Martial art and self-defense: what are the differences?

What is the difference between martial arts and self-defense?

Self-defense is (should be):

  • A way to avoid / limit, as much as possible, violence (read Personal defense: the S.A.F.E. method)
  • A way to preserve us, our properties (and, possibly, also the integrity of all the involved people)
  • A way to solve problems with intelligence (in most cases, preventing violence)
  • A way to use violence proportionally to the risk we are facing
  • A way to be prepared (as much as possible) for asymmetric fighting conditions

Martial arts are (should be):

  • A way to discover ourselves
  • A way to deeply learn how to fight
  • A way to create / share / maintain a culture
  • A way to gain a high-level wellness and skills
  • A way to strengthen our mind

Sport martial arts are (should be):

  • A way to challenge ourselves
  • A way to respectfully compete with other athletes
  • A way to gain a high-level fitness
  • A way to test our fighting skills
  • A way to free our aggressivity in a controlled way

Street fighting is:

  • Pure violence

From these assumptions it is obvious that, even if there could be a lot of common points, not everything can be overlapped:

All this should be obvious but few people know and (especially) accept it.

Normal martial arts courses do not prepare for self-defense

Self-defense should be a path to avoid violence, not to force its use:

  • Outside of a controlled context, accepting to fight, it’s the last resource, not the first (it could signify to cause a death, even ours)
  • A street aggression is not a standardized game with safety rules (bells, sportiness, soft floors, etc.) and does not end when we want (in a lot of cases it ends only after a big injury)

It’s for these reasons that self-defense should teach things like:

These arguments are generally excluded by normal martial arts courses (traditional, sportive, etc.) and it is completely normal: because it is not their focus.

Being a great motorcyclist does not mean being a great car driver even if a lot of dynamics may appear the same.

Illusions cost too much: any martial arts practitioner that has never faced this type of topics should understand that he cannot be prepared in fields which have not even been mentioned in the courses that he frequented.

Violence (combat) is only a part of self-defense training

Before deciding to (try to) use violence against someone we should ask ourselves if:

  • We know what does it means to badly hurt someone in a civil context (legally and psychologically)
  • We know that violence calls violence; especially those who live within clan-families (in many cases) will search for vengeance
  • We know that a disproportionated reaction is severely punished by law
  • We know that in a lot of countries if we beat someone and the judge do not know who started (90% of the cases), we can be prisoned waiting for judgment (if he believes that it is possible to reiterate the crime or to escape)
  • We know that, in a lot of cases, we will have to pay an expensive lawyer (normally for years and without any guarantee of success)
  • We know that in a court it is not right who is right but only who can demonstrate it (if we are alone, the word of an aggressor has the same weight of ours)
  • We really know (above all) the risks to face a stranger (or more) in a hostile environment, in a no-rules fight

Bad instructors, bad teachings, bad results

The problem is that there are a lot of bad instructors (both in martial arts both directly in self-defense courses, read Recognize good / bad master: 5 characteristics) who delude their students to be able to face any type of critical street situation with too easy replies:

  • With extremely disproportionated violent reactions (unreal and / or dangerous)
  • With never-happening techniques (incredibly easy disarming, etc.)
  • With simplified simulated scenarios (only with cooperative partners)
  • Without any type of sparring (and always in protected environments)
  • Excluding all the mental aspects (stress, strategy, self-control, etc.)
  • In a few lessons without real daily training (lesson 1 how to free hands, 2 how to parry a punch, 3 how to disarm a handgun, 4 how to beat Bruce Lee with one hand, etc.)

This way they make their students weaker than not knowing anything (in a lot of cases, the natural instinct is better than this). This way they put at risk their lives.

In-depth articles


Reply in the comments and share your experience:

  • In your opinion, what is the biggest difference between martial arts and personal defense?

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