Martial Arts are Not Self-Defence

One of the most common questions you’ll find in self-defence forums, groups, or discussions is “Is this art good for self-defence?”

Instantly what happens is practitioners of that art will jump in and say how it has amazing benefits and it’s a perfect solution, while those who practise other arts will retort about its shortcomings. It becomes a massive schmoz and the (probably naive) thread starter is none the wiser as to who to trust at the end of it.

I’ve spent nearly 30 years around martial arts now. I started out in traditional martial arts as a child, moved into sporting martial arts as a teen, then got into reality-based self-defence in my 20’s while working as a bouncer. Now my approach is a mixture of all. I love competition and hard training of sporting martial arts, I love traditional values and discipline of TMA, and I love the practicality and science of RBSD. So, what I say below is not meant to disparage anyone, but rather to provide a lens through which to see the problem.

The biggest problem martial artists have when evaluating whether something is good self-defence or not is that we nearly always view violence through the lens of martial arts. We look at problems on a technical level, trying to see where our techniques could have resolved the issue.

“He’s got his hands down, I definitely could have used an uppercut to the jaw here.”
“Look at them clinching, I could throw him all day.”
“Oh the fight’s on the ground, that guys doesn’t know what he’s doing, I’d put him to sleep.”

Therefore, self-defence training in most martial arts clubs actually looks very little like real violence. It looks like a sequence designed to illicit a certain technical response that fits within the syllabus of the martial art being practised.

REAL SELF DEFENCE like any other scientific pursuit (note: not art, science) needs to begin with a clear idea of the problem we’re trying to solve. We need to see what violence looks like and reverse engineer solutions from there.

If we’re trying to teach rape defence, we need to look at how people are actually raped (spoiler: usually it’s not someone jumping out of bushes.)

If we’re going to teach home invasion defence, we need to look at how home invasions take place, what position you’re likely to be in when you know it’s happening, what laws apply to the local environment, and what is the best option to give you the more desirable outcome.

If we’re teaching “street fight” defence to young males, we need to understand why young men get into fights in the first place.

Martial arts are not self-defence.

Can martial skills be applied in a self-defence setting? Absolutely. But they are not self-defence in isolation.

Real self-defence (violence management) must include, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Understanding where violence happens
  • Understanding why violence happens – both social violence and predatory violence
  • Understanding how violence happens (threat vectors, criminal trends, geographical particulars, etc)
  • Understanding your own threat profile
  • Home security
  • Travel security and vigilance in unsecured environments
  • Developing empathy, self-awareness and assertiveness to limit avoidable violence
  • How to read body language for signs of deception, nerves or agitation
  • Understanding proxemics
  • Understanding social hierarchy and group dynamics
  • Understanding verbal interaction, set ups, and de-escalation strategies
  • Understanding the mechanism of escape
  • Understanding the physiology of stress and the sympathetic nervous system
  • Understanding situational awareness and personal security
  • Understanding the legal framework of self-defence for your state
  • Combative skills – striking – offense and defence
  • Combative skills – clinch – offense and defence
  • Combative skills – ground – offense and defence
  • Combative skills – movement – offense and defence
  • Combative skills – use of weapons, improvised or otherwise – short, long, flexible and projectile
  • Combative skills – controlling environment against multiple attackers
  • Combative skills – Fleeing – Running, climbing, driving
  • Self first aid
  • Tactical first aid for others
  • Dealing with authorities and the legal system after an incident
  • Emotional, psychological and physical recovery
  • Caring for those affected by trauma – including loved ones who have sustained moral/emotional injury by proximity to your experience

I could probably list a dozen more things, but you get the point. I’ve only learned a handful of those things in the dojo over the years. The vast majority of these skills I acquired through study, reading, attending seminars and courses, and trying to make myself a more complete “warrior in the room” as Matt Larsen would say.

If you are a martial artist and your primary driver for training is to better defend yourself and your loved ones, I’d urge you to review the sample list above and grade your level of knowledge. If you’re limiting your training to punch/kick/grapple then you are missing the much bigger picture.

Managing violence is about more than martial arts.