One of the most common reasons for starting a martial art is the desire to learn some self defence.
This initial reason often gives way after a short amount of time training to motivations more suitable to maintaining the discipline of long term training. These reasons range from love of the art, to love of the community and even all the way to love of the way you look when you train regularly.
But the desire to learn to defend yourself is still what caused you to buy into martial arts training in the first place and the sad fact is that not all martial arts that claim to teach self defence skills are capable of living up to the marketing.
So what makes a martial art suitable for developing realistic self defence skills?
Studying a functional martial art – that is, a martial art whose training regularly involves live & realistic sparring in which an opponent is actively challenging you – is a great foundation. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Wrestling, Judo, Boxing and Muay Thai are all excellent examples of a functional martial art.
These martial arts have the advantage of also being combat sports. Training for a sport, whether or not you end up competing, means becoming an athlete. Athletes become used to facing and overcoming adversity; Athletes become used to pushing, striving and driving towards a goal; Athletes are used to getting up when the chips are down.
That said, it’s still important to understand that sparring or competing – however unrestricted the rule set – is different from a self defence scenario.
There are a number of factors which are unique to self defence but none of them involve the use of techniques that are “too dangerous” to apply in training or competition. Eye gouging, fish hooking and groin shots aren’t the silver bullets that turn the ineffective fighter into a capable martial artist. Yes, they are illegal techniques in the majority of combat sports but this is because there is a significant difference between someone who has completed a two hour self defence workshop trying to stick their fingers in your eyes and a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu purple belt holding you down and deciding to blind you.
To misquote Watchmen – The rules aren’t there to protect me from you, they’re there to protect you from me.
The differences are more to do with the uncertainty, the unpredictability and the chaos of a “real fight”.
When sparring or competing there is a defined start and end to a fight – there is no uncertainty to when, how long or even if you should fight.
When sparring or competing it is predetermined where, who with and under what rules a fight takes place – there is nothing unpredictable about the environment.
When sparring or competing your opponent is likely to behave in a way that prioritises their own health and safety and attack with an effective, efficient style – there is none of the chaos of an emotional assailant.
Self defence situations feature many of the same skillsets developed by sparring but behave in a manner that is radically different.
The plus side is that these differences are easy to train for once they have been identified. Situational awareness, pre-fight scenarios, disengagement strategies, chaotic movements, weapons, multiple opponents are all things you can train to deal with in a safe and realistic fashion so if it is of interest to you, you can easily integrate it into your training.
Just don’t do it too often – it makes you weird.
There’s a line that separates caution from paranoia and regular, specific self defence training is a real easy way to leap head first over that line.
Fundamentally, when it comes to self defence, mindset trumps technique. Someone who is determined, who can push through pain and chase a goal is the most likely to successfully navigate a self defence situation.