principle of respect is not honored by all sensei. Some teachers view their role as dominant and commanding. They believe they should motivate their pupils with intimidation, insults, or embarrassment.
This is not a value of Okinawa karate but it’s a common attitude in Western fitness. Observing a class taught by your sensei or talking to current students is a good way to get a sense of their style before you commit to a dojo.
Learning karate with a focus on meditation, breathing, and mirroring behavior leads to less aggression and more self-confidence. But sensei with modern styles don’t significantly improve their students’ psychological health. Learning karate that is not attached to the core principles doesn’t benefit your stress and anger management or build your mindfulness.
Karate Can Get Costly
Before you decide to learn karate, you should look into the price of lessons, uniforms, and protective gear. If you’ve tried learning a new sport or activity, you know there will be equipment and fees to handle. And if you have children, I’m sure you’ve spent a lot of money on lessons to keep your kids happy and nurture their interests.
Karate is a popular activity for children, so start by looking around your area. You may find you have your choice of dojos. However, it could be that the studios around you only offer hybrid martial arts instead of karate. If you or your child are looking for a traditional dojo, that may be harder to find.
The prices for lessons and membership can vary. Just like gym memberships, you can end up paying a lot for access to a dojo, and you may need to purchase classes on top of that fee. Affordable options may exist, but karate can be an expensive activity.
If you live in a city or town with an active community center, there may be free or low-cost classes available. However, they may only teach youth classes. They can also be inconsistent or overcrowded if they are not well-funded.
Private classes, including annual registration fees, monthly tuition for classes, and necessary gear, can quickly add up to over $1,500 per year.
There Is a Risk of Injury When Learning Karate
Most people get into martial arts to improve their physical state and prevent injury. The low-impact movements and progress towards fluidity can improve flexibility and strengthen your joints. However, martial arts are not risk-free. Karate can lead to the same injuries that you want to avoid, like straining of the joints, as well as broken bones or concussions.
If you’re sparring, you’ll deal with strikes to your face and body, so there’s always the possibility of being hurt. But even non-striking practice can injure you. I’ve experienced muscle strain from overuse and the repetitive motions of karate can cause these injuries. Sprained ankles, elbows, and shoulders are also common.
Karate Takes Up Space in Your Life
Karate practice usually requires 2-3 lessons per week, which is a time commitment that might take away from other parts of your life. It can be difficult to balance karate lessons with other activities or responsibilities.
In addition to the actual time spent in lessons, the practice can overshadow your other interests. Hobbies or sports you enjoy now may become less feasible when you dedicate time to karate. Even people may come second to your practice.
In 2005, a Norwegian study claimed that young people became more antisocial as they participated in karate, judo, and taekwondo.
The researchers noted that these young people did not have a history of antisocial behavior. The study has been criticized for not looking into the teaching methods of these instructors. As I mentioned earlier, a lot depends on your sensei.
Learning karate can benefit you physically and mentally. The reductions in anger, stress, and insecurity will significantly improve your quality of life by helping you cope with upsetting situations. You will feel more control and confidence in life. You will also move more easily, especially if you practice as you age.
However, there are drawbacks to consider. Your experience depends on your sensei because modern karate is less focused on the techniques that lead to the mental and physical improvements I’ve discussed above. Karate can be costly and can cause injuries, as well.
- British Psychological Society: The Art of Not Fighting
- Science Direct: Comparing the Effectiveness of Karate and Fitness Training on Cognitive Functions in Older Adults
- PubMed: Participation in Power Sports and Antisocial Involvement in Preadolescent and Adolescent Boys
- PubMed: Bullies, Victims, and Bystanders
- Team USA: Rules of Competition
- American Psychological Association: Embodied Mindfulness
- National Institute of Mental Health: 5 Facts You Should Know About Stress
- Okinawa Karate Information Center: Okinawa karate and Kobudó
- ResearchGate: Externalizing and Oppositional Behaviors and Karate-do
- Semantic Scholar: Psychosocial Benefits of Martial Arts: Myth or Reality?
- Smithsonian Magazine: The Centuries-Old Sport of Karate Finally Gets Its Due at the Olympics
- Fighting Arts: Martial Arts Myths & Misconceptions
- Cost Figures: How Much Do Karate Lessons Cost?
- OrthoInfo: Martial Arts Injury Prevention
Featured Image attribution: Yogi shihan selvakumar, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Further Reading: How Hard Is It to Break a Karate Board?