The Difference Between Martial Arts And Self Defence

The terms "Martial Arts" and "Self-Defence" are often confused as alternative names for the same thing. These days however, with the increased attention toward "real world" systems such as Krav Maga for example, it seems people are finally starting to recognise the differences between them. Unfortunately though, the same old trend of competing martial artists arguing over whose system is better, which beats which etc. hasn't been lost.
In fact, we can now add to the equation the growing animosity between "reality based" martial arts and "traditional" martial arts - both dismissing each others style as rubbish or ineffective on different grounds. For some martial artists, any system where you are not frequently sparring full contact, or spending years and years learning perfect form and technique, simply can't train you for a fight. On the other hand, for many reality system fighters, martial arts are too steeped in tradition, have too many rules, and are totally out of touch with what a modern day, real life attack is actually like.

While I think they both have their points, I think this feuding is a pity personally, and don't see any reason why they can't co-exist, except that big ego's have always plagued martial arts and fighting sports.

A better way to look at it would be to consider self-defense as a subset of martial arts. Since most of the arts came from the far east, they are usually steeped in tradition and the progression of the combative or military aspects died long ago and are simply being preserved in some form through the art itself. The art will include this self-defense aspect, as well as competitive sparring and choreographed forms demonstrating perfected movements. They are fantastic sports, with great skill and strategy on the part of the fighters. Many "reality system" practitioners like to argue how they are too rule based and would be useless in a real fight. Apart from missing the point of studying a martial art in the first place (which shouldn't be about just being able to fight in the street), they are also ignoring the fact that martial artists spend years training, learning proper body mechanics for punching and kicking, are fit and well conditioned, are usually flexible, know how to strike without telegraphing, and have tuned their reflexes to respond quickly to oncoming attacks - not to mention that he has plenty of experience with giving and receiving counter attacks, even if "only" in the context of sparring. I usually roll my eyes when I hear this argument from reality trainers and their students.

On the other hand, martial artists are guilty of the same thing. Having spent years of disciplined training to achieve a black belt, it's no wonder they wouldn't want to endorse a system that claims to teach regular people how to defend themselves effectively in such a short time, but long before Krav Maga and other such systems came onto the scene I seem to remember the arguments between them over "which style beats which", so it's nothing new really. To top it off, we've got MMA now (which itself has become a closed system/style) to add to the debates.

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 BUT to fight, that there are NO rules, and that the fight is most likely unfair and to your disadvantage. Given this, most reality systems then assume that you are facing a possibly life-threatening confrontation with 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.

"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's"). 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! It is a "fair fight". Both fighters are entering it by choice, can stop at any time, are obeying the rules designed with their safety in mind and have a referee to enforce them, are facing an opponent that is approximately at their skill level and within their weight category, and the goal is to win either on points or by knock out. The rules also aim to make this challenging so that the fights make for a good spectator sport. They are great athletes and deserve respect for what they are, but comparing this to a "street fighting" course is kind of like comparing apples with oranges.

The reason the debates come up at all may be because 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 great fighters. I am a big fan of the arts and think people can benefit from the discipline, posture, mental and sporting aspect that a martial art has to offer, as well as picking up effective fighting skills along the way. If this is what you are looking for then you should join one and reap the rewards! If on the other hand you just want to know what to do when someone threatens or attempts to attack you "in the real world", where you are not interested in "fighting to win" but rather to survive, 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 at least as important as the system itself - so make sure you pick the right one. And whichever one you choose, try to respect that other peoples choices were made for their own reasons. Martial artists always talk about respect and integrity in their classes, so it's a pity when they don't display it toward their fellow community.

Paul Duffy teaches self-defense and Krav Maga in Dublin, Ireland. He has trained in several martial arts styles, both hard and soft, since childhood. You can find many more tips and information on his blog.

Paul's focus today is on teaching effective self-defense to everyday people, and devises courses specifically suited to this purpose.

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