ACA member Isaac Burt showcases some of the acrobatic moves common in Capoeira.

Picture the following scenario. You are a counselor with less than one year of experience. Recently, an employment opportunity opened up at a school to work with adolescents who have a variety of behavioral issues, including excessive anger. An interview is scheduled, a job offer extended. You eagerly accept.

The first day on the job, you are excited and full of energy, which seems to be a necessary characteristic for a counselor at this school because the clients are extremely energetic. Some are yelling, others are play fighting with one another, while several are running. In fact, one client stands out because he is running toward you. He gets closer, and just before he runs you over, he transforms his momentum into a cartwheel and does a backflip, narrowly missing you. He continues to run after he lands, laughing as he says, “I freaked the new counselor out.”

Once you catch your breath, you continue to be amazed by the energy these clients exhibit. Then it crosses your mind just how energetic you were when you were growing up. As you imagine how difficult it must be for energetic clients to sit through an hour of traditional talk therapy, you begin to wonder: “What can I do to help this kind of client?”

In my role as a counselor, I have worked with highly energetic, excessively angry clients. Therefore, it was commonplace for me to encounter the scenario I just described. Through the years, I learned the importance of creativity in counseling and drawing on the strengths of clients. Many counselors struggle with clients who do not respond well to traditional counseling methods. In turn, these counselors may begin to doubt their abilities. They might feel they are doing their very best, but they are baffled by how to reach these clients. To work effectively with this population, counselors need to create a pro-social environment. A pro-social environment is one that promotes clients’ strengths, wellness, empathetic confrontation and positive role modeling. Counselors must form this environment to communicate to clients what their strengths are in a caring, innovative and engaging way.

In addition to identifying these clients’ strong points, counselors must introduce an intervention that is capable of grabbing — and retaining — the clients’ attention. Traditionally, highly energetic and/or overly angry adolescents do not respond well to canon therapeutic methods. Through experience and research, I have developed a therapeutic martial arts model that allocates to counselors a strength-based modality for engaging these clients. The rationale is simple. With these clients, counselors want to employ a system demanding a high level of physical energy and integrate it with therapeutic principles. The hope is to produce a therapeutic pro-social environment that cultivates change in challenging clients.

Target population: The target population for this intervention is adolescent males or females ranging in age from 11 to 18 who are showing signs or symptoms of engaging in overly angry behaviors, including fighting or bullying.

Description of the intervention: The intervention I use is Capoeira, which is both a unique martial art and an effective form of creative self-expression that originated in Brazil. As described by the group Capoeira Brazil, Capoeira promotes diversity and tolerance, teaches discipline and respect, and assists in developing amazing fitness. Beyond being a form of martial arts, Capoeira is also a pro-social event filled with rich tradition and history.

In Capoeira, there is what is called the jogo, or game. The jogo begins with the students and/or Capoeira instructors playing music on instruments. Several instruments may be present, but the most prominent are the berimbau and not to hit each other. Once practitioners are fully engaged in the jogo, they undertake a series of agile, acrobatic and martial arts movements that create a unique corporal conversation. A story between the two players unfolds, with the music and lyrics dictating the theme and the practitioners developing the narrative.

Capoeira is challenging, but its practitioners can use it as a life tool to grow both physically and mentally. The Capoeira philosophy embodies not hurting the other player while in the jogo, participating fully, encouraging others in positive ways and attempting new alternatives. Learning new ways of behaving while in the jogo and developing perseverance to improve ability are especially encouraged.

Empirical studies have indicated the qualities that interventions must possess to be effective with angry adolescents, and Capoeira’s characteristics align with these qualities. First, a pro-social environment must exist that promotes nonviolence (that is, not hurting the other player). Second, there must be a sense that positive risk-taking behaviors or attempts at new alternatives to normal behavioral patterns are encouraged. Third, there must be consistency and repetition in practicing new behaviors that truly lead to change.

