Combat Sports, Traditional Martial Arts and Defense

While we generally limit our discussion of hard skills, as mentioned previously there are some subjects that need to be addressed and building on our discussion of combatives we are going to discuss the relationship between combat sports, traditional martial arts and functional self defense skills.

First off this is a contentious and controversial subject.  There is much misinterpretation, misinformation and differing opinions.  Hopefully we will be able to find a middle ground and give you some food for thought and some things to consider regarding physical self defense training.

In Considerations for Combatives we discussed some of the functional and effective elements of physical self defense to include: mindset, use of gross motor movements, tools such as palm strikes and hammer fists, realistic scenarios, etc.  Unfortunately the reality is this type of training is difficult to find and may not be available in many or most areas.  What is available most places can be generally grouped into two broad categories: combat sports and traditional martial arts.   We’ll look at each of these individually starting with combat sports

Combat sports comprise of activities such as boxing, kickboxing (Muay Thai and other variants such as Savate), Brazilian Jiujitsu, mixed martial arts and wrestling.  Judo can correctly be classified as both a traditional martial art and a combat sport but for our purposes we will group it with combat sports.  Combat sports offer some great benefits that can translate to self defense skills but they are after all sports and sometimes their applicability for self defense is grossly overstated by practitioners.  Perhaps the best way to look at it is by addressing the pros and cons:

Combat sport pros:

  • Practitioners apply their skills full contact in a live environment against a resisting opponent.  They learn very quickly what will and will not work – at least within the parameters of their sport.
  •  In training participants get hit, thrown, taken down, choked, etc. and get the opportunity to do this to someone else as well.  It provides an opportunity to learn to take punishment and keep going, something that is very important in a real physical confrontation.
  •  Some – though by no means all – of the techniques used in combat sports are transferable either directly or with minor modification – to a street scenario.

Combat sport cons:

  • Combat sports are sports with rules and competitions in these sports are a “mutual combat” situation where both participants are prepared and are willingly engaged which is very different from an assault on street.  There are also safety rules that do not exist in a violent confrontation.
  •  Combat sports are on-to-one contests between two unarmed opponents where as many real encounters will involve multiple opponents and weapons.  Sports do not require the combatants to focus on anyone but their opponent where as in a real situation there are more variables and situational awareness is key.
  • Some techniques used in combat sports such as closed-fist punching to the head, intentionally going to the ground and high kicks are usually not good options in an encounter on the street.
  • Combat sports competitions and sparring tend to emphasize a back-and-forth type of flow trading shots or looking for openings.  This is the opposite of the full-on, all-out aspect of a street confrontation and can breed bad habits.
  • Training is focused on an opponent applying the same skills or methodology as you (with the possible exception of MMA).

Traditional martial arts (TMA) encompass a wide variety of disciplines and almost any blanket statement will not be applicable to some of them.  With traditional martial arts in particular much depends on the instructor and his or her ability to tailor techniques and elements of the particular art to be street effective.  Traditional martial arts include most styles of karate, Japanese forms of jiu-jitsu, aikido and aikijutsu, various Chinese styles of kung fu, Indonesian and Malaysian arts such as silat and bersilat and many Filipino martial arts as well as many others. Suffice to say that many traditional martial arts were developed at another point in history where threats were different and many have changed or perhaps been diluted with the passage of time.

Again a very brief look at the pros and cons in a very general way (perhaps much more general than our look at combat sports due to the wide variety of systems that could be included in “traditional martial arts”):

TMA Pros:

  •  Many techniques in TMA were designed to cripple or kill without regard to the safety element found in combat sports.  If these aspects can be extracted they are very useful.
  •  Some TMA incorporate hard contact drills or full contact sparring that can inoculate practitioners to pain and provide mental conditioning much as combat sports can.
  •  Many TMA address issues such as multiple opponents or weapons – elements that are absent in combat sports.  However some TMA that do train this do not train in well – especially with regard to weapons.

TMA Cons:

  • Many TMA are taught by practicing against a compliant opponent and many emphasize a tool box of techniques that are either not effective or are simply not the best choice in a violent confrontation.
  •  Often a lot of time is spent on archaic or ritualistic activities that have little or no applicability to realistic self defense.  There are several respected instructors that still claim that forms or kata have utility but I have never been convinced of this.  The positives they cite can be better developed by doing shadow boxing or shadow fighting in a more dynamic, realistic way.
  •  There is often an environment of obedience or subservience where students are expected to accept the instructor’s teaching with blind faith.
  •  Emphasis on belt rankings, promotions and learning set curriculum often takes precedence over realistic training.

We have touched very briefly on some of the pros and cons of training in combat sports disciplines versus traditional martial arts when instruction in more realistic combative systems is not available or accessible.  This is a topic that could fill a book and as this is only a short thousand-word article we are forced to make many generalities that I am sure some readers will take issue with.  The goal is to give a person with little or no background in this subject and who is seeking training in physical self defense skills some framework with which to make a decision when the only options available where they live or work are combat sports and traditional martial arts.  For me – faced with that choice I would probably select a combat sport.  The important thing is to apply critical thinking and not accept things at face value.

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2 Responses to Combat Sports, Traditional Martial Arts and Defense

  1. Diana says:

    Personally, I agree with your pros and cons of the traditional martial arts. What I love about this discipline is that we also learn how to defend ourselves. I’m thinking to start practicing it, but when I will have more spare time… unfortunately, these days I’m very busy and I can’t!

    • Thanks Diana. Its difficult to fit it into a busy schedule. That’s another good reason to emphasize a lot of the softer skills like situational awareness and identifyign and avoiding potentially dangerous situations.

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