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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Gaining Self-Efficacy Through Karate
By Lorgene A. Mata, Ph.D.

In over 65 countries throughout the world, more than five million people regularly don a white-colored uniform or gi with belt, troop to a gym or dojo where they subject themselves to one of the most rigorous physical discipline outside of the military or prison life, a popular form of martial arts known as karate. These people do so without external pressure, driven only by the belief that karate will make them healthier, stronger, more competent and fulfilled human beings. Indeed, karate practitioners and sensei throughout the world generally claim that karate is not only an effective form of self-defense and physical exercise, but also brings about positive personality development and psychological well-being for the practitioner. Some of these benefits cited by karate practitioners are physical fitness, relaxation, improved self-confidence, concentration and self-control/self-discipline among others.

As a karateka and a psychologist, I wanted to find out whether or not there is indeed scientific evidence that karate training and practice brings about positive changes in one’s personality. Among the multitude of psychological theories on personality, I find Bandura’s social cognitive theory quite interesting, particularly on self-efficacy beliefs and how such beliefs affect people’s behavior. Self-efficacy refers to the “perceived ability to cope with specific situations”. Self-efficacy is critical to one’s personality because it “influences which activities we engage in, how much effort we expend in a situation and how long we persist at a task and our emotional reactions or physiological arousal while anticipating a situation or being involved in it”(Bandura 1977).

Could self-efficacy be raised or improved by karate and other forms of martial arts training?

A review of pre- and post-training, self efficacy-related studies revealed the following:


1. Trulson (1986) found a significant increase in self-esteem among juvenile delinquents who trained in traditional TKD for 6 months.

2. Yang (1997) noted an increase in self-esteem among elementary children given traditional TKD training.

3. Finkenberg (1990) observed that college women doing TKD showed increase in self-concept.

Also, a similar review of cross-sectional, self efficacy-related studies uncovered the following:


1. Richman and Rehberg (1984) found that novice students had lower self-esteem than moderate and high rank karate students.

2. Prince (1996) also found that intermediate and advanced students from 5 different martial arts scored higher overall on self-concept compared to beginners.

3. Konzak and Boudreau (1984) noted that intermediate and advanced karate students, compared to fitness and health students, claimed karate gave them self-confidence.

4. Zambo (1993) found that advanced practitioners of Tang Soo Do karate feel more competent than their intermediate counterparts.

While these previous self-efficacy-related studies gave me confidence that possibly self-efficacy could be improved by karate training, I wanted to establish the veracity of my hypothesis through a scientific and better controlled study.

To find the answer to my main problem whether self-efficacy is training-affected, I made it into one of two main questions as problem for investigation in my doctoral dissertation in psychology, entitled “Self-efficacy and Neuroticism of Blackbelts: Training or Selection-related?” in the year 2002. To find out the valid answer to my question, I had to first find out if blackbelts who have undergone years of karate training and practice have significantly higher self-efficacy than whitebelts who are just beginning to study karate. Then, if the answer to this was positive, my next question was to determine whether or not the blackbelts’ higher level of self-efficacy is due primarily to karate training.

To test my hypothesis that blackbelts have higher self-efficacy than whitebelts, I used a cross-sectional, comparative between-subjects statistical design comparing a randomly selected group of male blackbelts and whitebelts as well as a matched selected subjects of the same. On the other hand, to establish whether self-efficacy is primarily training-related, I used three methods: (1) semi-standardized karate interview of the blackbelt samples, (2) differential pattern analysis of the scores of the blackbelt group and the highest-scoring whitebelts on the Physical Self-Efficacy Scale (PSS), and (3) pre- and post-test scores on the PSS of an experimental whitebelt group after one month of karate training.

From more than 17 major karate clubs throughout the Philippines which agreed to participate in the research, I randomly selected 20 blackbelts for the interview and testing with the PSS, from an original pre-list of 125. The blackbelt group had a mean age of 31.4 years, with most having a dan rank between 1st and 3rd dan and had an average karate training of 14 years, and most were gainfully employed.

Also from the same karate clubs, I administered the PSS to an original number of 200 whitebelts. To determine whether or not there was a significant difference between the self-efficacy scores on the PSS between 20 randomly selected blackbelts and the same number of randomly selected whitebelts, I randomly chose the test scores of 20 whitebelts from the 200 whitebelts already tested. The mean age of the random whitebelt group was 21 yrs., with most reaching college education and but not gainfully employed, and had only 4.4 months of karate training on the average.

To determine whether or not there was a significant difference between the self-efficacy scores on the PSS between 20 blackbelt samples who were equally matched with an equivalent number of whitebelts, I matched and selected 20 whitebelts from the 200 whitebelts tested with the PSS with the same age as the 20 blackbelts already in the study and compared their scores. The mean age of the matched whitebelt group who have trained on the average for only 2.6 months, with half of them finishing only high school, while half has reached college level, with a few even reaching the post graduate level, with most of them being gainfully employed, was 31.7 yrs and did not significantly differ from the mean age of the blackbelt group which had the mean age of 31.4 years.

