PTSD, MMA and the Bully Argument

I have suggested a similarity between action in physical fitness and virtuous action. Both require a notion of self, a notion of control over the situation and a notion of value. Given these shared criteria, I believe practicing physical fitness can strengthen moral and other non-moral virtues. Conversely, acting virtuously can improve the qualities necessary to achieve success in physical fitness. I have previously cited research which shows yoga can improve mood, reduce stress and decrease recidivism in prison inmates to support the former claim, but I suspect my argument would benefit from additional evidence. Furthermore, I want to address a possible counterargument to my claims, which I will call The Bully Argument. The Bully Argument suggests that those who dedicate themselves to physical fitness may become more aggressive and violent toward others and may use their exceptional strength, power and other physical capabilities to overwhelm weaker individuals. In this article, I intend to tackle both these needs.

In recent years, a fair amount of media attention has been bestowed upon a gym in San Diego where former U.S. Army sergeant Todd Vance teaches a mixed martial arts (MMA) class. Vance himself returned home from military service in the Iraq War and struggled to deal with anger, anxiety, nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“He was a mess,” Vance’s mother, Dianne Ratzel, said in a 2012 article in the Chicago Tribune. “He was angry, confused, combative. He got into fights and drank a lot; I was afraid he would get hurt” (Perry, 2012).

Vance employed MMA training in conjunction with medication and counseling to deal with his issues. Today, he offers his MMA class to help fellow veterans face similar challenges.

“I come here and I feel better than I do when I leave the VA,” said Jason Jones, who served 13 years in the Marine Corps.

Another student, Mike Judd, served in the Army in Iraq and worked as an outreach counselor at Veterans Village of San Diego, a nonprofit residential treatment program partially funded by the VA, at the time the Tribune article was published. Judd believes veterans are too often given medication and no other treatments, and lose the sense of physical exertion and discipline that were hallmarks of their military lives.

Sandy Herschel sometimes accompanies her husband Travis, another Iraq veteran, to class. “Psychologically this is the best I’ve seen him since he was medically retired [due to injuries],” she said. “It’s given him something to look forward to.”

“Many of the veterans are prisoners of their own minds,” Vance said. “We need to free up their minds through exercise” (Perry, 2012).

PTSD, MMA and the Bully ArgumentThe success of Todd Vance’s MMA training further supports the idea that physical fitness is related to other virtues, and also provides counterevidence to The Bully Argument. Veterans who, like Vance, may become violent after returning to civilian society from combat duty can use MMA practice to actually reduce violent acts by helping to treat PTSD, anxiety, anger and aggression. The effects cited by participants in Vance’s class and those around them are reminiscent of those cited by prisoners who engage in yoga practice. But like yoga, MMA serves as only a part of a full treatment regimen. Vance himself sees his classes as an addition to traditional therapy, not a substitute. The physical aspects of yoga and MMA are significant to behavioral change, but mental focus is required as well. The two go hand in hand.

Jeffrey Matloff, senior psychologist and PTSD specialist at the Department of Veteran Affairs in San Diego told the Tribune that martial arts practice can help restore self-confidence and focus, so long as participants exercise self-control and do not use their skills outside the context of sports. “When it comes to PTSD, therapy alone doesn’t have all the answers,” said Matloff (Perry, 2012). These words echo similar thoughts about yoga and prison.

Thus, martial arts, like yoga, has been shown to have positive effects on individuals in highly stressful situations. Moreover, the success of martial arts training offers a response to The Bully Argument. Providing MMA training to former soldiers seems like the perfect recipe for the scenario imagined by The Bully Argument, fomenting aggressive and violent behavior in individuals capable of causing serious physical damage to others. Instead, the opposite is true. Todd Vance’s classes help reduce PTSD and aggression in veterans. Vance himself became less violent after taking up MMA. Martial arts and yoga provide an outlet for aggression and help cultivate a sense of self-control and personal responsibility, further indication of the complementary relationship that exists between physical fitness and other virtues.


Perry, Tony. “To exorcise devils, vets exercise fists.” Chicago Tribune. 19 Sep. 2012: 20.