Bullies made Ted Argyle’s teenage years tough.

He yearned to find a way to stand up to them, and that’s when he discovered Bruce Lee films.

“It was Bruce Lee movies that really made me aware of martial arts,” he said.

“Just seeing a much smaller person taking on swarms of people, as a 14-year-old, impressionable boy, that was pretty appealing.”

Mr Argyle now teaches mixed martial arts in Warrnambool, and sees a steady stream of young people coming to his training centre seeking the same thing he sought as a teen — the means to stand up to bullies.

But is learning to fight the answer?

‘Confidence is king’

According to the federal government’s Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, one in five year 4 students experience bullying on a weekly basis.

Mr Argyle said at least half of the students he had taught over the past three decades had ticked ‘bullying’ as a motivator for learning martial arts.

But he stresses that it’s not about fighting back — it’s about confidence.

“There’s a saying in the self-defence community that where ignorance is mutual, confidence is king, which means … if another kid sees a kid is confident they are less likely to target that child,” he said.

Black-and-white photo of a man in a martial arts costume.
Ted Argyle says he wants to help students who have been bullied build self-confidence.(Supplied: Ted Argyle)

Although much of the student’s time is dedicated to learning to kick and punch people, Mr Argyle said he always taught kids that the aim was to stop any physical altercation.

“If a physical altercation takes place, that almost always means there was a failure earlier on in that interaction,” he said.

But do other experts agree with Mr Argyle’s approach?

The scent of fear

Psychologist and author of Bully Blocking Evelyn Field agreed that confidence was key, but said martial arts would only be helpful if it stressed non-aggressive behaviour.

“If you show fear to a dog or a horse, they will either run away or attack,” Dr Field says.

“Bullies are exactly the same.

“I think martial arts can be really excellent as long as it’s not about fighting back, but instead about confidence and therefore how they look, how they speak, the voice they use.”

Two girls step forward with an arm in a martial arts class, wearing their white uniforms.
Martial arts instructors say the training helps students’ self-confidence and means they are less likely to be targeted by bullies.(ABC News: Emma Siossian)

Dr Field said it was when children seemed “unbothered or unruffled” by bullies that the bully would actually stop.

“You’ve heard of surfers doing the same thing with sharks,” she said.

“They’re just calmly going past the shark on their board, but not showing any fear.

“And that’s what it’s all about because they will just smell your fear.”

Dr Field said there needed to be a greater community approach to tackling the problem of bullying and that it was not a problem that should be left up to schools that were exhausted from COVID.

A boy holds a posture with his arm and fist up in a martial arts class.
Martial arts instructors say students develop strength, resilience, and self-respect.(ABC News: Emma Siossian)

“It’s about teaching kids simple skills, verbal skills and, like the martial arts, the non-verbal skills,” she said.

“Eye contact, standing up straight, having a neutral look on your face — just being calm and collected.”