New Mindset for Martial Arts

August 23, 2023
Yat-Yee Chong


By now, everyone knows about fixed and growth mindsets.  Carol Dweck, the researcher who presented these ideas, has brought another type of mindset: strategic mindset.

In a  paper she co-authored : A strategic mindset: An orientation toward strategic behavior during goal pursuit  published recently in The Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences offers up strategic mindset as a reliable predictor of success, especially in progress toward challenging goals that are long-term, important, and unfamiliar.

Long-term, important, unfamiliar:  I can’t think of words that are more timely than these as we face the third surge of COVID-19.  

Martial arts instructors have had to pivot quickly since March.  We created the best alternative we could, meeting needs in ways that we wouldn’t have thought of before and worked much better than we could have imagined.

In the short term, we filled a gap left open by the absence of in-person classes but no one involved in the teaching or learning martial arts  is convinced this is a valid replacement in the long run.  

One pivot is not enough.

A picture of a room repurposed as teaching studio

So, strategic mindset. What is it?

photo of an old typewriter with the word "verb"

According to the study, it is an approach that questions and tweaks the standard way of solving a problem or achieving a goal, one that explores and experiments with alternatives.

What? A way of thinking.

Why? To solve a problem or to achieve a goal.

How?  Seek alternatives .

Question. Tweak. Explore. Experiment.

What do all these verbs have in common? They are about not sticking to the status quo.

On the surface, this goes against the grain of the practice of martial arts, which values traditions, compliance, conformity. But appearances can be deceiving.

The practice of martial arts has been evolving since the beginning. How many practitioners today are monks  protecting their temples? How many devote their lives to serve a master who assumes complete responsibility for their lives in exchange for unquestioned loyalty? How many use martial arts in hand-to-hand combat to protect their country?

The current state of martial arts practice in most of the world does not resemble any of those.

shaolin monks fighting in ancient monastery
a class of karate students wearing masks

Most training today takes places in groups that meet a certain number of times a week. These classes are part of a lifestyle that includes families, careers, formal schooling, and other pursuits.

Kids are sent by parents to acquire discipline and confidence. Women train to learn self defense skills. Athletes train to challenge themselves. Stressful adults train to manage their health.

Do all the changes mean that today's practices can no longer be considered martial arts?


While the way martial arts is practiced and how it fits into the practitioners' lives are different, the core of the practice remains tied to traditions. Movement, mental focus, respect: these are the enduring elements that continue to prevail.