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A lie that is being promoted is that
sport oriented martial arts training
IS self-defense training. This lie has become
so endemic it is accepted as 'the truth' --
that's until you end up bleeding or arrested
because you discovered first hand
they aren't the same thing.

Are Martial Arts Self-Defense?

On this page:
Self defense | So What Is Self-Defense? | Do They Work? | Are You Helpless?

The short answer is 'no.' 

Although what you learn there can be used for self-defense, martial arts are not synonymous with self-defense. Quite frankly, when it comes to teaching the realities of staying safe in a modern urban environment, most martial arts suck -- especially strip mall schools. Your personal safety will be far better served understanding crime, home security and avoiding high-risk behavior than being able to break a board with your big toe.

And yet, we are constantly asked what sort of martial arts someone should take to learn about 'self-defense.'

Self-defense If you are looking for self-defense training, know right now, that most martial arts schools cannot offer what you are looking for. This is because of three interrelated issues.

One, violence (and don't just assume you know what that word means) comes in many different levels and for many reasons

Violence can range

  • from a screaming argument
  • from a threat display that escalates to a physical contact,
  • to an argument that goes physical,
  • to a date rape,
  • to having to 'sit on' a quarrelsome drunk friend,
  • to a fight,
  • to a robbery,
  • to someone trying to specifically kill you,
  • to being being caught in an active shooter situation,
  • to a SWAT team officer doing a high-risk entry into a room and having to shoot an armed suspect.

They are all violence. And ALL of these have different conditions, different solutions and pose different problems.

As such, they require different levels of response.

Two, as violence is so varied, so to has to be self-defense. Because what works for one situation, doesn't work for another.

On top of that, self-defense is a much more complex issue than mere physical prowess. Commonsense, lifestyle choices, certain habits and good manners will go much further to ensure your personal safety than any fighting style. This is despite what a fast talking MA school owner will tell you as he's trying to get you to sign the contract.

Three, martial arts is training, but people mistake training for education. There is a BIG difference.

Education is a generalized introduction to many issues. Whereas training -- by its very nature -- only addresses specific conditions and problems.

For example that SWAT officer's high risk entry training isn't going to help him control a drunk in a bar. Furthermore, the conditions he is operating under are not the same as your needs and concerns. So his training won't work for your self-defense needs. Nor will training that works for you, work for an officer.

Self defense is an issue requiring education AND training.

You will learn very specific things in the martial arts, however, that doesn't mean you are prepared to handle all those situations we described above.

That is where education becomes an issue. Starting with the fact you need to be educated about what self-defense is and isn't.

 When we say that martial art techniques can be used for self defense, they also can be use as means of assault, fighting and even murder.  It's HOW they are used and in what circumstances that dictate if they are self-defense or illegal violence.

Unfortunately, that isn't how martial arts are marketed. They'll tell you they are one stop shopping for ALL of your self-defense needs. They claim their training is all encompassing education.

While we will address the physical effectiveness of what is being taught in a bit, you should know a common misconception isn't! In fact, it is spot on.

Many people believe martial arts are fighting. Martial artists insist "the MA are not fighting."

They do this because popular society says "Fighting is bad. Self-defense? Well, that's okay." In order to stay in business, no matter WHAT the school teaches they are going to market it as self-defense. Not only is there is a BIG difference between between fighting and self-defense, but there's a big difference between martial arts and self-defense.

Unfortunately, what most schools are teaching is in fact, based on fighting.

So What Is Self-Defense?
People always talk about how the martial arts are good for self-defense, but they are most often using the term inappropriately. It isn't only just that they are thinking of it in a limited context (usually based on limited personal experience), but the fact that the term has been deliberately misinterpreted and marketed. What they are talking about when they use this term is something completely different than self-defense.

What they are usually talking about is fighting or assaultive behavior. You should also know that we (Marc and Dianna) have a radically different definition of "self-defense" than how most people use the term. Shockingly ours runs along the lines of:

    DEFENSE, SELF-DEFENSE - A defense to certain criminal charges involving force (e.g. murder). Use of force is justified when a person reasonably believes that it is necessary for the defense of oneself or another against the immediate use of unlawful force. However, a person must use no more force than appears reasonably necessary in the circumstances. Force likely to cause death or great bodily harm is justified in self-defense only if a person reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm (1).

Oddly enough, that's pretty much the legal guidelines as well. Yes, it will vary from state to state, country to country, but that's the general idea. Notice that it isn't a carte blanche; there are all kinds of checks and balances about how much force you can use to 'defend' yourself. Specifically: What you can realistically and legally do when you are physically attacked without provocation.

That last sentence may seem simple, but it is an incredibly slippery slope, as so many martial artists who were arrested for "defending themselves" have found out. Truth is, the reason they were arrested is because while they thought what they had done was self-defense, it was anything but.

