'It helped me stand taller': Martial arts took Maria from bullied student to action star

A new Australian study has found martial arts improves primary students' resilience and self-confidence, with researchers trialing fresh approaches to traditional anti-bullying methods in schools.

Australian-Asian action star Maria Tran hated school because if she wasn't being bullied, she was witnessing someone else being bullied.

She's now the "Queen of on-screen action" with a host of butt-kicking blockbuster roles to her credit, but in year eight she tried to stop another girl being picked on and ended up with her head being stomped on in a Brisbane schoolyard.

Little did Ms Tran know that experience would lead to her starring, directing and writing in a multitude of action movies across Asia and Australia - with the incident prompting the daughter of Vietnamese refugees to enroll in Taekwondo classes.


Australian action actress Maria Tran was bullied in school.
Source: Instagram

“I was able to learn a lot more about myself," Ms Tran said.

"Having that bodily control, understanding the extension of your arms and legs and being able to develop that willpower of self-discipline. I feel those are the things that helped me get through school and see things beyond what the issue is.

Maria Tran and Phillip Kane in the movie poster "The Subtractor".
Source: SBS Vietnamese

"It allowed me to stand taller, and it allowed me not be afraid to look people in the eye.”

A new study from Macquarie University has found martial arts can help school students become more resilient to bullying. 

Researcher Brian Moore trialed a martial arts training program across schools in NSW as an alternative to traditional anti-bullying methods, and found the mental health and well-being of participating students improved in just one term. 

"The program itself wasn't designed specifically to protect kids from bullying," he said. 

"The idea of it was to build their resilience, self-efficacy and strengths and the idea of that is that you would develop resilience from bullying in a more general idea."

Martial arts could help children not engage in aggressive bullying behaviour, new research has found.
Source: Getty Images

ReachOut Australia believes around one in four Australian school students are being bullied. 

Mr Moore, who is also a psychologist, said the foundations of martial arts helped children develop the ability to cope with, and not engage in aggressive behaviours, but he stressed it was not about "fighting back against the bullies". 

"Martial arts do a number of things different from regular sport, and one is it very much has an emphasis on self-development," he said. 

"Secondly, it comes out of something called social cognitive theory.

"You have a very definitive curriculum within martial arts where you are learning a particular skill over a certain period of time and you're getting very regular feedback.

"So you develop this belief in yourself from martial arts training, from I guess developing a sense of mastery around skills."

Ms Tran never imagined her bullying experience would take her to the silver screen. She said the self confidence she found during school was regularly called on throughout her career. 

She faced many barriers as an Asian-Australian actress trying to break into the action-movie world; an industry primarily based in Hong Kong where few Australians make it, and directors already have their pick of Asian actors. 

Ms Tran told SBS News she believed martial arts could help confidence in young people, particularly girls and children from culturally-diverse backgrounds. 

"Self-worth is so important, and the earlier you know that the better, especially for those who might not know how to deal with situations like I did" she said.

"It (martial arts) gives you the ability to stand your ground and be comfortable with who you are."

Today Ms Tran runs a female-led film production company in Sydney, and is working on creating an all-female action film. 

"People think martial arts is all about violence and fighting but it's not," she said.

"If you meet people that have some kind of aggression towards you, whatever it may be, it helps you be unshakable.”

Published 26 March 2019 at 8:10am, updated 27 March 2019 at 6:26am
By Charlotte Lam