This is a very short review of an academic paper published in Journal of Sport Behavior; Mar'98, Vol. 21 Issue 1.
It is called 'Phenomenological meanings of martial arts participation.' by Rice and Columbus.
This means the focus of the paper is to understand what martial arts participation and practice means to the participants themselves. The researchers asked participants :
"Please describe in writing your experience of an everyday life situation in which you realized that training in a martial art is, or would be, a worthwhile activity." Also "Participants were further asked to make their descriptions as detailed as possible so that someone else could understand exactly what was experienced before, during, and after the event".
The study was small scale but had 10 male and 7 female martial art practitioners from a variety of arts including Tai Chi and Karate.The results were analyzed for patterns and 4 themes emerged:
Criminal Victimization, Growth and Discovery, Task Performance, and Life Transition.
The first category involves the issue of protection. Participants either
experienced threats or 'near misses' and a 'what if' scenario emerged.
This prompted motivation to practice martial arts as it gives a plan of
action of participants. The fear experienced had created a sense of 'vulnerability and powerlessness". Victimization was described in scenarios where people felt' always' scared' for example - even if it was just a perception, such as fear of dark streets.
[Growth and Discovery]
This dimension differs from that above. The category above on victimization is about others who seek to cause harm with confrontations with them. Here this category is about confronting themselves and self-improvement through private challenges. The above category is physical, where this category on growth and discovery is mental, arguably, becuase of the improved 'awareness' mentally. There is however a body dimension where people became more linked to their own physical presence. The teacher and the class are important 'others' in meeting this need of learners. The class are seen as like-minded participants who share the same goal and the sense of co-operation between them was beneficial.
[Life Transition ]
This category I found interested personally. I can see the above 2 fitting in with peoples needs and wants list from a martial art practice and it is what is actively sought after. Here, in this category turmoil in life events causes an change on us: divorce, moving college, financial debts. Life beats us up ! Here martial arts are a way of seeking control and purpose in the overall life-course we are going though. A way of managing crisis.
[Task Performance ]
While reading this paper, I can see Karate Kid I's story fitting these dimensions (above) - (for what that is worth): New school / crisis in life / victimization and growth via Mr. Miyagi. Bruce Lee's scenario is not much different, if we believe the biography that is presented about him and his journey to Jeet Kune Do.
I don't know if this category, here, meets this 'popular culture' type of insight, I note. Maybe it does and I am not thinking enough - tell me in the comments! Here the motivation is intrinsic. It is solving goals - this could be grading, badges or belts. To achieve these needs mastering skills and overcoming uncertainties and worries associated with this from anxiety.
The big pattern throughout these categories is a 'compensatory' or
'emancipatory' theme. Martial arts practice makes up for something missing or deficient, in the former. Or, it allows a new freedom from self or environmental constraints. Therefore it is a lack vs a gain scenario. This, I find very succinct and insightful way of looking for the 'big idea' in these peoples accounts. So a compensatory use of martial arts is to obtain skills to defend oneself and counterbalance weakness such as being in debt via a lack of discipline even. The emancipation can be seen in overcoming mental obstacles in learning a new skill or finding a new way of looking at the world. On this latter point, and this is something you do not see covered in a psychology journal maybe, is that emancipation is sought in many arts where colonial rule is experienced. If you look at Capoera or Silat, these histories support stories of what the art mean to a collective of disadvantaged ethnic groups.