The Difference between Martial Arts and Self-Defense

Excerpt from The Psychology of Self-Defense by Chris Sutton

The difference between martial arts and self-defense training is a huge subject. In general, the two are completely different – and yet they are exactly the same. This is a hard concept for many people to understand. Since I’m both a martial arts school owner and a self-defense instructor, I completely understand the differences. But many do not. Many confuse the two.

This confusion may stem, at least in part, from the fact that in the beginning, martial arts and self-defense were one and the same.

Although some are more recent, many martial arts have been handed down for hundreds or even thousands of years. They were developed in a time when laws were minimal and wars were common. Feudal lords battled each other for territory. Empires invaded other empires. Bandits marauded unchecked. Those who wanted to survive had to know how to defend themselves, by killing other human beings when necessary.  

In other words, martial arts were the original “self-defense.”

Further, there has been no new technique or move created for thousands of years. We shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back for “creating a new way.” People give the techniques different names. They may teach them differently. They couch them in different philosophies. However, nothing truly new has been taught in many lifetimes. You can call the same punch ten different names, but it is still the same punch – the same lock, the same choke, the same take-down, the same basic maneuver.

This may surprise a lot of people, because today we have so many different martial arts. We’ve all seen so many different things on TV and in movies. But these differences aren’t in the techniques themselves – they’re in the delivery.

These differences in teaching and presentation are actually a great thing, because it exposes so many different people to self-defense and martial arts. But we must come to the basic understanding that the martial arts were created many, many years ago, out of necessity, because the warriors of old had to use them in real combat.

Today, many martial arts focus on sport. Sport, by definition, includes knowledge of one’s opponent, a preset time and place, no deadly weapons, time limits, safety equipment, points, prizes, titles, referees, fair weight classes, and many other rules.

Not that there’s anything wrong with sports. The martial arts in particular emphasize the long-term pursuit of physical and mental excellence. If your goal is to be a point tae kwon do stylist, you’ll want to train to be good at point tae kwon do. If you’re going to be an MMA cage fighter, you need to train for that. If you work hard and you’re good at whatever sport you choose, you’re going to win a lot of trophies, and you can feel good about that. But understand that they are sports.

Here’s an example to think about: Sport and self-defense are as different as:

going to the gun range and shooting targets (SPORT)


being in an actual shoot out (REALITY)

Again, there’s nothing wrong with being a target shooter. The mistake is made when a target shooter thinks that a real shootout is going to feel the same as shooting in a safe, controlled environment. But it isn’t the same at all. Targets don’t shoot back – and that makes all the difference in the world.

Can you die in a sports-oriented martial arts match? It’s possible. Anything is possible. But please understand that when two people go into a sparring match, they generally enter this competition expecting that they will most likely survive. There might be some performance anxiety, but there is not what we call primal fear – the kind of fear that will shut you down and completely erase all your techniques.

If you’ve trained only on the level of sport, without an added element of reality, when primal fear hits, everything you’ve learned will go right out the door. Your mind has to get used to real-life scenarios. Without that, the training doesn’t link when it’s carried over into a real-life situation. It doesn’t matter how much you hit a bag, or break boards, or condition your body – if you’ve never experienced a fight realistically in your mind, the link isn’t there, and the training has poor carry-over.

A real-life fight is nothing like a martial arts competition. Throughout my law enforcement career, while working in corrections, and during my many years participating in the martial arts and being a teacher, I’ve had a lot of different real-life experiences. In none of those situations has anyone ever tried to get me in an arm bar and tap me out.

When two skilled individuals meet, it’s a test of skill, conditioning, knowledge of your opponent, knowledge of the rules, and knowledge of your limited environment, whether it be the mat or the cage or what have you. However, someone with a lot of skill is generally a well-kept and disciplined person. They’re not out there looking to start a fight with you in some parking lot. So when you get into a real-life situation, for the most part – 90 percent of the time – your opponent, though aggressive, is going to be highly unskilled.

That doesn’t mean they can’t hurt you. But this lack of skill leads to a lack of general knowledge of reality. They might be overconfident, which is disastrous if they meet someone who actually is skilled.

People always say, “Hey, all these fights go to the ground.” Well, generally the two people who get into a brawl are unskilled individuals, so it’s going to go to the ground, because that’s all they know. I have a three-year-old, and he will tackle you. I didn’t teach him how to do that. It’s basic human nature to grab somebody and try to take them to the ground. So when two people meet who have no training and no background, then yes, they end up on the ground.

A skilled individual can get you on the ground, keep you on the ground, and hurt you on the ground. Or they can hurt you standing up and keep you standing up and not get taken down. That is a major, major difference. Skilled versus unskilled – skill wins.

So how can you make your martial art skills translate to real life? Your brain must get involved. The biggest muscle you have – the biggest weapon you have – is that thing between your ears called your brain, and you have to use it.

It’s tremendously important that you view your brain as a computer. As I mentioned before, it needs to create a “link” from your martial arts training to reality self-defense.

Have you ever clicked a web link, only to end up on an error page? That happens because the link is “broken.” The necessary information isn’t there to get you where you want to go.

Likewise, if you’re a trained martial artist, your body has all the skills you need to defend yourself, but if your brain doesn’t make the proper connection – all you get is an “error message.” Your brain shuts you down or distorts your skill set when it encounters something new and unfamiliar.

That’s why, to be effective, self-defense training must include stress inoculation and frag drills, auditory and visual exclusion training, attention diversion drills, and real-life (professional) scenarios. Robberies, burglaries, attempted rape, battery, bullies, weapons – all these can be simulated in training. This gives your brain the “link” it needs to put your excellent martial arts skills to use. It’s what makes your skills “battle ready.”  

This is why self-defense instruction today is often completely different from a martial arts program.

Please understand that there are so many martial arts that I can’t speak for all of them. But generally martial arts have a hierarchy, which includes a master instructor and assistant instructors, and students who are ranked according to a belt system, with the black belt being the most senior. The focus is on discipline, form and tradition.

In a self-defense program, you often have more of an academy-type atmosphere. Generally, the protocol of a martial art is set aside. You have general respect, but there is no bowing, no “yes sir” and “no sir.” Instead of the traditional martial arts uniform (called a gi), students are wearing a t-shirt, shorts and tennis shoes. And the focus is on learning effective techniques that students can carry outside that day and use immediately.

When you walk out the door after a self-defense class, you might not be in any better shape, and you may not have been studying for years, but you have something you can use right away. Something that if you’re in the mall, or walking out to your car, or you go home, and someone attacks you, you can immediately use it. In situations like that, you don’t have time for years and years.

Now, the ideal training is the self-defense program that moves into a martial art. This is outstanding, and you really want to look for this when you’re looking for a program. Then you can have the best of both worlds. But you have to know the difference between the two, and make sure your training takes reality into account, if you want to be able to use your skills to defend yourself in a real-life fight.

I’m very simplistic in talking about self-defense versus martial arts, and its application in reality; but I want to be super simple, to drive the point home.

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