Friday, 4 October 2013

Martial Art or Self-Defence?

Is there a difference between learning a martial art and learning self-defence?

No! You all cry, by learning a martial art you are learning self-defence, they are (or should be) the same thing.

But are they, really?

I don’t think they are the same thing, not exactly; they are overlapping but serve slightly different purposes. Let me explain….

I think that the difference between learning a martial art and learning self-defence is a difference in purpose, focus and mindset.

Learning karate as a martial art is about preservation of the art for future generations. The purpose is one of ensuring all aspects of the system are conserved and passed on in their entirety to the student, warts and all. The focus is on the art, not the student. The mindset is to explore the secrets of the kata. Exploration of kata will reveal many techniques that have no place in the modern world of self-defence, techniques that are illegal and excessive and would have you in the dock if you were to use them to defend yourself, such as neck breaks.

One hundred and fifty years or so ago in Okinawa the death of an opponent during a confrontation did not necessarily result in imprisonment. The karate master Chotoku Kyan was said to have caused the death of a rival, Chokuho Agena, following a disagreement, by jumping onto him from a tree and breaking his neck.* Today this would be classed as murder but back then this just resulted in a feud between their families that lasted for years.

Social, legal and political systems have changed over the years but a martial art remains pretty much the same – a snapshot of an older time, preserved for historical reference. The kata are like historical documents, revealing the fighting techniques of a previous age. It takes many, many years to learn a martial art.

I am making it sound as if martial arts are irrelevant to a modern age of self-defence. Of course they are not. There is much in these ancient fighting systems that are still relevant to us – the skill is in picking out these techniques and strategies and re-packaging them for today’s students.

This brings me to self-defence. Where the purpose of learning a martial art is about preservation of the art, the purpose of learning self-defence is about preservation of the individual, i.e. teaching students how to defend themselves. The mindset is different. The instructor’s role is now about selecting appropriate techniques from the repository of ancient ones that are suitable for the type of students he/she is teaching. The focus is on the student, not the art.

This is the basis of good Reality Based Self-Defence systems (RBSD) and short self-defence courses aimed at particular groups of people such as women or University students. With RBSD the instructor will have developed his system by selecting a subset of techniques probably from a range of different martial arts and re-packaging them. He will have selected techniques based on what he thinks works best from his own experience or the experience of others and with a knowledge of how violence plays out in the real world and the risks his client group face. I doubt the students would be taught how to snap someone’s neck. The result should be that the students learn to defend themselves adequately in a relatively short period of time.

However, these RBSD systems have their limitations. They will contain instructor bias – the instructor will have chosen only those techniques which he feels are appropriate and will ignore those he doesn’t like. We all have different preferences and thus each RBSD system will be a slightly different microcosm of martial arts based self-defence centred on the instructor’s world view. Techniques that may suit some student’s better will have been lost or ignored and some student’s may find that they trail from one school to another trying to find something suitable.

Going back to martial arts systems, the problem for the student looking to learn self-defence is the opposite. They are being taught everything - relevant and irrelevant for a modern world, often spending lots of time analysing kata moves that reveal only past fighting glories and could not be used today. Amongst this are the highly useful and relevant techniques. Students are often left to pick their own way through this plethora of kata moves, identifying what is useful and legal and what should be consigned to history.

So, is it possible to become proficient at personal self-defence when you are in the environment of learning a martial art?

Well, yes but it relies on two things: a willingness of the student to study and learn about the nature of violence, the law as it relates to self-defence and to think intelligently about the aspects of the art that are relevant to them personally for their own self-protection. Secondly, an instructor who is clear in his/her own mind when he/she is teaching the ancient art (focus on art) and when he/she is teaching relevant self-defence (focus on student). This may prove a longer and more tortuous way of learning self-defence but the student may learn many other useful things along the way which relate to personal development of a more ethereal nature (mind/body unity, character development, a sense of spirituality and controlling one’s own mind and body better). These are things that won’t be learnt in the more pragmatic environment of a RBSD system.

I think it is important that we continue to have clubs that focus on teaching martial arts as art, to preserve the ancient fighting systems in their entirety and to further the historical research into the meaning of the kata. This is as much an intellectual pursuit as a practical one and suits many people.

However, some people have a real need to learn self-defence, either because of personal risky lifestyles or because they work in an environment where they may need to confront an aggressor such as in the police force, prison services or the military. These people may need more targeted training than a martial art can offer and are probably better off accessing a RBSD club or a targeted self-defence course.

