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"Marshaling" an old art: martial arts in police training.

The idea of using the martial arts in police training is not a new one. In Japan, all police officers train in various styles of Karate and Judo. In the United States, officers routinely practice wrist locks and "take down" techniques that originated in the martial arts. The PR-24 police baton used by most American police departments is, in fact, based on the Tonfa, an ancient Okinawan farming tool that peasants adapted for use as a defense against sword attacks.

However, most police instructors quickly would correct someone who referred to the baton as a Tonfa. This conflict in terminology typifies the misconceptions many Americans hold about the martial arts. Even those who tacitly embrace the martial arts often do so without fully appreciating their more subtle qualities.

In addition to providing unequaled self-defense capabilities, proper training in the martial arts can also benefit law enforcement officers in numerous other ways. The strict mental and physical conditioning in martial arts training promotes cardiovascular health, increases flexibility, and enables officers to cope better with the high stress levels inherent in policing.

The training also fosters a sense of self-confidence that allows officers to diffuse volatile situations without resorting to force. With American law enforcement facing unparalleled challenges, administrators would be remiss to ignore the many potential benefits that martial arts training could provide to their officers and their agencies.


Physical and Emotional Health

A career in law enforcement is considered one of the most physically dangerous of any profession. However, the threat to officers' emotional health should not be underestimated. Stress and nervous tension resulting from internal conflicts that evolve from a wide range of external situations can prove both physically and emotionally damaging to officers.

Stress is, of course, an inevitable factor in human existence that affects each person differently. Ultimately, the manner in which police officers cope with stress will determine how this potentially destructive force affects their careers and their lives.

How could training in the martial arts help? High on any list of ways to combat stress is a comprehensive program of physical fitness. Participation in a regular program of aerobic exercise or other physical activities that develop heart and lung capacity has been proven to reduce stress, fatigue, and even the risk of certain diseases. In addition, achieving a high degree of physical fitness dramatically increases an officer's ability to deal with violent or emergency situations. And, because martial arts training promotes flexibility, it makes officers less prone to injury.

Any activity that simultaneously improves officers' overall physical fitness, cardiovascular health, flexibility, and ability to cope with stress is certainly worth exploring. Training in the martial arts provides all of this and much more.

Inner Strength

What truly separates the martial arts from other forms of aerobic training is an emphasis on developing inner strength. Martial arts training can be a catalyst to promote self-confidence, assertiveness, goal orientation, calmness, and concentration.

In fact, the martial arts could be considered a practical course in assertiveness training. Recognizing this, some psychiatrists recommend martial arts training for their patients who lack assertiveness. This aspect of martial arts training also may be very beneficial to line officers.

Most of the criminals with whom police officers deal suffer from very low self-esteem. The need to feel powerful causes them to seek out and victimize others who are either weaker than they are or who are in a vulnerable position. Gone are the days when a police officer's presence alone could be counted on to place fear in a suspect's heart, giving the officer the necessary advantage to control the situation. During an encounter,many criminals quickly can sense any weakness in an officer's demeanor, such as a hunched posture, rapid breathing, a quavering voice, uncertainty in forming requests and responses, and an unwillingness to look others in the eye.

By short-circuiting these undesirable behavioral responses, martial arts training actually prepares officers to respond more effectively to confrontational situations and enhances their ability to diffuse violent encounters. Martial artists learn to look their opponents in the eye. Through the practice of Kata and regular sparring, martial artists learn to control their breathing. When confronted, they reflexively adopt a proper stance that provides balance and allows rapid, powerful movement.

During a confrontation, an adversary will sense all of these elements. In fact, martial artists often defeat opponents not through combat, but through their calm and confident demeanor, as they speak in a firm voice poised in a ready posture. Hemingway once said that "courage is grace under pressure."(1) The martial arts teach such grace.

Other Benefits

In addition to its direct benefits, martial arts training also provides ancillary rewards to officers and departments. Perhaps most important, such training gives officers a positive activity to pursue outside the realm of police work.

It is no secret that police officers tend to "stick together," often because they believe individuals on the other side of the thin blue line do not understand what they face. Some officers routinely meet after their shift to "let off steam" and to discuss the events of the day. This form of ventilation can be very useful if properly controlled. If not, it can lead to disastrous events such as those described by Joseph Wambaugh in The Choirboys, his darkly humorous novel describing the antics of a group of dysfunctional police officers.

The martial arts provide an activity in which officers can participate that is not essentially police-related. It gives officers something to talk about other than police work. While Karate and other martial arts are distinctly individual as sports, a good school, or "Dojo," can instill a strong sense of family and belonging. Such bonds provide a positive counterpoint to traditional police camaraderie.

While some people harbor a concern that the martial arts promote violence, recent psychiatric studies show that the opposite is true. In one study, a clinical psychologist from the University of Miami found that, when compared to a control group of similar college students, male martial artists appeared "quiet, conscientious, industrious, and able to inhibit aggression and hostility." The professor further stated that martial artists actually may be able to control their violent impulses better. "Some people behave uncontrollably when they feel their dignity...threatened. Maybe they wouldn't if their identity was well secure."(2)

Martial arts training also may foster leadership skills. Western business executives who began visiting Japan in the 1980s to study the management and production techniques of Japanese companies soon were impressed with the number of successful business leaders who had practiced martial arts in their youth. Ancient books on strategy that espouse martial arts philosophy, such as The Art of War(3) and The Book of Five Rings,(4) have moved from the war room to the boardroom. Just as American business has witnessed firsthand the positive effects of martial arts training, law enforcement agencies in the United States should explore the many potential rewards of this training.


One of the strengths unique to the American character has been an ability to assimilate cultural influences from other nations. By embracing martial arts training, agency administrators do not discard traditional law enforcement training procedures. They expand them.

Martial arts training provides practical benefits both to individual officers and to their agencies. By adopting training methods that truly have stood the test of time, rather than searching for the latest magic pill to solve the problems that confront law enforcement, administrators can find a way to combat the tremendous physical and emotional demands placed on today's officers. Perhaps in doing so, they can help to improve the overall image of law enforcement officers in our society.


1 Quoted from an interview with Dorothy Parker, in the New Yorker, November 30, 1929.

2 Study conducted by Dr. Richard M. Carrera, clinical psychology professor at the University of Miami, Florida. Study results presented at the American Psychological Conference in 1989.

3 Sun-Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Thomas Cleary (Boston, Massachusetts: Shambala Publications, 1988).

4 The Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi, (originally published in 1645) translated by Nihon Services Corporation: Bradford J. Brown, Yuko Kashiwagi, William H. Barrett, and Eisuke Sasagawa, Bantam Books, 1982.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Federal Bureau of Investigation
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Author:Anderson, Arnold
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Oct 1, 1994
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