Martial Arts and Maslow’s Theory on Human Motivation

I recently completed a new course by Dr. Gavriel Shneider, (7th Dan Krav Maga, Ph.D. in Security and Risk Management and director of R2S). The course gives an excellent overview of personal safety and I highly recommend it to anyone who cares about learning a little more about protecting themselves.

In one of the early portions of the course, Dr. Schneider briefly discusses Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Given that I have recently been writing on applications of Finance and Economic theories in the martial arts, I thought I’d take this opportunity to venture into the realm of Psychology as well. That being said, my introduction to Maslow did come during my studies of business, as the hierarchy of needs is taught in most management and HR courses as a way to understand motivation.

What is the Hierarchy of needs?

American psychologist Abraham Maslow created the hierarchy of needs in order to explain what motivates us as humans. The hierarchy of needs asserts that as humans we all have the same several needs. Those needs are separated into 5 areas (although a 6th was added later on) and are often displayed in the form of a pyramid. And much like a pyramid, the needs at the bottom must be satisfied before the next level of needs can be addressed. Much like in most martial arts, that means you must have a solid base before trying anything more complicated.

The 5 levels of the pyramid are as follows:

Here are some thoughts about how the martial arts can help you meet those needs:

Physiological Needs

These needs are the physical needs required for our survival; food, air, water, shelter, clothing, sex, etc. While the martial arts don’t necessarily give us these (and if they do, I’d be very curious to know how you train…), they do help us regulate these. Knowing how to breathe, what to eat and when, etc. For some, a dojo is also a place where these things can be found.

In the old days, or in uchi-deshi (live-in or inside student) programs, the student would come in and live at the dojo during their training. I recall something Sosei Mas Oyama, the founder of Kyokushin Karate and a martial arts legend, said to his uchi deshi Shihan Judd Reid -“The hardest 3 things in the world are to be hungry, cold and alone; as long as you are here, you will never be hungry or alone.” Knowing this helped Shihan Judd to complete the brutal 1,000-day program. By helping his students meet the basic needs of the pyramid, Sosei allowed them to focus on the next few levels of the pyramid.

Safety Needs

These relate to things such as personal security, financial stability and general health and well-being. Now the link is obvious. Learning how to defend yourself and your loved ones directly fulfills this need. The same goes for the added benefits of being healthy, fit and in a good mental state as a result of being physically active.

Social (Esteem) Needs

These relate to such things as family, friendship, and intimacy. My personal experience shows that relationships forged in training are some of the most powerful and enduring relationships in my life. Training for competition or going the rigours of hard gradings create especially strong bonds.

Many martial artists say they think of their peers as family. I wholeheartedly agree! Going through the hardships and joys of training together creates shared experiences that last a lifetime. You will know respect and love and know that you earned them both.

Belonging needs are particularly important at a young age. Involving kids in the martial arts can help meet these needs. Martial arts help them feel confident and secure, both physically and emotionally. They learn valuable skills that will help them feel safe and secure, physically. In addition, they will make great friends and build relationships in a place where the core values and ways of interaction are positive and respectful.

Once these bottom tiers are met, we can then start looking at meeting our higher needs, as follows:

Esteem Needs

This refers to our need to be respected, both by ourselves and by others. In today’s world, in my eyes at least, people often try to meet this need through superficial and ultimately useless means. How many likes you get for a Facebook post, how many Twitter or Instagram followers you have and other such superficial measures are considered to be ways of quantifying one’s popularity. This is directly related to how we perceive ourselves. There are many studies relating social media to low self-esteem and confidence issues.

Martial arts are a great way of developing true self-esteem. By demonstrating consistent effort and positive values, you will earn respect from others. You will meet people who are inspirational and will respect them for their knowledge, skills, and wisdom. You will respect their willingness to share these with you. You will find that people respect you when you work hard, help others and return the respect they give to you. This recognition also comes in the form of earning your rank through blood, sweat, and tears. You will also develop confidence and self-esteem by feeling pride at your hard work and meeting the goals that you set for yourself. Want more? You also learn how to manage disappointment, failure and delayed gratification when you don’t meet those goals or they are delayed.

Self-Actualization Needs

This refers to our desire to fulfill our potential. This particular need is one that is more unique to each individual and often relates to more creative pursuits. In other words, we all want food, shelter, and safety. We all want to feel loved and respected. But while we all want to fulfill our potential, this varies from person to person. For some, it can mean improving an artistic pursuit. For others, it can mean being a great friend, partner or parent. It can also mean being an innovative entrepreneur or artist. 
There are plenty more examples.

This is also a catch-22 in a sense. The single greatest challenge in being an artist of any kind is to continually strive for perfecting that which can never be perfected. Not only that but the better you are, the more difficult each small progression becomes. Self-actualization is an ongoing pursuit.

To the dedicated martial artist, this never-ending pursuit is the essence of self-actualization, a relentless journey towards the betterment of the self. This is reflected in all other areas of life. It helps drive you towards achieving your self-actualization goals even if they are unrelated to the martial arts. That being said, I do believe that in terms of artistic pursuits, none are higher than the martial arts – and you can find out why here.

So there you have it. If we look at this theory of human motivation, we can see that training in the martial arts – any of the martial arts – can help you feel safe, respected and healthy. Lastly, it will help you discover who you are and help you navigate the path to fulfilling your potential and living life to the fullest.

But don’t take my word for it; try it for yourself!

Stay safe, stay tuned



Ron Amram
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Ron Amram

Director and Instructor at Combat Arts Institute of Australia
I'm a martial artist and school owner from Perth, Western Australia. I hold a 2nd Dan in Krav Maga, Shodan in Danzan Ryu Jujutsu, Brown Belt in Dennis Survival Jujutsu and am also a dedicated boxer and a keen BJJ and Escrima practitioner. I love meeting other like-minded martial artists, and always happy to talk about all things martial arts! Osu
Ron Amram
Follow me
Ron Amram
About Ron Amram 10 Articles
I'm a martial artist and school owner from Perth, Western Australia. I hold a 2nd Dan in Krav Maga, Shodan in Danzan Ryu Jujutsu, Brown Belt in Dennis Survival Jujutsu and am also a dedicated boxer and a keen BJJ and Escrima practitioner. I love meeting other like-minded martial artists, and always happy to talk about all things martial arts! Osu


  1. Mr. Amram,

    I really enjoyed your article and how you broke martial arts down from a psychological point of view. I have always appreciated what martial arts can do for a person mentally and emotionally, even more than physically.

  2. This is a GREAT article! As a teacher (like, a school teacher, not just a martial arts instructor…) we discuss Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs a lot, especially as the school I work in services a HUGE low-SES population. This is a fantastic interpretation on two things I know very well and mixing them together. Thank you for this analysis.

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