Martial arts is one of those subjects that as soon as you raise them, a weird mood sets in. Some people get oddly self-confident, others get defensive and most exhibit a strange combo of both. It’s almost as if a controversial political questions has been asked.
Though I’ve never written about martial arts before, they’ve been a huge part of my life since I was seventeen years old. I started out learning from, and sparring with, anyone I could find and spent years in the ball-kicking, nose-breaking and rib-cracking trenches before I got into more formalized training. I’ve trained in everything from traditional karate and kung-fu to Tai Chi, Bagua and esoteric ninjutsu; from aikido and jujitsu to Krav Maga, boxing and whatever the ex-special forces guys would teach me.
Martial arts is what took me to Japan (where I lived and practiced for four years) and it’s one of the reasons I eventually moved to the west coast of the United States. I have two Black Belt degrees from my years in Japan and currently practice aikido and Krav Maga.
I am in no way trying to prop myself up as some expert. Nor am I trying to teach or pontificate. But after practicing, researching and experiencing martial arts on three different continents for the last twenty five years, I wanted to humbly offer some general thoughts I have on the matter.
No one knows everything, and I always try to maintain the Japanese concept of Sho Shin (初心), or beginner’s mind, a humble openness to learning. It’s with this in mind that I want to ask you, dear reader, to share some of your own thought as well, especially if you disagree with me. Please put your thought in the comment section below.
Discussions and argument about which martial art is most effective are quite common. The point that many people miss however is that effectiveness can only be measured in relation to defined goals. You have to define what it is you’re trying to achieve before reaching a conclusion about the best way to get there. If you want to talk about effectiveness, you’ll have to first decide what it should be effective for.
Most people automatically assume that effectiveness refers to self-defense—how effectively you can protect yourself from violence. But this doesn’t always have to be the case. Anyone who’s been practicing for long enough should know that martial arts can be very effective for many other things as well. They can promote health (both physical and mental), fitness, flexibility, focus and relaxation—factors that come into play way more often, and have much more profound, lifelong effects, than self-defense.
I know it doesn’t sound very sexy, but protecting yourself from a momentary punch to the face usually isn’t as important as protecting yourself from debilitating, chronic back pain, high cholesterol, heart disease and various other stress-related illnesses.
But even if all you’re going for is self-defense, the question of which martial art is most effective is still not a good one because self-defense is too broad a concept. It’s like asking which medicine is most effective for the promotion of health, or which battlefield weapon is most effective for winning a war. There are simply too many conditions, scenarios and circumstances for such a broad question to admit to any useful answers. The same exact technique/medicine/weapon can either save your life or kill you, depending on the variables.
The goals of a private citizen are different from those of an on-duty law enforcement officer, which are quite different from those of a special operations team member. Effectiveness will always depend on your goals, your capabilities and on the unique circumstances you happen to be in.
The best way to understand the subject of self-defense is to look at it from a security perspective. I suppose, it’s easy for me to say this since security consulting and training is what I do, but what is self-defense if not a form of security?
Security is chiefly comprised of two factors: preventive measures and reactive measures. Both are critical and they are chronologically separated, with prevention coming first and reaction following, if necessary. Physically engaging a violent person is a reactive last resort, and your last resort (no matter how important) should not be your first and only resort.
As a preventive measure (which is where you want to start), the single most effective self-defense move you can make is to avoid the area altogether. The second most effective thing you can do is run away. I’m always perplexed by those who espouse the idea that violence must be confronted with violence. No, it doesn’t—not if self-defense is your primary goal. Yes, you can, and often should, ‘run away from your troubles’. It’s the first thing security professionals recommend to their protectees—get as much distance as you can from the danger.
Even if you’ve already been hit by an aggressor, that’s still not a good enough self-defense reason to stick around and ‘duke it out’, not if you can get away. Only if you can’t escape, should you click into reactive mode and physically engage an aggressive person. This last point is really hard for many people to accept (especially for men), and I’m not going to pretend like I’m immune to the desire to punish someone who just hit me or aggressively pushed me. But if your only motivation is anger or pride, and there’s no other discernable goal to be achieved by physically engaging the person, then from an immediate self-defense perspective, you should probably back away.
Just because you’re capable of executing martial arts moves, doesn’t mean you necessarily have to. In fact, you often shouldn’t. In over a decade in the field of security, I’ve been confronted by countless individuals who were aggressive and belligerent. In the vast majority of cases, I’ve managed to talk them down (usually by politely de-escalating their level of aggression or by threatening to involve the police). This might not work 100% of the time, but if you do it correctly, it will in the vast majority of cases.