Social cognitive theory (SCT) is the primary theory on which my therapeutic martial arts model is based. Empirical evidence documents the effect of modeling on the behavior of children, adolescents and adults, and modeling plays a large part in this intervention. For example, instructors, assistants and other personnel assume a large responsibility in their roles as leaders, teachers and role models. In addition, a bidirectional effect exists, with the environment affecting the clients (interpersonally and behaviorally) and the clients affecting the environment. The thinking of the participants slowly changes, and as it does, their emotions and behaviors soon follow suit. Research has shown that SCT can effectively change problematic, overly angry behaviors into something more positive.

Managing and delivering the intervention: Adapting a model from Stuart Twemlow and Frank Sacco, a clinical supervisor trained in clinical mental health counseling should provide all clinical oversight. An individual who is highly trained in Capoeira would provide the bulk of the intervention, including daily instruction and delivery of the intervention. For optimal functioning, however, clinical oversight is essential because the clinician provides additional follow-up and outreach to clients. The clinical supervisor needs to maintain ongoing involvement with the instructors, including providing consultation and supervision. Further duties entail the clinical supervisor understanding how to apply the intervention to adolescents (evaluation and counseling). One of the clinician’s primary goals is to ensure that the intervention stays on track. This is not to say, however, that the clinician’s role is limited simply to clinical oversight. One of the benefits of Capoeira is that it may help clients respond better to traditional therapeutic measures. Thus, therapy can conduct simultaneously with Capoeira or afterward, once the client is ready. By remaining heavily involved in the implementation of Capoeira, the clinician retains an idea of the clients’ progression and can recommend or implement additional measures as needed.

Necessary resources: The resources needed for this intervention are very economical. Wide-open areas, including gyms, rec centers or church floors, are examples of locations that could house the intervention. Auxiliary components include crash mats and possibly a small trampoline. Of primary importance are monetary resources allocated to the purchase of berimbaus, drums, tambourines and chimes. Transportation costs are also a consideration. A salary for the Capoeira instructor, including a small stipend for any junior instructors deemed necessary for the project, may need to be established. In some instances, however, instructors may provide their services for free. Helping those less fortunate is a primary tenet of Capoeira. Many instructors adhere to these ideals and provide pro bono services to at-risk youth. Junior instructors may also work pro bono because they need to acquire a certain number of hours of teaching experience.

Necessary training: Instructors in therapeutic martial arts programs have multiple roles as semi-therapists, instructors and disciplinarians. The instructors must be firm while remaining aware of the inevitable lapses and/or shortcomings of adolescents. Training in basic mental health procedures should be provided to the instructors so they do not personalize comments made by the adolescents. Moreover, training assists instructors in not transposing their problems to issues faced by the adolescents. Instructors must be knowledgeable about transference and understand not to take reactions and behaviors of the adolescents personally. Instructors should also understand that these adolescents might sometimes treat them as objects on which to take out their frustrations. Finally, instructors must model behavior that assists in decreasing the adolescents’ mistrust of adults and reducing their excessive anger. The clinical supervisor, who should be proficient in behavioral dynamics and clinical mental health counseling, provides administration of instructor training. As stated previously, a clinical supervisor is imperative to the operation of a therapeutic martial arts model.

Time frame: This intervention is designed to take place twice a week for a duration of two hours at each meeting (for a maximum of 16 hours per month and 192 hours per year). As for follow-up, maintain an open-door policy, encouraging parents, caregivers and participants alike to report back to the clinical supervisor and instructors. Reporting allows the clinical supervisor to see what clinical advantages the program provided and where improvements might need to be implemented. Additionally, reporting helps former clients maintain a connection to the program, and some of these clients may want to give back to the program by providing some form of human resources.

Martial arts can provide energetic, overly angry clients with an exciting, strength-based intervention to promote positive growth. Counselors may be able to utilize the intervention in this article either as an alternative or as an addendum to traditional counseling. With people who do not respond well to standard client-sitting-in-the-chair counseling, martial arts may represent a paradigm switch in how counselors conduct therapy.

“Knowledge Share” articles are based on sessions presented at past ACA Annual Conferences.

Isaac Burt is an assistant professor at Florida International University in the Department of Counselor Education, Leadership and Professional Studies. His research interests entail culturally sensitive treatments for marginalized adolescents, redefining anger management groups and increasing self-efficacy in disenfranchised youths. Contact him at


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