A Phenomenology Of Martial Arts: Why We Train

by Matt Wilkinson

I grew up playing the usual/traditional American youth sports – basketball, baseball, football, and track and field. I didn’t start taking martial arts until college, but I quickly became aware that there was something qualitatively different about martial arts participation – it immediately stood out to me as unique. For me, it was a different kind of challenge; not only was it you vs. an opponent, but also you vs. your own fear, and you vs. yourself. Confronting that fear and self-doubt created a unique space for self-examination and personal growth, for building confidence, overcoming limitations, and accepting defeat. I experienced a growing confidence and calmness, and, as a result, I continue to practice martial arts to this day.

While attending graduate school in sociology, I began to examine these experiences through a sociological lens, and I started to understand the uniqueness of this space. Through my ongoing conversations with other martial artists, I realized that we shared similar experiences and a mutual recognition of this unique space. So this ultimately lead to what can be called a “phenomenology of martial arts,” which is just nerd-speak for studying the meaning that participants attribute to their own participation and experiences. Simply put, in order to study social phenomena, we have to maintain our attention on “the things themselves,” and see them from the inside out, not the outside in.

Photo by Matt Wilkinson, used with permission

So, using my training as a sociologist, I sought to examine the “meaning” of martial arts participation. I conducted an online survey of martial artists. I recruited respondents by contacting local gyms (South Carolina) and asking if they would be willing to pass the survey on to their members. Upon completion of the survey, participants were asked to forward a survey link to martial artists at other academies/dojos. This allowed me to collect what is referred to as a “snowball sample,” with respondents passing the survey along to other martial artists. The result was a sample of 190 martial artists from 31 different states. The sample was mostly male (80%), and White (81%). Respondents ranged in age from 18-71 years old, with a median age of 35 years.

Now, to be fair, this is one study, with a limited sample, but my findings begin to tell us something about those who train. I wanted to know the answer to three questions: 1) why did you start training martial arts? 2) why do you continue to train today? 3) what is your ultimate goal of martial arts training? Responses to these questions were open-ended, meaning that participants could answer the questions in a few sentences in their own words. If you train martial arts, I invite you to consider your own answers to these questions before reading on.

What is it that draws so many of us to martial arts training?

I began with the question “why did you start taking martial arts?” Over half of the responses to this question had to do with either fitness/exercise (27.3%) or self-defense (25.3%). Responses included themes like dealing with bullies, wanting to learn how to defend themselves, seeing martial arts as a “hard sport,” and wanting to challenge themselves. About 10% of responses mentioned something pertaining to mental health benefits – self-esteem, mental fitness, personal improvement. About 7% referenced movies as a motivation for starting martial arts.

“Martial arts has always been inside of me,” one respondent said. “I love it! Inspired by Bruce Lee of course! And Stephen Segal. I also had been beaten up a few times and wanted to learn how to defend myself so I wouldn’t get hurt again.”

Photo by Matt Wilkinson, Used with permission.

“I was five when I started and am fifty-four now,” another said. “I loved the challenges of making my body move in ways I saw in my mind. To conquer challenges was a big “reason.”

So, we are drawn to martial arts primarily for exercise or self-defense, for mental health benefits, with a little bit of inspiration from movies and the need for sports. These are mundane, expected responses. Nothing surprising or revelatory here.

Why do we keep training? What does it mean to us?

Those of us who train martial arts know that training can be brutal. Martial arts, to an outsider, is also a weird sport; think about the lack of personal space, the body contact, the sweat and (sometimes) blood. Why do we keep subjecting ourselves to training? For the question “why do you continue to train,” an interesting theme emerged as the second most cited reason: martial arts training is a lifestyle or “way of life.”

“Martial arts is a way of life for me,” one respondent said. “My vehicle for mental, spiritual, physical and emotional growth.”

“It has become such an important part of my life that I literally don’t know how NOT to do it anymore,” said another.