These are my personal views; I think that martial art and self-defence are not entirely interchangeable. What do you think and why? 

* ref: Okinawa No Bushi No Te by Ronald L. Lindsey. Page 79.

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TMA Vs. RBSD said...

What a great article Sue. I very much agree with your stance that a RBSD instructor will naturally have biases toward techniques they like, too.

I wrote an article a while back about this subject (linked above). It talks about my views of the two modes of training and why TMA is incomplete.


RBSD Vs. TMA said...

And here is my other article which puts the boot on the other foot and talks about why RBSD is incomplete, too!


Journeyman said...

Great article Sue. I like the idea of focus on the art, or on the student. That's an interesting perspective.

As you know, this topic is near and dear to my heart. I've often battle with the RBSD vs. TMA debate. I think they're two key elements, one being the focus on the student, and the other being focus of the student. A student will be able to learn effective reality based technique in a traditional style, but will have to look deeper, and spend more time discovering how to apply, adjust or alter a technique to suit a modern world.

I would have to agree with Brett somewhat that both sides of the fence are incomplete, with instructor bias a very real factor (good or bad).

For me, I want it all, so I train with a reality based mindset and cross train whenever I can, but I also explore Jiu Jitsu for both pure self defense and as a snap shot of the past. I particularly like discovering how some techniques can be deadly, but it's also possible to 'ease off' to something less dangerous. It's all there, if you know where to look.

I'll also say that on the TMA side, there are those so focused on the art side of things, that they lose sight of the combat applications of the very thing they are trying to preserve.

I think in the end, you'll get cross benefits from whichever side you practice, but it's mainly your focus that will lead you to an art. Once you know what you want, hopefully you can find an instructor that is of a similar mindset.

Paul said...

Another good article, I've just found your blog Sue and have enjoyed reading your past blogs and everyone's comments, I can see everyone's passion for their art.

In regards to this article, I agree they are both intertwined though I believe this will vary from style to style, taking out the RBSD's some styles are more self-defence focused that others, my Kyoshi has commented many times that it would be remiss of him not to ensure his students have adequate knowledge of self-defence to ensure they can protect themselves or their family if the need arises.
Although most MA's have self-defence ingrained I think the more sport focused once are limited, as stated in one of your past articles, there's big difference between sparing someone on the mats and having to defend yourself in the street.

That said I train in a Shukokai based style and we are focused on many of the basics such as Kata, etc looking alway to improve and understanding the in importance of martial arts.

As a mature person of 52 I really enjoy the learning detail of my Karate, but also find the self-defence I learn gives me the confidence to know I can look after myself and family if needed.

Thanks again for your great blogs

Sue C said...

Brett, there's clearly no such thing as a perfect martial art that also teaches brilliant self-defence. We just have to keep our wits about us when examining what we do.

Journeyman, Your comments are right on the mark. It just shows that the onus to understand the relevance of what we are doing rests mainly on our own shoulders.

Paul, Hi! Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. You're absolutely right that the self-defence emphasis varies from style to style and from club to club. It sounds like your instructor has the balance between art and self-defence about right.

Charles James said...

Hi, Sue: Really great article today. I tend to think holistically when it comes to martial arts. The distinction between art and jutsu is none existent in my view because they are the yin-yang of martial arts.

In the holistic practice one shall try their best to encompass both to make for one wholehearted way toward both enlightenment and combatives.

Principles tend to encompass both as can be seen in the four headings:


You can perceive the entirety when you practice with principles in mind.

Again, great article, thanks.

Sue C said...

Hi Charles,

I like the way you think holistically and base your thinking around principles - hard to go wrong that way isn't it? However, I still think you need to be able to separate the 'wheat from the chaff' as they say, when it comes to identifying self-defence techniques that work personally for you. I suppose it just comes down to really thinking about what you are doing and not just blindly training like a robot!

Charles James said...

You are, as expected, absolutely correct in your response. Thanks :-)

Matt Klein said...

I tend to agree with you in general Sue that they may not be interchangeable. However, I believe self defence is a byproduct of just about any martial art.

The increase in fitness levels, confidence, and muscle memory from doing thousands of punches, kicks, and especially sparring have to be impacting the student's ability to defend themselves.

That said, schools who practice only kata to the exclusion of everything else will not be producing martial artists who will be able to fight in today's world. The kata is a beautiful work of art and should definitely be preserved, but it must be supplemented with sparring, self-defence drills against live attackers, and some grappling work to be effective nowadays. I don't feel the "one day" courses build the kind of muscle memory needed to be effective in the street.

