Realities Created, Maintained and Destroyed, WHILE-U-WAIT!

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Martial Arts and Self Defense


Someone wrote me today with a question. It was :

Hey, this big name person in the martial arts/self defense field said that "Martial arts are not self defense training", I want to take a martial art, but I want to be able to defend myself if I have to. You are old and wise and have survived many winters (OK, I made that part up, but is sounds good) Which should I study.

There are so many problems with the statement "Martial Arts are not Self Defense Training" that I hardly know where to begin.

The first thing I would have to ask would be "Is this person selling something?" If he is, he will have a strong bias towards whichever view sells more of his product regardless of what "objective" evidence may have to say one way or the other.

Second, does the person making this statement get their livelihood from whatever it is that they are selling? If they do then the bias factor goes up exponentially. (Before you ask, I have a "real job" and so I teach for the sheer joy of it, which gives me a different sort of bias)

Now comes the interesting stuff.

The statement "Martial Arts are not Self Defense training" is functionally meaningless. It is such a generalization that it has no real information on the subject whatsoever.

This is an old sales ploy. When a person is confronted with a statement like this, in order for them to understand it (as it contains no real information) they must pull from their own experience, and so are a bit more likely to agree with the statement, because they are finding the information to make meaning out of the statement from their own experience.

The proper "challenge" to a statement like this is "which marital art specifically are you referring to and which "self defense training" are you referring to? Without this information all you are reading is a "press release".

We know that from a general perspective that this statement is false, because we have a history of people who have successfully defended themselves with their martial arts training. So if the implication of the statement is "you cannot adequately use martial arts training to defend yourself" then there has to be another agenda to be found.

This statement, from a linguistic point of view, represents a logical fallacy called "The False dilemma" which is part of a set of fallacies called Fallacies of Distraction and is found in a special subset of this logical fallacy called "argumentum ad ignorantiam" or argument from ignorance.

In other words, the statement "Martial Arts are not Self Defense training" has the dubious distinction of being both false and meaningless.

So what are the differences between "Martial Arts" and "Self Defense training"?

Well, I could cop out and say "by the general definition, none" but that would be begging the question.

So first we have to define what I mean when I say martial art and what I mean when I say self defense training.

To me, a (civilian) martial art is a system of long term training that addresses individual conflict from a number of different viewpoints. These views will include physical and mental aspects of contesting with another person or persons. (They are different than military martial arts in the same way a rapier is different from a cannon).

Self Defense training is in my opinion, a short term course, seminar or workshop that teaches simple, easy to learn skill sets that are designed to give one an edge in the regrettable circumstance of having to defend oneself.

The analogy I like to draw is that Self Defense training is like boot camp. You are given a set of quick survival skills that are specifically designed to enhance a person's chances of short term survival. There is less care given to the long term effects of such training.

So just as a farm boy goes into boot camp and comes out with some skills that give him a better chance of getting home in one piece from the war, Self Defense training gives you some easy to learn skills that can get you home on one piece.

The downside to both though is that the trade off is usually shaving hours, days or months of the end of one's life. This is because both self defense courses and boot camp teach how to be effective without being efficient, so the strain on the body accumulates over the years.

Now I also draw the analogy that martial arts are like "Special Forces" in that there is the time to do sustained, incremental training. This means that a person has time to become both effective and efficient, to have a more sophisticated skill set. Now if you want to refine your skills this is important. Self defense is not concerned with refinement, just with getting yourself out of a bad situation (and if you tear muscle and such it is OK because you will have time to heal).

So the truth is (except for marketing) the whole martial arts versus self defense argument is specious.


Let me draw out a related argument that will, I hope shed more light on this issue.
(for further elaboration of this argument see the works of Scott Sonnon as I am borrowing a lot from him here)

Within the martial arts world that is an ongoing argument between the "sport" martial artists and the "combat" martial artists.

The "sport side" says that the combat people are unrealistic because the never test their theories against someone who does not cooperate with them.

The "combat side" says that the sports people are unrealistic because they fight with rules, one on one, and with a referee, so "sport" is not realistic.

Both sides of this argument are missing the point because neither side understands what the other brings to the table.

Most "combat styles" focus on drills and scenarios of one sort or another. This is very good because it refines the various skill sets that one has to work with. The problem with ONLY doing this is that a person can develop an unrealistic belief in what he is capable of doing. This belief tends to erode quickly when he is faces with an uncooperative opponent.

Most sport styles focus on sparring of one sort or another. This give a person the chance to test their skills against someone who is doing everything they can to make sure that those skills don't work. Sport styles also develop a higher level of physical fitness than do combat styles and a greater degree of mental toughness. The downside to the sport styles is that they tend to "plateau" out quickly. They will often not develop the kind of sophistication and sensitivity that the combat styles do because sports players tend often times, to concentrate on working a small number of high percentage moves.

For me, the best approach is to combine the two. To use drills and such to learn the skills and sparring to hone them and learn to make your skills work when the other guy doesn't want them to, and take that experience back to your drills. This back and forth seem to produce people who are both effective and efficient.


I have known a lot of people who have taught self defense courses, The good, The Bad and The Ugly.

If someone wants to take a self defense course there are a few things to look for.

First can, and will the teacher demonstrate that what they are teaching will work against someone who is not cooperating?

If they can't or won't, then be a bit dubious.

Does the course have padded attacker work?

These are better over all than the ones that don't.

Does the teacher tell you that he or she won't spar because their skills are too dangerous or deadly and they don't want to hurt their sparring partner?

Be vary dubious about this one. It is just possible that the teacher is too lazy or too stupid to figure out how to spar safely, or they are being dishonest about their skills.

Next, does the self defense course address issues of awareness? After all, your mind is your best weapon so you should be learning how to use it as well.

So if a person wants to have basic skills to defend himself (or herself) taking a good self defense course will give them to you, but don't expect miracles.

You will find everything mentioned above in a good martial arts school though, and even though it will take longer to refine your skills, you will have a much better chance of surviving (or even better yet avoiding) an encounter than any self defense course will give you.

So it is up to the individual to decide what they want, a quick fix or long term gains.

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