When thinking about learning self-defense, most people immediately imagine that it involves learning a martial art like Karate, BJJ, MMA or something of that nature.
The reality is that these arts are not the same as learning self-defense!
Martial Arts focus on developing physical and mental skills related to that art. Most of the modern-day martial arts are focused on sports and competitions to determine who the best athlete is in that discipline. In competition where strict protocols and rules apply, the rules and protocols are often so strict that in some arts, even the brand of uniforms worn needs to be “approved” by the regulating body. Rules are also implemented to minimize the risk of serious injury. In point fighting karate for example, contact to the face is prohibited and the karateka simulates a punch to the face and then often turns around holding his/her hand in the air to demonstrate that he/she “delivered a blow” to the opponent’s face. The referee then stops the match and awards a point before the match is started again. In sports like BJJ and MMA , an athlete can tap on the mat to signal that he/she cannot get out of the hold and is about to be choked out.
When studying these martial arts, most of the training time is spent on perfecting physical skills and tactics. Even before competition fights, a lot of time is spent studying the opponent to identify his/her weaknesses and training is then adapted to exploit those weaknesses.
Most modern martial arts are focused on fighting a single, unarmed opponent in a safe and controlled environment on a padded mat. In some martial arts, traditional weapons like a bow or sword are used and practitioners learn how to use these weapons against their opponents. Some martial arts add a “self-defense” module to their classes where students learn some physical escapes and defenses against common attacks.
Can the physical skills learned in these martial arts be applied in self-defense? Yes, some of the techniques certainly can be used very effectively.
So, what exactly is self-defense then and how does it differ from martial arts?
The main difference is the intent of learning self-defense.
With martial arts, the goal is mostly fitness, competition and also learning some physical skills that can be used when attacked. The goal of learning self-defense on the other hand is to understand how anti-social and criminal attackers select victims, how to recognize threats, how to make yourself a less desirable target and how to stop the threat by any means necessary. Stopping a threat could mean running away, using verbal conflict de-escalation skills, complying with the demands of the attacker in certain circumstances and it could also mean fighting. In regards to fighting, it is all about stopping the threat as fast as possible so that the victim can escape to safety. Less emphasis is placed in correct execution of techniques and sequences of techniques. No emphasis is placed on getting the attacker tap out nor on scoring points. A lot of effort is placed on target selection and how to cause maximum injury to those targets using either physical techniques, modern weapons or improvised weapons. Self-defense is 70% focused on learning how to avoid becoming the victim of an attack and 30% focused on physical skills to defend against an attack if it cannot be avoided.
Self-defense is more about mindset than physical skills. That is the reason why self-defense can be taught in a short amount of time vs martial arts which takes many years to fully master. With self-defense even the physical techniques are easy to learn. You do not need specific footwork, body movement or attack sequences to stab an attacker in the eye with a ballpoint pen – you just need to know that you will get a reaction if you injure an eye, intent to cause serious injury, and you need to be able to use whatever is necessary to inflict that injury. The most difficult part of the physical self-defense techniques is to develop the mindset (intent) to cause serious injury when your safety is threatened.
Another main difference between martial arts and self-defense is to learn how to react when faced with multiple attackers who are often armed and how to effectively do that in less-than-ideal situations i.e. when getting out of a car. Sometimes it is just better to do nothing instead of trying to use flashy kicks and other tactics to try and fight multiple attackers. In self-defense you are taught how to evaluate a situation to determine what cause of action will have the best outcome.
Most attackers are not professional martial arts athletes. In fact, most of them have zero training. They just have two things namely the intent to injure and a technique they know works most of the time against weaker opponents they selected. Also, attackers determine the time, place and method of the attack. This means that they always have the element of surprise on their side and will try to catch their victims off guard in a compromised position. Trying to fight an untrained attacker with sophisticated martial arts techniques is extremely difficult. During most attacks there are no standard punches and kicks. When watching video footage of real attacks, it looks like schoolyard fighting with a lot of wild uncoordinated swinging, wrestling and then of course the use of weapons. That is the reason why self-defense training is not focused on correct techniques but more on the ability to think during a chaotic situation, identify targets to injure and doing whatever is necessary to inflict that injury, no matter how technically correct or not the attack is executed. In self-defense, it is not about looking cool while doing a defense, it is about doing what can be done in a bad situation to get out of there as quickly and safely as possible.
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