Martial Arts Is Not Self-Defense: Real World Violence Prevention

Matt Beecroft


Martial Arts, Kettlebells, Health, Fitness, Self-Defense


Violence is bigger than all of us. Just as we will never understand people fully, we can never understand a subject as convoluted and complex as violence.


Unless you’ve been exposed to a lot of violence, your training will be subjective. Most people’s idea of violence is one based off their own interpretation of what they learn in the dojo, see in the ring, or watch in a movie. In rare cases, it comes from personal experience working as a police officer or prison guard. But how many of us deal with violent offenders daily?



Violence Is About Conflict

Many people teaching martial arts have little to no experience with real-world, brutal violence, yet proclaim to teach self-defense. And very few critically look at what they are teaching or have been taught. Many of us have been caught up in dogma, a way of looking at violence due to our work—the martial art or ring sport in which we participate. Because we lack real world experience, we tell ourselves a story about how we think it is, rather than how it is in reality. We assume way too much.


Unfortunately in the realm of martial arts, “sexy” sells. Many practitioners are not able to separate reality from the stuff they see in the movies. And this is a problem if we are teaching others the same. We often use assumption, reason, tradition, and recreation as a way of training for real-world violence.


Violence is ultimately about conflict. Conflict comes in many forms:


  • A group of guys brawling in a pub.
  • Two muay Thai fighters duelling it out in the ring.
  • A psychiatrist trying to administer a sedative to an aggressive emotionally disturbed person.
  • A police officer trying to handcuff a drug addict.
  • A crowd controller escorting a drunk off the premises.
  • Someone being held up at an ATM at knifepoint.
  • Armed bandits invading a home.
  • A sexual predator following a young female home from the bus stop.
  • Kids bullying on the playground, or a violent, drunken spouse abusing his partner.


These are all different situations, and all require different psychological, tactical, and physical skills. Yet they are all lumped into the subject of violence and self-defense. The only real experts are in voilence are the criminals who perpetrate it onto others regularly and without conscience.


Martial Arts Is Not Self-Defense: Real World Violence Prevention - Fitness, mixed martial arts, martial arts, self defense, violence prevention, self-defense




Do You Teach Self Defence?

The million dollar question is, how do we train for something that is so hard to define?

Martial artists try to do it all. Self-discovery and enlightenment, physical fitness, street fighting, ring fighting, and self-defense. We try to be all things to all people. We even throw in military and combat training to macho it up. While all these aspects can be connected in some way, they are not interchangeable. 


Training in a martial art is not necessarily training for self-defense. Training for a ring sport or mat sport is not training for self-defense, either. And training for combat is also not self-defense, unless you walk around with an automatic weapon in tactical gear on the street every day.


All of these domains certainly have practical applications that can be useful in self-defense training, but they are not, on their own, self-defense training. Yet when someone rings up a martial arts school and asks, “Do you teach self-defence?” the answer is always yes. And that irks me. The dollar has become more important than integrity and responsibility.




If you look at the roots of most traditional martial arts and how they train, they have little to do with dealing with modern day violence and assaults. If we take an amazing traditional art like ninjitsu and look at its origins—assassination by stealth—then I think we can safely say many people are going to question its modern day self-defense applications.


Martial Arts Is Not Self-Defense: Real World Violence Prevention - Fitness, mixed martial arts, martial arts, self defense, violence prevention, self-defense


I love the traditional arts. They are amazing, and how I got started. I don’t think one style or system is better than another. The problem lies in practitioners being delusional about what it is they are training for. While carrying a ninjato, climbing trees, and disappearing into puffs of smoke might humorously be considered useful strategies to avoid conflict, they probably don’t have practical application for modern day self-defense.


Many systems offer scenarios like this: Attacker assaults defender. Defender does technique X. The technique is successful. Finish. They woefully attempt to replicate real world violence. When you think about effective self-defense training, does waiting for ideal circumstances to perform technique X seem like a great strategy?



In many real life situations, unless we are assaulted by surprise, there is both a pre-confrontation and pre-fight stage. So why aren’t we learning in training how to deal with the situation earlier, to avoid the physical assault to begin with? It is foolish to believe that being attacked under ideal circumstances will ever happen. Attacks don’t occur in well-lit, spacious areas with soft matting and minimal contact.


Real World Self-Defence Training

Useful training needs to address how to recover from the fear, pain, and surprise of an assault as quickly as possible to survive. Stress inoculation must happen in training, otherwise we risk sending people into the wilderness with false confidence. 


You may be injured and in pain before you are even aware of the conflict, in a real life situation. You will need to break free of the shock and surprise to beat your own fear, and change instantly into the mindset of a predator from that of a victim. This needs to happen in just a few seconds in order to survive. This is no easy feat. But it needs to be trained if we are to successfully prepare people for “the wild.”


Real self-defense training also needs to address how to avoid violence, and how to not be assaulted in the first place, either through bad luck or stupidity. Training needs to be proactive, and we need to spend more time learning prevention techniques. We should be looking to flee or avoid, de-escalate or negotiate; posture, stun, and run; or comply, depending on the context. If it has to become physical, then we must train to do so on our terms, as much as possible.


martial arts, self defence, self-defence, fighting, violence


Stop Being a Victim

Waiting for a person to bring violence to you before you execute your technique isn’t a great strategy. We need to outwit, not just outfight. Non-reality-based training sets you up to become a victim, rather than learning to take the upper hand with initiative. There needs to be a change in mindset, from one of reluctant victim to wary predator, in order to shift the odds of surviving violence in your favor.


(This article originally appeared on Breaking Muscle Australia)


You'll Also Enjoy:


See more about: , , , ,
Breaking Muscle Newsletter

Breaking Muscle Newsletter

Get updates and special offers delivered directly to your inbox.