While exercise/fitness remains the most common reason at 31%, self-defense drops to the fourth most cited reason, at 12% (a 50% drop).

Here are the full results:

Fitness, Exercise – 31.3%
Lifestyle, Way of Life – 18.0%
Mental Benefits – 16.0%
Self-Defense – 12.0%
Social – 12.0%

What do we see looking forward? What is our “ultimate goal”?

The final question was “what is your ultimate goal of participating in martial arts?” “Self-defense” disappears from the top five responses, falling to #7. The idea that martial arts is a “way of life” was the most common theme. This is, of course, a rejection of the idea that there is a single goal, or end point, to martial arts training.

Here are the results:

Way of Life – 21.6%
Teaching – 19.6%
Spiritual – 14.7%
Fitness – 13.7%
Learning – 12.7%

Photo by Matt Wilkinson, used with permission

“There is no ‘Ultimate Goal’,” said one person who responded. “This suggests that there is an end or finishing point. Training martial arts is not like building a house. It is never complete. BJJ is a way of life; a lens with which to view my world. I use BJJ/Judo to accomplish what others seek by going to church, to find peace.”

“The training itself is the goal,” said another respondent. “Making the journey gives many benefits, but being a martial artist is closer to being faithful to my identity.”

About a fifth of the responses alluded to teaching martial arts or sharing it with others, and another 13% suggested that the “ultimate goal” involved continuing to learn. Put together, “teaching” and “learning” made up a third of responses for the “ultimate goal of martial arts training”. The ultimate goal of martial arts training is not just physical, nor is it just about self-defense; martial arts training is unique from other sports in that it allows for continued learning and, ultimately, the desire to share knowledge and experience with others.

“To me, martial arts is more than just showing up to a few classes a week just to earn another stripe/belt,” said one person. “Martial Arts is a lifestyle. It’s the training, healthy eating, brotherhood, aspiring to be a better person/martial artist than the day before. It’s a way of life.”


We are drawn to the martial arts for a variety of reasons, but, for most of us, our training turns into something else along the way. What we find through training becomes a central part our identity, and perhaps replaces something that seems to be missing from modern society. Perhaps we feel disconnected from our jobs, which are often not an expression of our authentic selves. Our careers may lack self-actualization; they may not be challenging or personally fulfilling. Our relationships in the workplace may be inauthentic, marked by an “every man/woman for themselves” mentality. We seek out more personal connection, more authentic interaction. Perhaps we feel disconnected from our neighbors and our friends. Our day-to-day interactions are marked by superficial, impersonal exchanges. Martial arts can create or provide an intimate community – a brotherhood and sisterhood – that many of us find lacking in modern society.

The dojo is an incredible, unique space; separate from the outside world, it is strange space and time that we move into and out of. When we are “on the mats” we are both ourselves and also not quite ourselves. When we leave this space to return to reality, we carry some of it with us; it becomes an essential part of our identity. We cannot leave it behind the way, perhaps, a runner or weightlifter can. The reach of martial arts is both broader and deeper. It touches all aspects of the self. It challenges us, reshapes who we are. It transforms us.

So we seek out this unique space again and again, for a reprieve, a rest, a place for some much-needed recharging. We seek out this space in order to test ourselves, to find the unique opportunity to directly face our failures and shortcomings. We can find balance in this spiritual, sacred space. It can become “our passion, our identity, our way of life.”

So bow into your sacred space and fully embrace the opportunities found within. Put yourself in a position to lose, to fail, and persevere, and carry experience, that unique self-knowledge, with you off the mats and back into the outside world.

Thanks for reading! If you would like to participate in a new study, follow this link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/MartialArtSurvey.

If you have questions or comments, send them to me at Wilkinson21@gmail.com,

Matt Wilkinson is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Coastal Carolina University. He has trained in Judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Japanese Jiu Jitsu, and Wing Chun. He currently resides in Conway, South Carolina, and trains at Serra BJJ Myrtle Beach.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here