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Self Defense versus Sport Martial Arts

There are as many opinions about the martial arts as there are martial artists that study them. This essay's main concern is to demonstrate the positive points of self defense oriented martial arts instead of training in sport martial arts.

Certainly sport and self defense martial arts each have a role to play in this world. Self defense martial arts are a great way to study the arts but they should remain entirely separate from sport martial arts. On the other hand sport martial arts are fine if taught but with one caveat. They are not to be used for self defense. One of the biggest problems today is one trying to pass for the other. Sport is defined as, “Physical activity that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often engaged in competitively”[1] I would first like to point out that if you are going to engage in self defense there are often no rules at all. Your opponent is going to bite, scratch, and throw things in order to win. With that in mind, sport martial artists cannot or should not in good confidence try to “sell” what they teach as a self defense. Also to avoid injuries in a sport environment, schools that teach self defense martial arts should not participate in sports. I have seen some instants where a self defense student decided to try participating in a tournament. His “career” ended badly when the first person he fought turned a wrong direction and the self defense student knocked him out. He was instantly disqualified. He was very frustrated, the parents of the child that was knocked out were very upset, and the people running the tournament had to alienate a school all because they didn't train in the right manner to avoid such injuries. However that training would have left him in a position where he would not be able to properly handle a real self defense situation and that leads me to my next point.

There is a maxim in martial arts that goes something like this, “What you do in practice you will do in the real world.” If you train in sport martial arts there are several elements to this type of training that can become a serious problem in a real defense. First, sport competitors especially in Karate competitions are forced to not follow through with their attacks. They learn the big game of tag that normally follows point fighting. Some of what they learn will work well in a self defense situation if they can learn to follow through with their attacks. However, again you run into the problem of mixing training and taking the wrong things into the wrong environment. In the real world the lack of rules and a clean and organized environment can lead to mistakes that could cost a sport martial artist dearly.

Second, sport martial art teaches the participant to use tactics and strategies that work within a set of rules. One good example is Muay Thai kickboxing can be a vicious set of rules to fight in if you are not used to it. They are great fighters and in great physical condition. But again, you’re held to the rules. Kickboxing whether American or Muay Thai there are some things you just can't do. In self defense you must keep in mind that you don't want a fight and you can't count on the attacker following a set of rules. Muay Thai often doesn't include Head butts or much in the way of wrestling maneuvers. They come to a clinch but it rarely goes beyond that in a fight in the ring. Using un-even ground, lighting, obstacles, and other elements of the environment that can hinder or help in your defense and can make a world of difference.

Third, when sport does take weapons defense into account. One example would be Tomiki Ryu Aikido's use of Tanto Dori (knife defense practice) is still set in a rules framework. One where the defender has little to no concern for injury. Also the defender cannot resort to lethal force to stop a weapon wielding attacker. Also if the attacker is to mimic the effect of a lethal attack can become problematic at best. Things like an incorrect sympathetic response can alter a method training that if it were done over and over it could lead to both people making a huge mistake in a real situation. Since this formalized practice offers no real mortal threat to either individual they both become conditioned to attacks that may and may not be grounded in realism. I have seen defense include everything from kicks and jumping techniques from many schools when it came to knife defense. Things that if the person wielding the knife had any sense at all would very easily find a hole in your defense and stab you.

Fourth, physical conditioning can also play a huge factor in self defense. We never want our self defense situation to turn into a fight. As mentioned before a fight implies that attacks are exchanged and in a real situation. The longer we stick around with an attacker the more opportunity there is to get hurt. The best exchange of blows we can hope for in self defense is that they threaten us we hit them they hit the ground and we run. For those guys out there that have had years of training. There is no glory in beating a man when he is down. The only good time to go any further into controlling him is if your family is nearby and you can't run away. Obviously in sport martial arts these concerns are usually far from our minds when we train to fight in a ring. I have to say again because it is something I have seen demonstrated time and again. What we do in training we will do in real life. If we train for sport and hit and step back to see if we got our point. Many times this is what we will do in a real fight. This alone becomes a serious problem in self defense. One attack may very well make the person we are fighting angry enough to go for a weapon etc...

This is only a few of the overall concerns involved in choosing a martial art for sport or for protection. Schools that think that they can teach sport and self defense at the same time are wrong in my humble opinion. It is possible to take sport martial arts and in an ideal environment like a sidewalk outside a the movies with nothing in hand we could all throw the perfect side kick and stop the bad guy in his tracks as he tries to mug us or our friends. There is such a vast difference between playing tag or an organized environment with rules and someone trying to really hurt you that you as a sport martial artist risk opening yourself up to bad things. Your opponent in the ring will rarely go to the groin. Your opponent in a dark alley will try to go to the groin first if he is smart.

It took me a couple of years to know the difference between sport and street and a few years beyond that to un-train the sport responses that have failed me in self defense situations. In my opinion, if you want to study a sport; take up soccer or football but just don't go into a Tae Kwon Do class with anything but sport in mind. Want self defense find Lua, Krav Maga, Aikijujutsu, Daito Ryu, Scars, or Chaos. These are just a few of the systems that teach a real world defense. There are plenty more schools that offer self defense. Some Karate schools offer a program in self defense rather then sport but you must be careful in finding them. There are people out there still that don't really know the difference yet. I have been fortunate to find instructors that are very good and either sport or self defense. The real good ones also knew the differences between the two. Now it is your turn to discover the truth for yourself.

[1]Definition from - “Sport 1 a”


By Nick Guinn

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Revised Last 1/09/08