Martial Arts and Self-Defence: What’s The Difference?

posted in: Self Defence Tips | 0

“Martial Arts” and “Self-Defence“, forever been considered synonyms of the same thing, are finally finding distinction among the relevant communities. This may be largely due to the increasing popularity of Krav Maga and other reality based self-defence (aka “self-protection”) systems, but what hasn’t been lost in the process is the

old tendency of the martial arts world to polarize things and begin arguing over which one is “better”. Furthermore, there is a growing disdain for “reality based martial arts” among some martial artists, often dismissing the systems as rubbish or ineffective. On the other side of the fence, reality based fighters dismiss “traditional” martial arts on the same grounds, emphasizing how unrealistic they are in the real world, and how they are governed by rules and regulations that render them ineffective.

I don’t personally think it’s as black and white as either camp would claim. It would be more accurate, in the authors opinion, to say that self-defence is a subset of martial arts, albeit one that has been watered down by the more traditional Eastern arts over the ages. Don’t get me wrong – I do recognize the stark difference between sparring and street fighting, but to claim that a traditional martial artist would have no skill in that arena would be to ignore the fact that he spends years learning proper body mechanics for striking, is well conditioned and fit, is flexible, has learned how to strike without telegraphing, and has tuned his reflexes to respond quickly to an oncoming attack – not to mention that he has plenty of experience with giving and receiving attacks, even if only in the context of sparring. The dismissal of traditional martial artists by many reality teachers and students is one that always annoyed me.

Of course the same is true of many martial artists. I suppose it’s understandable that having spent years of disciplined training to achieve a black belt, that they would then condemn a system that claims to teach people how to defend themselves in really short periods of time, but before Krav Maga exploded onto the scene I seem to remember the traditional artists fighting between themselves over”which style is the best?!” Now they’ve just found somewhere new to direct their jibes.

The clue should be in the title “self defence” (or “self protection” as the title I prefer), is about just that – defending/protecting yourself against a physical attack. This is where the real world aspect comes into play, and some martial arts offer more practical advice than others. True self-defence should be more about avoiding, de-escalating, and escaping a conflict primarily. They work off the premise that you don’t want to fight and are being forced into one against your will, and that you have no option. At this point, most reality systems usually work off the premise that you are facing a possibly life-threatening confrontation with no rules and nobody to stop it… hence the last resort fighting skills they teach are sometimes extremely brutal, and designed to end the attack with your primary goal being to escape to safety.

“Traditional Martial Arts” (again, note the title) on the other hand aim to preserve a traditional “art” that’s been passed down, often over hundreds of years or more. Fighters practice their skills and get them down to the smallest details of perfection, achieved through constant practice and performing choreographed sequences of moves (often called “Kata”). Sparring is one of the methods used to test the martial artists skills, as a ring is formed with a referee and judges who award points based on technique and well targeted shots. “Well targeted” does not usually mean “most devastating” in the context of martial arts – it is a designated target zone defined by some governing body of the art. In fact, in order to protect the fighters safety (and rightfully so) these “target zones” are usually deemed lower risk (“lower risk” in the context of a fight, of course), very often above the belt only and avoiding areas that would disable, maime or kill the competitor! Also, since each fighter is using the same style (even in MMA) the fight becomes something of a closed system. Of course, each fighter want to end the fight quickly (by KO for example), but they are restricted by a set of rules that are there to protect each fighters safety, and to ensure the sport works well as a spectator sport (it wouldn’t be much fun if every fight lasted only a few seconds!)

Just to drive the point a bit, lets look at the differences between the last two paragraphs:

Traditional Martial Art “Reality” Martial Art
Preserves a traditional “art” Tries to deal with today’s violence
Both fighters are competing by choice Defender/Fighter has no choice
Fight is a “closed system” Fight is a mess – anything goes!
Fighter obeys certain rules There are no rules!
Fight takes place in a ring Fight can happen in any environment
There is a referee There is no referee
There is only one opponent There are one or more opponents
Opponent is usually unarmed, or both are armed equally Opponent may or may not be armed, we don’t know!
Fighting follows a points system No points
Fighter is trying to “win” the fight Fighter is trying to escape
“Target Zones” are usually considered relatively safe “Target Zones” are context based and can be extremely high risk
Fights can last several rounds of fixed duration Fights are usually over in seconds!

This could go on indefinitely but you get the point.

The problem may be that a lot of people get into martial arts for the wrong reason. I see it as a lifestyle and the competitions are exciting to watch, with great strategy at play between fantastic athletes. I am a big fan of the arts and think people can benefit from them, but they should be recognized and respected for what they are. If you want to benefit from the discipline, posture, mental and sporting aspect that a martial art has to offer (and pick up some fighting skills along the way) then by all means go and join one and reap the rewards! If on the other hand you just want to know what to do when someone threatens or attacks you “in the real world”, then perhaps a self-defence course or reality system would be more up your alley. And if you want both, do both!

Of course, the instructor you choose (in either case) will be almost as important as the system itself – so make sure you pick the right one. Click here for some essential information on picking an instructor.

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