Self-defense is a legally defined term and it is up to YOU to meet those standards with your behavior, not create your own standards and call it self-defense as so many do. Yet, that is not what you are going to hear from the instructor who got you to sign the contract.

But realize when we talk about self-defense, we are referring to a small aspect of a larger personal safety strategy. A strategy that self-defense is a small subset of a bigger picture. At the very best, we look at physical self-defense as damage control. And no damage control is ever as good as not getting into the situation in the first place.

Unfortunately, what martial arts teach as self-defense, is not just damage control, but of questionable effectiveness at that.

Do They Even Work?
Not only does the subject of self-defense involve much more than physical motion, but -- in an overwhelming majority of cases -- the physical movement these schools do teach have been watered down for safety in sport competitions.

And yes, most martial arts have become martial sports -- regardless of what combative history or self-defense use they claim. Unfortunately, as there is a big difference between fighting and self-defense, there's also a big difference between sport fighting and defensive movement.

Recognize that sport movement is designed for two elements:
1) To ensure the safety of the participants
2) To extend the match for the enjoyment of the audience.

That is NOT to say that these aren't powerful moves. They are, but at the same time there is a built in safety factor. What we are saying is that the kind of movement done in sports competition is not designed to created the physics that create immediate damage to another human. By this we're not talking inflicting pain. We're talking about breaking something in the attacker to end the attack.

Sports fighting operates on the idea of victory through the collective -- whether it be collective damage or points. That is to say multiple attacks. Point sparring -- where each hit is worth points -- is a race to see who can either get the most points in a limited time or a race to a number of points. In full contact systems the idea is to create collective soft tissue damage and exhaustion until your opponent cannot continue or submits. Although 'knock outs' are the ultimate indicator of this, these are rare.

To once again bring up the idea that the average person is correct about what they think martial arts are about, take this test. Imagine the participants of one of these sporting events. First put them in normal clothing. Second, take the event out of the ring and super-impose it on the backdrop of the last bar you were in.

Then ask yourself ... is that self-defense or fighting?

Do this knowing that is exactly what the security cameras, the witnesses, the prosecuting attorney, the judge and the jury are going to see. Moreover, that's the question, those other people are going to be asking when they see the video of you using your martial arts training.

Let's take another look at the purposes of sporting styles, especially the part about extending the match. Take the shortest sports bout you have ever seen, do you want it to take that long before it is effective against a 250 biker with a knife? Or do you think he'd win in that time?

Our standard for an effective self-defense strategy is that it gets you out of danger in three moves or less (under five seconds is another way of looking at it). If it can't do that (or doesn't teach that) then it is a sports style that someone is trying to sell as self-defense.

Are there martial arts schools that still teach effective movement? Movement that you can use to defend yourself with? Yes. But even then, that teaching isn't likely to cover the legal and psychological aspects of self-defense. But finding them can be difficult.

Are You Helpless? Upon hearing all of this you might think:
A) The martial arts are useless
B) We're against martial arts training

Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is ANY martial art style can be used for self-defense.

That is if your idea of self-defense is to block and extract yourself from danger. It's when you start trying to make them work for other goals that things begin to deteriorate. This is especially true if you start calling those other things 'self-defense' (such as fighting).

Do we recommend people have some kind of physical training? Well, it's not a bad idea. It's like having jumper cables, a spare tire and a jack in your car is a good idea. Hopefully you'll never need it, but just in case. But to get this training you don't have to sign up for a three year contract. You can get some training in short bouts and when combined with personal safety strategies it's often enough to keep you safe.

When it comes to studying the martial arts we have a saying: People come to the martial arts for self-defense. They stay for many other reasons. If you're looking for some other things in your life, then maybe the martial arts are worth investigating. But we're not going to tell you that the martial arts are for everyone, because they aren't. But for those who get something from them, they are spectacular.

However, if you're only interested in learning self-defense, then save your money because long term studying isn't what you're looking for. In fact, most people who we've spoken to who dropped out of the martial arts, tell us it was because they were disappointed in what they were being taught ... because, although they were told it was, they weren't being taught what they had come there to learn.

Conversely, there aren't any short weekend seminars that will teach you everything you need either. No matter how appealing these programs may appear, short cuts that seem to answer all your fears about self-defense are another form of dangerous misinformation.

While there are many benefits to be gained from the study of the martial arts, unfortunately, due to commercialism, self-defense really isn't one of them. When it come to that, physical ability is only a small part of your overall strategy.

Return to top

1) Notice the two important words there "immediate" and "harm." Immediate means that, you're about to be attacked NOW! Not threatened, not intimidated, not insulted, not your feelings hurt, not scared, but about to be physically attacked. The other important word is 'harm' That's an important term because it implies not pain, but intense -- if not permanent -- physical injury. A fat lip hurts, but it is not harm. Yet, this is the kind of stuff you will NOT be taught in most martial arts schools. By instructors who claim to teach you self-defense. (Definition source 'Lectric Library.) Return to Text

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