Sue C said...

Hi Matt, Yes I agree that the fitness component of practising the art of karate will definitely impact on your self-defence ability. I think that 'drills' can vary in their usefulness in self-defence. Some drills can be very 'art' focused and some 'self-defence' focused - it's unravelling what is what that can be the problem, unless the instructor makes it very explicit, which I expect you do.

Charles James said...

FYI, Interesting quote on this ......

"A systemic flaw in many self-defense systems (particularly for women) is that they provide the student with a sense of having the ability to handle any and all physical threats with physical "fighting" techniques. As a result, this person projects a real sense of confidence and employs boundary setting that actually deters asocial predatory assailants looking for week and submissive victims. The student's fighting ability maybe an illusion, but the ensuing confidence and resulting deterrence is real. " Paradigms of Self-Defense Blogger, Alias "Not Me!"

Sue C said...

Hi Charles, thanks for the quote. I definitely agree with it. I think that martial arts practice can provide you with a physical presence that says "don't touch me". I also think that works better for women than men. I think for a man to have too much physical presence i.e. looking very muscled and intimidating, may paradoxically make him a target (in a "who does he think he is, let's see how hard he really is" kind of way). Having a confident physical presence whilst maintaining an air of humility is a fine line to tread!

John W. Zimmer said...

Hi Sue!

As you know I don't really see the point to a martial art unless it is for self-defense or self-preservation. :)

So I would have to say that while I like parts of the "art" - old masters that created a style 200, 400 or more years ago have lots of stuff that does not work now since fighting methods have evolved.


I still see the need to "educate" students in the martial art - just because there is value beyond just learning how to fight - such as how one should carry themselves in public and only use their martial skills as a last resort.

So as usual I am a mixed bag.

Good post!

Sue C said...

Hi John, I entirely see your point about learning martial arts for self-defence purposes and I expect that when you teach students you make it very clear how they should use the techniques and what is legal in your country.

I suppose my point is that sometimes the old stuff that's no longer relevant gets mixed up with the relevant stuff and can confuse the student. So if instructors aren't always pointing it out then the onus is on the student to sort out what is relevant to modern day self-defence by themselves. perhaps this is a bigger problem in karate than jujitsu?

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Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing this, your thoughts are seldom realized but are highly relevant=)

Some people involved in martial arts training for self-defence purpose, while others are for career-building & health, or both. Whatever be the motivation, the core of martial arts and self-defence must be fully understood by the trainers and the students.

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John said...

Learning karate as a martial art is about preservation of the art for future generations..........
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Unknown said...

Well said, Sue. Martial art is appreciating the “art”, while self-defense is an act of self-preservation. Self-defense has many form that does not have to involve martial arts, same as self-defense is not always the reason why one would want to learn martial arts. So yeah, putting it that way, these terms are not entirely interchangeable. ~Ari @ Infighting Fitness & MMA Academy

Anonymous said...


Like Charles James, I approach questions like these by starting with principles. Your opening two paragraphs parallel much of what I have to say.

I begin by saying I disagree with Matt Klein and John Zimmerman on two points. One, that a kata training concentration leads to poor self defense preparation--WRONG. Two, that traditional karate created a hundred years or more ago is outmoded for today---WRONG.

I'll explain. Traditional karate is martial art which by definition means fighting. Karate is fighting. Further, I'll distinguish traditional karate as Karate-do--the "art;" and Karate-Jutsu--the"fighting."

Karate-Do develops the human capabilities enabling you the artist to excel. Karate-Jutsu adds the technical fighting applications (e.g., block & strike). Karate-Do builds physical fitness, mental discipline and later ki.

My reading of history states that one of the great founders of Okinawan karate (hundreds years ago) was told by parents to take it up for health benefits....The art or Do.

This is why I dispute the statement that kata-heavy training is incompetent karate. Ginchin Funakoshi advocated kata as the WAY to train karate. The reason is Karate-Do builds the human foundation for Karate-Jutsu.

The belief that physical fighting today is somehow above & beyond the physical conflict that man has encountered throughout history escapes me. What is it about getting into a physical scape in Okinawa some hundred years ago is so different about getting into a physical altercation in Europe today?

I agree RBSD training can add value--the specialized focus on self defense situations. So can cross-training to broaden understanding.

To me, Karate-Jutsu, is a subset, the application for actual self defense, of Karate-Do, the martial art. Karate in application is fighting. Traditional Karate training is an art which develops the human capability for fighting.

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