Most people think that learning a martial art teaches you self-defense. But actually most martial arts don't teach you self-defense – they only teach you how to deal with self-defense failure. That's something I realized only after practicing martial arts for nearly 15 years.
The Difference Between Martial Arts & Self-Defense
Here's an easy way to understand the difference between martial arts and self-defense, and why one doesn't always equal the other.
It's 4 in the morning, and you're going home by yourself after a late night out. You wonder whether to take your usual short-cut through the back-alley. It's dark and deserted, but you decide to anyway.
Halfway through, a man steps out and threatens you with a knife, demanding you hand over your wallet. You don't want any trouble so you hand it to him, but he lunges at you after taking it. Your martial arts training helps you sidestep the attack, disarm the man and throw him to the ground, after which you run like hell back home.
You reach home a little shaky, but safe. You realize you should have been more careful about taking the back-alley earlier.
It's 4 in the morning, and you're going home by yourself after a late night out. You wonder whether to take your usual short-cut through the back-alley, but it's dark and deserted, so you decide to walk the well-lit and busier main road. You reach home safely, but a little late, and think you were probably too paranoid earlier.
Good at Martial Arts, Bad at Self-Defense
In Scenario A, you displayed good martial arts skill when you avoided and disarmed the threat. You were bad at self-defense however, because you placed yourself in danger through a bad decision. Had any of the many variables been different, you could have been hurt, or worse.
In Scenario B, you displayed zero martial arts skill, but excellent self-defense because you kept yourself safe all the way until you reached home.
See the difference between martial arts and self-defense now?
The Spectrum of Danger
The difference between self-defense and martial arts is when they come into play along a spectrum of danger. On one end of this spectrum, you have safety. As you progress along this spectrum, risk increases with physical danger, and the end point of the spectrum is the ultimate danger: death. The odds of getting physically hurt in violence varies. The odds of getting physically hurt without violence is zero. Even if you're successful at handling it, it's always safer to avoid physical violence than to engage in it.
Effective self-defense starts from the point of safety, minimizing physical danger as much as possible – that might mean just choosing the main road over the deserted alley. Martial arts fits later along the spectrum, when physical danger is already threatening you and your previous attempts at self-defense have failed.
Self-Defense is More than Martial Arts
Martial arts practice techniques in situations where you are already far along the spectrum of danger; with the bad guy already a threat. A technique might be taught, for example, against a bad guy already swinging a knife at you.
In reality, violence doesn't happen in a vacuum – there's a time and place where it occurs. Effective self-defense enters earlier along the spectrum, and asks why you would go to a place with the bad guys in the first place?
Although the martial arts can form a part of self-defense, self-defense is larger than martial arts. Martial arts today usually don't address the context of self-defense and the fact that a lot of things had to go wrong along the spectrum before someone starts swinging a knife at you. Good self-defense instruction has to teach not only physical self-defense skills, but also awareness training, tactical thinking and emotional management.
Awareness in Self-Defense
Awareness is the early warning radar that lets you know when something's going to go wrong. Why has that person been staring at me for the last 10 minutes? Why is that person walking closer and closer towards me? Why is that guy just hanging around the ATM?
Tactical Thinking in Self-Defense
Tactical thinking is using your wits to keep you as close to the safety point of the spectrum as possible. Avoiding the dark, deserted alley in our scenario is tactical thinking. So is not using that ATM when you see the guy just hanging around it for no good reason.
Emotional Management in Self-Defense
Emotional management is training to deal with the actual emotional rush just prior to, during and after the fight.
Your gut tells you something's wrong when you spot that man lurking behind the corner – do you listen to it? You're arguing with somebody and you sense both tempers spiraling out of control, can you take a step back out of this moment and re-assess the situation tactically? A punch's just been thrown at you and you're shocked, can you get yourself out of your freeze to respond? You've just gotten home after being attacked in the alley, your nerves are frayed and your body's shaking – what do you do to recover from the trauma of nearly being stabbed by a violent stranger?
Emotional management is just as critical a part of self-defense as physical martial skills, because self-defense is not just about defending your body, it's also about defending your emotional and mental health. Most people used to a peaceful lifestyle can't just go through sudden unexpected violence then go back to normal again the very next day. Emotional responses to a violent confrontation have to be processed. Now that you've survived, what do you believe differently? How do you feel differently? Are those changes useful or not, and if not, how do you change them?
Martial arts is about training for the fight. Self-defense isn't just about the fight. It's about what happens before, during and after. It's useless if you defend yourself successfully physically but end up an emotional wreck afterwards.
An example of how awareness and tactical thinking combine to keep you on the safety end of the spectrum and away from physical danger – it's good self-defense, and martial arts skills don't even come into play.
Where to Learn Effective Self-Defense?
This is a tough question, because I'm still finding out myself. There are two particular authors however, without whom I would never have understood the differences between martial arts and self-defense.
First is Marc 'Animal' MacYoung, who keeps the encyclopedic website No Nonsense Self-Defense, a brilliant introduction to effective self-defense. This website is a great place to start. His book Cheap Shots, Ambushes, And Other Lessons is the first that got me started thinking about self-defense versus the martial arts, and I was lucky I was introduced to the book the year I started learning martial arts.
Second is Rory Miller, a martial artist and ex-corrections officer who wrote Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence, one of my best personal growth books of 2009. If Cheap Shots, Ambushes, And Other Lessons got me started, Meditations on Violence gave me a swift kick in the ass. If you're serious about learning effective self-defense, this book is a must-read. It clarified so many doubts I had as a practicing martial artist, while opening my eyes to so many areas I never even considered.
Rory recently wrote a series of posts on his blog detailing 7 stages of self-defense and violence (links to parts 1 & 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), it goes deep into the details of self-defense and in addition to No Nonsense Self-Defense is well worth reading.
Reading about self-defense is not the same as knowing self-defense, just as reading about swimming doesn't make you a swimmer. Like a favorite saying of mine goes; knowledge is only a rumor until it's in the muscle. But I hope this post and these resources will help you make a better choice with whom you choose to train with.