Recreational violence between consenting adults – martial arts vs self defence

There is a difference between martial arts and self defence training. That there is a difference is reasonably obvious to people who have thought about it a little, though the exact nature of that difference may not be. It may not be surprising to read that I have thought about it quite a lot!

So what are the differences?

Martial arts have become ends in themselves. Which is to say that the preservation and expression of the art among the community of practitioners is a major ingredient in how things are taught.

Martial arts are essentially social. They may be hard, testing, tough, deep and develop useful skills for combat and for other kinds of interaction, but martial arts schools are made of people doing things that they like with other people that they like – or mostly like.

I like to describe martial arts as ‘recreational violence between consenting adults’ or consenting children supervised by adults.

This means that it’s natural for the practitioners to focus more and more on the ways that the martial art defines and differentiates itself. Taiji people will focus on graceful, structured movement. Filipino styles will focus on drilling sticks and knives, Taekwondoists on elastic legs and breathtaking kicks, MMA practitioners on getting to a submission. Name any style and you will find this tendency.

Martial arts are about enjoying the beauty of the techniques, the elegance innate power of the human body, the focus of the mind and the connection that comes from close physical work.

As martial arts develop in this way they often start to create rules for competition within their style. Competition is all about ‘fairness’.

Overall martial arts tend to become increasingly self referential. They create or define the problems that they then aim to solve – basically how to deal with someone else who practises the same style.

Self defence must continuously look to the external environment to see and understand the problems that it is preparing for. It is preparation for the situation where there can be violence in which the perpetrator does not care if you are consenting or not, and is likely to prefer if you are not.

The legal context must also be considered. Violence between non consenting adults is essentially illegal. If you throw someone onto a soft mat or black their eye while sparring in a martial arts school your technique is likely to be congratulated (perhaps not your control). If you do the same thing outside of a club you are likely to be arrested, and you better be able to justify why you acted as you did.

Ethics are also a part of this. Between consenting adults who do not want to cripple each other this is fairly simple. However when there is no prior agreement as to when you or the other person will stop how far are you willing to go? What are you willing to do to another person?

In any sensible self defence training this is something that needs to be investigated. Self defence is preparing yourself to do these unpleasant things and to live with the consequences.

The physical environment needs examining too. Training halls are built to be safe and predictable. The places where you may be forced to act physically to protect yourself are not. They are filled with hard, slippery, unstable, uneven and often sharp objects. The ability to navigate these safely or use them to your advantage must be an innate part of self defence training.

Self defence is based on the idea that winning means getting home safe, not doing something correctly. It is also based on the idea that making things as ‘unfair’ as possible is a good idea. This is the opposite of competition mentality.

I realize that if you dig deep into some traditions you will find some of what I classify as the focus of Self defence. Many of these arts were developed to solve the defence problems of a specific culture and time.

Also many of the mental, physical and social qualities that are developed through martial arts practise can crossover to be applicable in self defence situations. While problems vary across culture and history certain dynamics change very little, the nature of the human body, the physics of heavy or sharp objects and Darwinian social/survival drives.

Many martial artists will read this and want to defend the ‘street effectiveness’ of their arts.Though some of them probably are very good. I find the emotional surges that martial artists can feel when they perceive a criticism of their style fascinating… but that’s another story.

What it comes down to is that most people have limited time to train, and these are all big subjects. Subjects can be developed and investigated endlessly. It is hard to do everything deeply in a couple of hours a week, or half a dozen, or even twenty. Some aspects will get less attention.

Now rather than talk in generalities about martial arts vs self defence I’ll talk about the how I teach.

When I teach Bagua I emphasise general body skills through relatively abstract exercises, and more specific techniques. I explain how the body training can work in combat. I teach body methods that lead to a calmer mind and greater sensitivity. I encourage students to find pleasure in the movements, through the pleasure grace, flow and beauty. Students learn movements that are rich in possibility, but they do not necessarily understand how to use.

When I teach Bagua I teach to a group of people who will come back week after week. I want to provide as much information as possible but I have the luxury of being able to focus on details, and allow them to build into principles which can then be spontaneously expressed.

When I teach self defence I am explicit about what to watch out for, what to avoid and how to avoid it. I encourage students to put themselves into the positions of the people who are the most likely to threaten them with violence.

I teach a few ‘general’ physical skills, but make sure that everything else is directly applicable to really screwing with someone’s ability to hold or hurt them. I run through legal and moral consequences. I dig into emotions and motivations. I deliberately create discomfort because the people who threaten the students will do the same.

In both cases I layer in as much as I can to the experience. In both cases I integrate the understanding of one to the other: the body skills of Bagua for self defence, and a consideration of context beyond the training hall to Bagua. This is a constant research.


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