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have changed over the years but a martial art remains pretty much the same – a snapshot of an older time, preserved for historical reference. The kata are like historical documents, revealing the fighting techniques of a previous age.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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