Prof. Yuri Rassovsky: Using Martial Arts to Improve Social Behavior

How do the martial arts improve cognitive skills and behavior, and even reduce violence and aggressiveness among youth? That’s the subject of an intriguing neuropsychological study conducted in the sports lab of Prof. Yuri Rassovsky, Head of the Clinical Rehabilitation Division in Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Psychology. “Neuropsychology focuses on understanding the brain-behavior connection and aims to use this understanding to help people,” he explains. “In order to explore the impact of martial arts on mental, emotional and physical wellbeing, the sports lab enlists students who are athletes and certified fitness instructors to explore a broad spectrum of topics related to this phenomenon.”

The BIU lab’s flagship research project is directly related to Rassovsky’s personal experience in the martial arts, and his vision of incorporating this sport in school curricula. In addition to the anticipated health benefits provided by any type of sport, “martial arts also instill mutual respect, self-control and restraint.”

The study Rassovsky is conducting takes place in a school for at-risk youth in Modiin where doctoral candidate Anna Harwood examines how martial arts intervention improves cognitive and emotional processes. Two trained instructors teach 40 sophomores and juniors Dennis Survival – a method incorporating elements of karate, judo and jujitsu.

We organize the participants into two groups – a control group which does not partake in sports classes and a research group which does. We measure and compare their respective cortisol and oxytocin hormone levels while they are active,” explains Rassovsky. “Cortisol is related to stress and violence, and oxytocin, the communication hormone, affects social abilities. Although still ongoing, it is anticipated that we will see a rise in oxytocin levels in the research group, as opposed to those in the control group. As such, we also expect to witness an improvement in their interpersonal behavior.”

This innovative program is being conducted under the supervision of the Israeli Ministry of Education. “We have witnessed a decline in impulsivity and an increase in self-control,” reports Rassovsky, a black belt in jujitsu. “People who train in traditional martial arts are usually less violent than others. We hope that this research will help us lobby for the implementation of martial arts in the general curriculum, thus allowing teenagers to benefit from its health and educational values.”