When you step into a dojo for the very first time you are often unaware that you have just opened the door to a very big world. You may not realise initially that ‘martial arts’ are a very broad ranging group of activities. The term ‘martial arts’ is often banded around to include activities that aren’t strictly ‘martial’ in origin e.g. karate (karate is civilian based not military based) or aren’t ‘art*’ because they are either ‘sport’ (e.g. MMA, boxing or wrestling) or they are pure ‘self-defence’ systems (e.g. reality based systems).
Some systems may be a composite of all three elements – art, sport and self defence with greater emphasis on one or other of those elements whereas others may concentrate either entirely on just one of those elements possibly paying ‘lip service’ to another.
Does it matter? Shouldn’t all martial arts be about self-defence? Well, it matters a lot if your aim is to be able to defend yourself in a violent encounter in the street and you must realise that not all martial arts will provide you with the skills you need to do this. If you want this you will need to choose a reality based self-defence (RBSD) system or a traditional art that is working very much at the ‘jutsu’ end of the scale.
However, effective self defence may not be your primary aim or motivation. You may prefer the world of sport and competition, a place where extreme physical fitness combined with martial skills is the order of the day. You can choose from traditional systems such as judo, sport karate or sport taekwondo which may encompass ‘art’ as well as sport or you can choose a more contemporary or purist martial sport such as MMA or boxing.
Maybe you’re not interested in the sports side of martial arts. Perhaps, like me, you are a little too old for competitive sport! If you prefer to study the aesthetics, body mechanics, power generation, focus, self-awareness and various other esoteric qualities associated with martial artists then you may prefer a more traditional martial art such as karate-do, kung-fu or aikido. To what extent these more ‘artistic’ qualities of martial arts are combined with practical application will vary enormously from system to system and from club to club.
It is quite obvious that ‘martial artists’ come in as many guises as people do themselves. Is one type of martial artist better than another?
The RBSD martial artist will no doubt have the edge on understanding and dealing with the brutality of street violence but will win no competitions and have little empathy for body aesthetics or any of the esoteric qualities of traditional martial arts.
The sports martial artist may be at peak physical fitness, experienced the glory of winning and have a shelf full of trophies but he/she may or may not handle themselves well in a street fight or have any understanding of the true meaning of a kata they have just demonstrated so beautifully in competition.
The traditional martial artist may have mastered control of their mind and body, learned how to harness their own power, found greater success and fulfilment in their lives through the application of budo principles but own no trophies and have varying abilities to defend themselves in a real life confrontation.
So there we have it: you can train to be master of the ‘street’, master of the sports arena or master of yourself. None is better than the other they are just different, but they can all use the title ‘martial artist’.
How do you choose what kind of martial artist you want to be? Well you must first analyse your needs and your wants. Do you work in an area that regular deals with confrontation with members of the public or live in an area where street violence is a fact of life? Then you probably need a RBSD system to meet these needs. If you fantasise about being the next world champion in a martial based sport then a good judo, MMA, boxing or sports karate or taekwondo club may provide what you are looking for. But if your bag is more about a journey of self-discovery and self-perfection through the study of budo then a traditional martial art may be the best choice.
What is important is that you understand what it is that you want or need and what it is that a particular type of martial art is really offering. You need to match up your expectations with the objectives of the martial art chosen. Some clubs, particularly traditional MA clubs, may offer a combination of art, sport and self defence. This may have many advantages but remember you will learn to be a ‘Jack of all trades’ and ‘Master of none’ if you are not careful.
What you want from your martial art may vary as you go through your life so it is okay to change as you go along. For example, when you are young martial sport may be your main requirement. Once you are too old to be competitive you may decide to hone your self-defence skills more and opt to train in a reality based system. As you get even older you may get fed up with the focus on violence and the more brutal nature of training and wish to explore the more traditional arts that may lead to improvements in health and well being. The kind of martial artist you become may therefore change as you go through your life.
Once you have decided what kind of martial artist you want to be you need to find the right martial art, club and instructor. There is no such thing as a bad martial art only bad clubs, bad instructors and bad students! To find the right club you need to assess it against the right criteria. It is pointless judging a RBSD club through the lens of a traditionalist – it will be found wanting however good it is at providing self-defence training. Likewise, don’t judge a traditional martial art through the lens of a RBSD system, again it will be found wanting. If the club you are assessing is offering the kind of martial art that you need or want, you like the instructor, the environment seems appropriate for the art, other students seem to making good progress and it doesn’t seem like a financial rip off then it is probably a suitable club for what you want.
A final word of warning! Some martial arts instructors can be like ‘false prophets’ – they may offer things that they cannot deliver on. This may be unintentional because they believe in what they are saying (they've not looked outside their dojo door for a long time) or they may be true charlatans just after your money. Let the buyer beware – do your research!
So, have you worked out yet what kind of martial artist you are? Is it the type you expect or want to be?
* I have used the word 'art' throughout this article with a more Western interpretation as in art being about form and aesthetics. Strictly speaking the term 'art' in martial arts refers to 'craft' in eastern interpretations and is used to describe the 'jutsu' crafts rather than the martial ways.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.