What Are The Parallels Between Counseling and Martial Arts?

The name of the martial art ju-jitsu can be broken down into two parts in its original Japanese; “ju” can mean gentle, supple, pliable or yielding, while “jitsu” means technique. In many ways, counseling employs a “jitsu” that reflects the “ju” – albeit in a different environment.

“I saw the parallels immediately,” said Erik Braun ’07 M.A. ’09, assistant professor of counseling and a senior brown belt in jiu-jitsu.

He is currently authoring a conceptual paper on this dynamic with fellow counseling faculty member Lori Russell-Chapin, who is also the co-director of the Center for Collaborative Brain Research. Their focus is on the similarities in how students learn each discipline.

Stressing the importance of experiential learning, Braun said he always tries to provide some type of situation where students can practice the skill he’s teaching, in counseling or in martial arts.

“The best way to learn martial arts, in many people's opinion, is to practice against a resistant opponent,” he said. “If you don't practice it against a resisting opponent, then you don't know if you're able to be effective; you don't know how to correct or account for unforeseen things that might happen.

“(Likewise) we can learn about everything under the sun related to counseling in the classroom, but if we never have the practice, we're never actually sitting in front of a real live client who might say something that we have never encountered before, then we never get that element of it. We never sharpen that competence to a point where we're confident enough in it.”

Some may argue one discipline is supportive in nature while the other is adversarial. However, Braun cited the example of a substance abuse case, where the client may have a great deal of resistance due to the nature of the environment and of the addiction. He uses the analogy of “rolling with resistance,” not unlike the “ju” in his martial art.

“Brute force is not always the way,” he said, describing the technique of “motivational interviewing” that counselors use in lieu of being direct. Much like martial arts, it stresses the need to not overcommit and leave oneself exposed.

“You're putting too much of your power into a place where it's not appropriate and the opponent can take advantage of this.”

Another similarity is the need to have some detachment to trauma. For martial arts, it’s essential to overcome pain to perform. For counseling, he stressed the need to detach, “to understand that (situation) as the client's experience so that you don't take on that vicarious trauma.”

Braun earned his undergraduate degree in psychology and stayed at his alma mater for a master’s in community agency counseling before leaving to earn his doctorate in counselor education and supervision from Old Dominion University in Virginia in 2013. He returned to Bradley in 2021 from Northwestern State University in Louisiana, and is currently assistant professor of counseling. Braun is also the faculty advisor to Bradley’s Ju-jitsu and Grappling Club.

While many who take part are beginners, Braun also helps with those who take part in competition – with some club members winning local competitions. Here he is able to share his teaching philosophy from the classroom to the academy.

“In martial arts, everything I do, the goal is to hurt my opponent; and in counseling, everything I do, the goal is to help my opponent,” he concluded. “So when you think about it, it’s two sides of the same coin.”

“Martial arts is kind of the shadow version of healing.”

- Mel Huang