When I was a kid martial arts were romanticized by the likes of the Power Rangers and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Like most kids of the time, I ended up taking karate and thinking it was the beat-all-end-all martial art that kung fu movies and cartoons had led us to believe. At some point I became disenchanted with it as I wasn’t doing flying side kicks and back flips like I thought everyone who did karate was supposed to.
In 2007 I was graduating high school and decided that I wanted to take up a martial art again when I got to college so I looked through all the martial arts clubs on campus. I didn’t really know what I wanted, but I knew I didn’t want karate. I ended up finding the Budo Club which taught Waboku ryu jujitsu. The concept seemed great so during my freshman orientation I went on up to practice to try it out. It was a Wednesday – ground fighting night. I loved it, and when the semester started up I came back and officially joined the club.
Fast forward to April 28, 2009. I had 0 judo experience, but still went up to Stevens Point with Tanner for our very first judo tournament. I’d been training jujitsu for a year and a half and did BJJ between semesters. I went in thinking it would be a piece of cake. I lost both matches fairly immediately. It was at that point that I realized training in a non-competitive environment had failed to adequately prepare me for competition. If I couldn’t throw a judo white belt, someone who supposedly has less than 4 months of experience, after a year and a half, how could my techniques possibly work on someone who was experienced in violent crime if I were to get attacked? This was the point where I would start to question all of the statements about how training in a sport was less effective for self defense. Those questions ended up leading me to question the ability of a martial art to ever prepare you for a self defense scenario.
Martial arts which are oriented toward self defense without a competitive aspect tend to down play the importance of competition. Myths pop up about how restricting techniques means you’ll be a less effective defender because your training won’t have conditioned you to do groin strikes and eye gouges. The truth is I didn’t forget how to kick someone in the testicles because I started competing where only chokes and armbars were legal. I did learn how to deal with my adrenaline, nerves, and fear – something that no self defense oriented martial art has ever been able to provide me. Competition also granted me a richer experience which fostered not only quicker growth, but better growth. In grappling, you either win or you learn, and I did a hell of a lot of learning. I know for a fact that if I get on someone’s back and sink in an RNC they will go unconscious because I have choked people out who refused to tap. That eye gouge that I could never actually practice anyway because I never had a partner willing to go with just one eye – well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be able to bust it out and know what would happen.
That pesky question of self defense kept popping up though. After reading a lot of material on the subject and processing my own experiences with combat sports and martial arts I ended up forging my stance. The analogy I like to use is wolf pups. A wolf pup doesn’t hunt, it plays with its siblings. When it gets old enough to hunt those skills it learned by playing carry over. Playing isn’t hunting though and there is still a degree of uncertainty. A wolf who won every game as a pup could still take a hoof to the skull during a chase no matter how well those games prepared him for his first hunt.
Humans are pretty smart. We identify that we can’t just start stabbing each other to learn how to defend against a knife attack so we make our own games, just like the wolf pups. The difference is puppies know they’re just playing, but people fall under the illusion that the game is how the real deal is going to go down. People start believing that they can make games which will be close enough to the real scenario that the line will between training and an actual attack will be almost nonexistent. At the end of the day, any martial art will only leave you with a collection of techniques in your muscle memory and a set of assumptions. People start making up excuses for why what they do will work in a self defense scenario when challenged that their assumptions are wrong. How many times have you been told that if you don’t punch the correct way you’ll break your hand? You’re going to break it either way. There’s a reason breaking your fifth metacarpal is called a “boxer’s fracture” and it has nothing to do with boxers not knowing how to punch.
I often tell people that I am opposed to learning martial arts for the purposes of self defense. I always end up having to justify the statement to someone who disagrees and adamantly believes that what they’ve learned could very well save their life one day. The techniques you learn in a martial art can and most likely would be very useful in a self defense scenario. I’m not opposed to the notion that practicing karate could give you some useful skills to defend yourself. What I am opposed to is the notion that being a martial artist is somehow going to prepare you. We do a disservice to people by leading them to believe that being a black belt will let them take on 5 large men with knives. We do a disservice to ourselves to fail to recognize the difference between play wrestling and actual hunting.