What Traditional Martial Arts can Learn from Self Defense

Photo by: Luigi Novi

Last week we discussed a few areas that Self Defense styles can improve by imitating their Traditional Martial Arts cousins. This week the steel-toed boot is on the other foot and we’ll look at some ways that TMA’s can shore up a few areas of weakness by looking over the fence a bit.


First, though, we must again be clear on the terms we’ll be using. So, for our purposes, what defines a “Traditional Martial Art” and a “Self Defense” style from one another? Speaking broadly, a traditional martial art has certain common characteristics such as distinct uniforms, bowing, kata, rituals/customs, classical weaponry and stricter hierarchy. In terms of it’s training you will often see low or “stylized” stances while performing drills and basics and varying levels of focus on sparring. Traditional systems also tend to have a longer learning curve as many of the styles had historical and practical reasons not to show everything right up front.

Self Defense (an industry umbrella term which is not style-specific) is often found claiming itself as more “down to earth” fighting. In schools that teach these systems you will often find more relaxed hierarchy, a complete absence of kata, many emphasize “soft skills” such as conflict deescalation and awareness, modern weaponry, and drilling of a smaller set of techniques from a natural fighting stance. Sparring focus varies here as well and often focuses around specific, “every day”, scenarios.


(And before you read on, know that I am not talking about YOUR style, of course. I know that yours already does all of these things and more. I’m talking about that other style. Yes, that one. The one you’re thinking of right now. So there’s no need to write me any hate mail. Please feel invited to leave a comment, though. ^_^)


From my own experiences I have pulled together 6 areas that Traditional Martial Artists would do well to include in their training.

1. Legalities (AKA “Force Law”) – Let’s be frank. For the majority of us, among the top two or three reasons why we train is so that should violence step into our lives, we’ll have the tools to handle it while remaining intact. “Intact”, though, should be expanded to also include that our freedom is intact as well. The laws pertaining to defending yourself and others vary widely from state to state and country to country. Here in the United States you can find examples of defenders being arrested, imprisoned, or sued because someone was able to argue that he used “excessive force” when trying to protect himself or others.

When I was a student of Combat Hapkido, a sister-school of ours had a student who was facing charges after he successfully defended himself against some guy who wanted to go all alpha-male on him. The student ended up breaking a few of his attacker’s bones and the police saw his response, combined with eye-witness accounts, as reason enough to arrest and charge him. Here is the kicker: apparently the student had already gained control of his attacker prior to inflicting some of the injuries upon him. My instructor implied that the student simply wanted to try out some of the techniques he’d learned.

In the end, had he also learned about Force Law he might have tempered his response and possibly avoided jail time.

2. Modern Weapons – Keeping with the assumption that you are training to keep yourself and those around you safe then it would be a mistake to leave out defensive technique and strategies to handle modern weaponry. Though there are exceptions, here in the United States I am more likely to encounter someone with a gun or a knife than I am with a tonfa, sword, or halberd. As such, prudency demands that I am familiar with these weapons and train in ways to defend against them.

The exception to the so-called “obsolescence” of classical weaponry is found when one considers how common it is to find sticks or staves in every day life. This past week, while I was sweeping my driveway, I was letting my thoughts drift and realized that I could remove the shaft of my push broom and by doing so I’d have a pretty nice bo. So much for “obsolescence”!

3. Pre/Post Conflict Skills – For the majority of Traditional Martial Arts styles, the emphasis is on combat training. This is extremely important. However, it is arguably more important to address and train for the Pre & Post-conflict parts of violence as well. In the pre-conflict stage this may include recognizing when an “interview” is taking place and how to derail it. And in post-conflict when and whether it is appropriate to call the police/paramedics. What to say to the police. What NOT to say to the police. How to handle shock, psychological trauma, “survivor’s guilt”, etc.

4. Awareness – This is an item related to Pre-Conflict but I feel deserves its own category. Simply put, “Awareness” is the best martial art for self defense. This may include recognizing where “fringe-zones” exist, such as parking garages, elevators, and public laundry rooms. Or how to identify the Alpha in a pack of males. This skill can also tell you when you need to be wary of the a member of the opposite sex. To my female readers the utility of this skill will seem obvious; but for you fellas, especially you younger fellas, learn to tell the difference between when a girl is interested in you and when she is interested in how pissed off you will make her boyfriend.

5. Attire – I LOVE my gi. When I was a little kid I used to believe that when I wore my gi it enhanced my fighting ability (and if I want to be honest, I still kinda do feel tougher when I’m wearing it). But what are the odds I am going to be attacked when I wear my nice loose fitting gi with the specially designed pants that allow high kicks? It is far more likely that I am going to be attacked while I’m in jeans and a t-shirt with sneakers. Those of you who train in regular clothes at least part-time know how different it feels to throw a roundhouse kick when your shoes are gripping tightly to the concrete. My first (painful) lesson was to make sure my knee stayed bent. These experiences, and others like them, are why all Traditionalists must add street-clothes training to their regimen.

6. Scenarios – The objective of combat training is to simulate, as closely and as safely as possible, actual combat. Many Traditional Martial Arts imitate the key aspects of this very effectively. The element that would raise this simulation to the next level is to incorporate common scenarios and environments. Of course, the dojo can’t effectively recreate stadium bleachers or a night club; but with a little imagination and a few props (stools, tables, etc), the simulation can very closely resemble the real thing and help a Traditionalist plug in these holes in his training.


Did I miss any? What would you add to this list?




5 thoughts on “What Traditional Martial Arts can Learn from Self Defense

  1. This comment came via email from Sue over at My Journey to Black Belt (for some reason my plug-ins were disallowing comments for a time). Here is it:

    Hi Brett, a thoughtful and insightful post. I agree with all your points (and can’t think of anymore). Unfortunately the average karateka will have to look outside of their own clubs to address most of these issues. I know I’m always on the lookout for suitable seminars and courses. However, knowing what the deficits are is halfway towards finding solutions…

  2. Pingback: The One True Secret To Effective Self Defense | Maine Martial Arts

  3. I agree that karate training helps an individual to gain more self confidence. This will also help to protect ourselves when an unexpected scenario will happen.

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