Martial Arts = Real Self Defense?

One of the defining aspects of martial arts is the notion that along with fitness gains and reductions in life stress, a practitioner will also learn to “handle” themselves in a violent situation. Self defense may not be the main reason for many people to take up a martial art, but it certainly features in a majority of peoples reasons for training.  This gives rise to several “issues” and arguments culminating from the following questions:

a)  does a traditional martial art truly provide realistic self defense instruction?

b)  what martial art should be practiced to gain the best education and keep you safe?

As an instructor I feel it is my responsibility to ensure that I understand what my students and prospective students want and expect to gain with regards to self defense so that I can give appropriate advice on what art/system to train in, how they should train to gain maximum results and how I should structure what I teach.  To do this I need to be able to answer the above questions, but who can truthfully do this?

A martial arts instructor – The “Specialist” (possibly dabbles in other arts and styles), usually biased towards their own art.  In order to really understand an art it takes years of dedication, to invest this it takes an amount of faith in what you are studying therefore you will always be slightly biased, if you didn’t think it was the best then you wouldn’t bother with it.  Lets also not forget that many will be looking to sell themselves and their classes!

A martial artist who practices several styles – The “All-Rounder”, has a wealth of knowledge with some that will no doubt be conflicting.  The problem here is that unless they specialise in one in particular they have shown that they have a faith in training, but no faith/trust in any one to such an extent that will not have allowed the benefits/knowledge that can only be attained through time and dedication to be gained.

The self defense or realistic combat instructor –  The “Specialist”, likely to have done some martial arts but may not have got that far before taking a more direct route to defensive skills.  The obvious choice of mentor for those who purely want defense abilities, but for most this is only a part of their reason for looking to train.  This specialist is also likely to be biased, having learned their own system and seen the results they are also likely to view the parts of traditional martial arts which do not resemble their systems as pointless.  This will skew their views and therefore their answers to the questions concerned.

The professional combatist – This would include bodyguards, police, army, bouncers, etc…  Each of these will have experienced violent situations and will have had to deal with them, therefore understanding combat…. IN THEIR FIELD!  What I mean by this is that they will have experienced front line violence within their work where they have a responsibility to take action, this is only one part of “self defense”.  Are they likely to have been mugged?  Are they likely to have had to fight off a rapist?  I could keep going with this, but there is little point as the fact is that whatever their experiences there will always be things they have not experienced and cannot comment in anything other than a theoretical basis (alike the others listed above).  The other point to make about this category is that they will likely fit into any of the other 3 categories OR will be a fourth where they do not believe that anything other than natural ability and experience is required.

So…. all of the above should be respected and their views will all always have valid points, but none are appropriate to give a finite answer to either of my questions.  We must therefore look at cold facts to gain some perspective.

First of all, lets define what a traditional martial art truly is.  In their most raw forms they were training programmes to condition the mind and body.  Tai chi, kung fu, karate, tode, boxing, wrestling, etc were all developed as a way to learn to focus the mind and give the body the attributes required during combat; strength, stamina, speed and flexibility.  All of the traditional arts (even Sumo) do this using different (though similar) training methods.  They all have exercised practiced in thin air, some partner work and some degree of impact training (whether using another body, a punch bag, a makiwara or the floor).  So if they all contain these essential physical items can we judge which is better, or are they all still lacking something?  Most lack intent.  Those that have become sports will concentrate upon moves that are allowed in competition and pulling punches (this includes wearing heavily padded gloves).  Those who wish to gain sporting success will concentrate solely upon fighting within those rules, these techniques may be enough to resolve a playground squabble but will only protect you in 20-30% of dangerous situation in adulthood.

Many believe that martial arts training will give someone a calm control that will allow them to handle a violent situation without fear or anger (just like the films!).  This is just not true, although I believe a focused martial artist will display more control than an untrained person, this is only possible up to the point where violence is just about to erupt.  This means that the seasoned martial artist may be able to maintain composure during the time leading up to the potential violence, this calmness may give the opponent time to reflect and decide against a violent outcome (it is my experience that this is often the case.  On the flip side, once a situation does begin your mind will switch from utilising the human part of the brain (the front – frontal lobe) to the animal part (the middle – parietal lobe), I term this “the psycho switch”.  Once this happens you will instinctively do whatever it takes to survive/protect another.  The question, therefore, is: what use is the controlled training etc. when this happens?

In my opinion this is simple to answer.  The fitness gained from the training is part of it, the other more important side is muscle memory.  If you have spent hundreds of hours “calibrating” your eyes to specific targets efficient targets, while gaining accuracy of your technique to strike those targets, then these are likely to be used during combat.  Yes a moving aggressive target means that it is even harder to strike a point accurately and some will go astray, but spotting a target and going for it means that you are more likely to achieve a hit.

There is another side to this.  Hicks law states that the more choices you have, the slower your reaction.  It is easy to see that only having a few movements in your arsenal will therefore gain a faster defense, but does this mean that martial arts are less effective in this respect than a system such as krav maga where there are less techniques that are concentrated upon?  I believe not, provided it is taught correctly.  Using Karate as my illustration, although there may be many techniques listed, they are often slight variations on the same movement (just with a hand open rather than closed into a fist or performed at a different height or even with a different starting point).  The majority of the movement is identical.  With this thought in mind you can probably take almost all of the techniques in a standard syllabus and break them down into about 5/6 main movements.  Practicing with this attitude will develop a faster reaction time with the actual end technique being both inconsequential and possibly unidentifiable from a number of techniques.

So, having addressed the above what are the answers to my questions and what advice should I be giving people?

a)  does a traditional martial art truly provide realistic self defense instruction?

Yes, it does (provided it is not a sports oriented style), however the understanding of the instructor will denote how much.  Most information is either kept secret or is so hidden behind technique that people will not understand where it is without training for a minimum of 15 years.  Up to 90% of traditional clubs out there are probably not run by instructors with this experience or understanding and it is shown in the type of training that is provided.

b)  what martial art should be practiced to gain the best education and keep you safe?

Regardless of style or type of martial art, it totally depends upon the instructor and formation of classes.

If it is 100% syllabus based with either a portion of this being “Artistic” or “Sport oriented” then the answer is no.  You will gain skills and fitness with some self defense ability as a bi-product.

If the classes also include extensive pad-work, stress simulation exercises and unconventional attacks then you yes.  You always need to remember though that those who spend 100% of their time doing one thing will get to a standard faster than those who spend 25%, so you need to work out what you really want from training, if it is only fitness and self defense then a system such as Krav Maga is the way to go as 100% of the training time will be functional.

If however you wish to learn self defense and a way of fitness that will teach you about your body, give you calm controlled exercise that will give you mental clarity etc, then this second type of martial arts club/instructor is for you.

If you wish to fill a room with medals and trophies then one of the sports based arts would be best.

SO WHAT ADVICE WILL I BE GIVING?  As with everything I will give my honest opinion, which will only be as good as the honesty with which that student/prospective student tells me their intentions and goals.  Whether a fighting system or a martial art is appropriate will depend solely upon what the individual wants to get out of it.  Which system or art will depend upon their physiology, fitness level and their own interest.  Which instructor and club will depend solely upon personality and what the individual needs socially.

Written by

Kevin Archibald

N.B. Any errors or incorrect information will be amended immediately, should it be identified.


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