Martial arts can strengthen sustainable development
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Martial arts have the untapped potential to cultivate a better world for all and promote sustainable development at individual and community levels.

This article was submitted as part of our call for reshaping the future of sport and development.

Diverse martial arts in every corner of the world have served many purposes and have manifested in many ways, far beyond battlefield combat. From the beginning, martial arts helped mediate people's interactions with the world as tools for hunting, celebrating rituals, playing, competing in festive events involving tribes and villages, meditating, cultivating health, and educating.

Martial arts were used for military purposes and manifested in wars; however, they cannot be reduced to that. They also manifested in the form of contemplative practices, dances, in the arts, and many of them were demilitarized and organized as sports.

The development of martial arts is a dynamic process that emerges from the interaction of historical, political, cultural, and socioeconomic elements from different societies, and the continued existence and relevance of martial arts lies in their ability to adapt to the contemporary context. However, martial arts not only need to be influenced and adapted to the context to ensure their survival – they can also play an active role in influencing and reshaping the world's development towards sustainability to promote prosperity for all.

The common ground between martial arts, sustainable development, and the people, families, organizations, communities, societies, nations, and countries that sustainability initiatives seek to impact is that they are all examples of complex systems, in the sense that they are characterized by fundamental elements interacting with each other in many ways, so the science of complexity could be a promising avenue for exploring how martial arts can foster a better world for all.

It is important to highlight that, according to the science of complexity, the only place where a complex system can present a harmonious and healthy functioning is in a mathematical space that is usually called of “edge of chaos” or “criticality,” “the constantly shifting battle zone between stagnation and anarchy, the one place where a complex system can be spontaneous, adaptive, and alive” (Waldrop, 2019).

Navigation through the space of criticality is optimized when two distinct processes take place in a system: the first process differentiates the elements of the system, allowing them to become unique. Then, the second process linkages these differentiated elements of the system. Thus, the linkage of different parts in a system allows it to work in a harmonious and healthy way in the space of criticality. In this sense, “integration” is a simpler term proposed to refer to the linkage of different parts in a system, in this way, integration is the basis of a harmonious and healthy complex system (Siegel, 2020).

It is worth mentioning that integration is different from homogenization: “integration involves maintaining differentiation while also achieving linkage, creating a synergy that enables the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts” (Siegel, 2020).

Sustainable development can be understood as an emerging property of the linkage of the efforts of agents of change involved in the most different areas of activity, such as the area of martial arts. The proposal is that martial arts can constitute distinct forms of integration that favor navigation through criticality and, thus, promote harmony and health in a complex system, from a single person to the world.

Local martial arts programs and initiatives can be linked with global agendas and interests, favoring what is called glocalization (Baker, 2022) – the linkage of stakeholders acting at both the global and local levels to strengthen sustainable development. In this form of “glocal integration,” martial arts programs and initiatives can deliberately and explicitly design training experiences that engage the global agenda of sustainable development goals.

The second form of integration is what we can call “inter-martial integration”. The numerous particular manifestations of the vast diversity of martial arts can be respected and then linked together under the common goal of strengthening sustainable development. So, linking the efforts of different martial arts towards sustainability can create a synergy that contributes to a better world for all.

We can also have a “cross-curricular integration” in which martial arts can be linked with the specialties of other approaches to promote sustainable development.

Integration can be optimized by the linkage of top-down and bottom-up initiatives to strengthen sustainable development. In this form of “bidirectional integration,” martial arts are bottom-up interventions that can be linked with top-down policies and investments for sustainability. While top-down approaches more regularly attract resources that favor rapid change, bottom-up approaches produce more lasting results (Baker, 2022) by tailoring programs and initiatives to stakeholders’ interests, demands, and needs, and also by fostering pro-social interactions among stakeholders that break down barriers to kindness.

In terms of health and well-being, studies are beginning to demonstrate that martial arts favor the linkage of different parts of the human nervous system (Toh et al., 2018). In neuroscience, the term ‘connectome’ is used to describe the mapping of all connections in the nervous system of a particular species (Seung, 2012), and studies show that a more interconnected connectome is associated with positive traits in life, while a less interconnected connectome is associated with negative traits in life (Smith et al., 2015); and support the proposal of integration as the basis of health (Zhang & Raichle, 2010). Thus, martial arts can optimize the “neural integration” that contributes to a healthier organism.

In terms of education, martial arts are organized and structured in such a way that they can be characterized as non-formal forms of education. The linkage between formal, informal, and non-formal modalities of education—what we might call “pedagogical integration”—is fundamental for a person to have an enriched and complete lifelong learning experience.

Finally, integration can be the unifying principle that reveals how martial arts can be understood as tools to strengthen sustainable development. Martial arts are a heritage of humanity and represent an as yet untapped potential to reshape the world's development towards sustainability, strengthening integration in people so that they become increasingly capable of strengthening integration in the world.


Caio Gabriel is a specialist in neuropsychology, researcher, judo instructor and Special Advisor at UNESCO-ICM (The International Centre of Martial Arts for Youth Development and Engagement under the auspices of UNESCO). His research seeks to broaden and deepen the discussion on the potential psychoneurobiological aspects underlying the mental, socio-emotional, moral and behavioral changes resulting from the practice of martial arts; and to study how martial arts can be understood as tools to cultivate a more and sustainable world.


Baker, R. E. (2022). History and Foundations of Sport for Development and Peace. In R. E. Baker, C. Esherick, & P. H. Baker (Eds.), Sport for Development and Peace (pp. 3–23). Rowman & Littlefield.

Sabates, R., & Yardeni, A. (2020). Social Determinants of Health and Education: Understanding Intersectionalities During Childhood. In R. Midford, G. Nutton, B. Hyndman, & S. Silburn (Eds.), Health and Education Interdependence: Thriving from Birth to Adulthood (pp. 13–34). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-3959-6_2

Seung, S. (2012). Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Siegel, D. J. (2020). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (3rd ed.). The Guilford Press.

Smith, S. M., Nichols, T. E., Vidaurre, D., Winkler, A. M., Behrens, T. E. J., Glasser, M. F., Ugurbil, K., Barch, D. M., van Essen, D. C., & Miller, K. L. (2015). A positive-negative mode of population covariation links brain connectivity, demographics and behavior. Nature Neuroscience, 18(11), 1565–1567. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.4125

Toh, Z., Gu, Q., Seah, T., Wong, W., McNab, J., Chuang, K., Hong, X., & Tang, P. (2018). Increased white matter connectivity seen in young judo athletes with MRI. Clinical Radiology, 73(10), 911.e17-911.e21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.crad.2018.06.003

UNESCO-ICM. (2021). World Martial Arts: Towards a global overview. http://unescoicm.org/eng/library/bookreport.php?ptype=view&idx=7424&page=1&code=bookreport_eng

Waldrop, M. M. (2019). Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. Open Road Media.

Zhang, D., & Raichle, M. E. (2010). Disease and the brain’s dark energy. Nature Reviews Neurology, 6(1), 15–28. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrneurol.2009.198



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