To determine whether karate training improves their level of self-efficacy, 60 whitebelts with no previous karate training were conveniently selected from the 200 whitebelts who took the test, underwent a one-month free karate training and re-tested with the PSS after one month of karate training.

Having explained the methodology of my study, let me now discuss the results. I will omit mentioning statistical figures so as not to unnecessarily clutter this article which should appeal even to non-technical readers. However, my research which is comprehensively described in my unpublished doctoral study at the University of the Philippines contains all the statistical figures to support the qualitative statements made on my research findings here.

Based on the comparative statistical analysis of their self-efficacy scores on the PSS, the randomly selected blackbelts showed a significantly higher perception of their physical abilities and confidence in presenting their physical skills in the presence of others as well as higher overall physical self-efficacy than the randomly selected whitebelts.

But, since as a group blackbelts are likely to be older than whitebelts in view of the longer training they have undergone which is about 4 to 6 years, there was some doubt as to whether age may have confounded the above findings, despite randomization. The age variable therefore needed to be controlled for the blackbelt and whitebelt groups being compared. Interestingly though, despite matching the two groups on age, the blackbelts still showed significantly higher self-efficacy scores than whitebelts with whom they were equally matched on the age variable. Based on the findings in the random comparison and confirmed by the matched comparison of blackbelts and whitebelts where the former consistently showed significantly higher self-efficacy scores, it is without a doubt that longer training in karate results to higher levels of self-efficacy.

The differential analysis findings also showed that the blackbelts were found to be significantly higher in their overall perceived physical self-efficacy than even the top-20 highest scoring whitebelts on the PSS who are deemed “potential blackbelts” because of their high scores. In other words, the top-20 whitebelts with the highest scores on the PSS who are deemed “potential blackbelts” still have not reached the level of perceived physical self-efficacy that has been achieved by the blackbelt samples. For this reason, I have to conclude that the significantly higher self-efficacy of the blackbelts can only be attributed to their longer years of karate training and having attained the blackbelt rank through progressively more demanding training requirements and graded examinations.

It must be noted, however, that the higher self-efficacy of the blackbelts was due to their higher perceived self-presentation confidence and not their perceived physical ability. This means that blackbelts do not necessarily perceive themselves as possessing superior or better physical skills than others, but they definitely feel more confident in showing their skills before others than whitebelts do. Based on these findings, the differential pattern analysis provides solid support to the hypothesis that self-efficacy is primarily training-related.

In the karate interview of blackbelts, self-confidence, competence and readiness to face challenges were mentioned by ¾ of the blackbelts and ranked the highest in a list of 13 different characteristics or traits spontaneously verbalized by them that they personally acquired through karate training. Most of the blackbelts, who identified self confidence as distinctive trait acquired from training, attributed this to their kihon, kata and kumite practice, and in part to the influence of their instructor. Furthemore, the blackbelts ranked “to have self-confidence” as second highest reason in a list of 13 distinct reasons for encouraging others to study karate and achieve blackbelt rank. In as much as self-confidence is considered a facet of self-efficacy, interview results therefore provided convincing support to the hypothesis that self-efficacy is primarily training-related.

In view of the aforementioned findings, my study has firmly established that self-efficacy is primarily training-related and confirmed the findings of other foreign researchers on self efficacy, namely Trulson (1986) on self-esteem, Yang (1997) on self-concept, Konzak and Boudreau (1984) and Kim (1995) among others.

Based on the significant results of the study, male blackbelts are likely to be more self-efficacious individuals than beginning male whitebelts. They are generally more physically efficacious, have a stronger sense of physical efficacy, perceive themselves as more physically competent and show greater confidence in displaying physical skills in the presence of others than whitebelts.

Also, it can be concluded that the higher self-efficacy of blackbelts is primarily training-related. Blackbelts become more self-efficacious than whitebelts because their longer karate training probably provides unique opportunities, from their first day of training in the dojo to the day they receive the coveted blackbelt rank, to develop powerful self-efficacy expectations, such as performance accomplishments or enactive attainments in kihon, kata and kumite training, vacarious experiences through instructor, participative and diversified modeling by sempais, verbal persuasion by their credible sensei, and lowering of disturbing physiological arousal due to improved efficiency in kata and kumite with continuing practice.

The results of my study, however, can only be validly generalized to male adult blackbelt population, who practice Shotokan karate and may not necessarily be applicable to male adult blackbelts in different parts of the world other than the Philippines, those who practice non-Shotokan karate styles, and definitely not to female adult blackbelts nor to kid/junior blackbelts of either gender. It is recommended that similar studies be done on female blackbelts, male karatekas in other countries or cultures, karatekas of non-Shotokan styles by other researchers to compare their findings with mine.

So, can one gain self-efficacy through karate training? My answer is yes indeed, given the limitations mentioned.