Wait, but does this stuff even count as self-defense? You bet your ass it does. Instead of automatically getting physical, try using your head first. To borrow one of my favorite Agent Smith lines “Still using all the muscles except the one that matters.” What better way is there to defend yourself—to get out of a hostile situation without a scratch—than by preventing the fight in the first place?
Now, if you must stand your ground and fight (maybe in order to protect others), that’s a different issue. There are many legitimate reasons to get physical, but don’t confuse those reasons with your own personal self-defense. Unless you’re cornered, whatever reason that’s motivating you to physically engage a violent person, be it a good reason (like protecting others) or a not so good reason (like pride) this reason goes against your own self-defense.
Not unlike the misconception with effectiveness, realism too has to be viewed through the lens of context and goals. Many people think that when it comes to martial arts, realism is a measure of how quickly and decisively an opponent can be subdued, incapacitated or killed.
But if your goal is self-defense, what exactly is non-realistic about running away? Civilian Krav Maga, which is considered to be one of the most realistic systems out there, teaches you to either run away immediately or, if you can’t, to launch a quick and explosive response which will allow you to, yes, run away.
My favorite realism misconception is people’s assertion that MMA competition fights, like UFC, showcase the height of realism. The idea is that these competitions provide the best arena to figure out which techniques work and which don’t. I’m not in any way doubting the capabilities of UFC fighters, or their abilities to realistically defend themselves. But the context of a UFC fight is almost the antithesis of real-life.
You have two people (and only two people at a time) who are confined to a clean, well defined and regulated space to fight in strictly timed rounds. The two fighters must be approximately the same weight, must be drug-tested, must be barefoot, must wear approved attire, must have groin protection, must wear approved gloves and use a mouth guard. Moreover, the two fighters have both agreed in advance to fight each other, and their only motivation is to beat their opponent by knockout, submission-lock or points. The entire preplanned contest is strictly regulated and closely enforced by referees.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a single real-life scenario that contains even one of those factors, let alone all of them.
Among the long list of UFC rules and regulations are prohibitions against:
- Grabbing your opponent’s face
- Biting or spitting at your opponent
- Hair pulling
- Eye gouging
- Groin attacks
- Small joint manipulation
- Strikes to the spine or back of the head
- Throat strikes
- Clawing, pinching or twisting of flesh
- Any unsportsmanlike conduct that causes an injury to your opponent
The only rules to reality are those of physics. Put me in a situation where I have to fight for my life, and I will literally go for all of those moves, and then some. The fact that competitive fighters have all agreed not to use any of those moves on each other, makes this scenario non-realistic.
If you’ve only trained according to strictly enforced competition rules, you might not be ready for everything that’s out there. I’ve spared with many martial artists (some of whom were way more experienced than me) who were completely blindsided by simple kicks to their knees or to their groin. People who are used to well-regulated matches get very confused when you start yelling at them, clapping your hands aggressively at eye-level, spitting at them, throwing your keys at their face or tossing a chair at them. So when the nasty stomp kick comes down on their ankle or a sneaky wrist-flick or whipping back-fist shoots down at their groin or up at their nose, they’re caught completely off guard.
People always take it for granted that a fight has to start with two people squaring up against each other—since that’s what you see in competition fighting. But if you’re trying to defend yourself in a realistic situation, squaring up in front of someone isn’t always the best idea. It isn’t even the best idea to have a “proper fight”. You can just run away or launch some type of surprise move that will finish things before they get started.
Psychological tricks can be quite useful for this. You can, for example, start talking to the person in a smilingly disarming way, or ask them strange unrelated questions. In many cases, this will confuse and distract the person just long enough for you to land a nasty groin-kick or a headbut to the nose, which could be all it takes to end the fight.
Krav Maga is pretty big on constantly moving out of the way (backwards, sideways or in circles—scanning around for more trouble as you go). It also gives you an opportunity to look for an object you can hit your opponent with, or throw at them. Yes, it’s nasty and ugly, but if all you’re going for is effective, realistic street-level self-defense then you’d do well to put aside notions of honor, rules and integrity. Real-life is not an organized competition.
Once again, I’m not doubting the combative or self-defense capabilities of MMA fighters. All I’m saying is that the circumstances, regulations, goals and motivations that are involved in competitive fighting don’t represent street-level reality. MMA techniques are very effective for achieving MMA competition goals (to win a pre-planned, regulated fight according to agreed upon rules). But if your goals in the real world happen to be different, then you might want to also look for different techniques as well.
You should also keep in mind that realism and effectiveness don’t only apply to worst case scenarios—when someone is hell-bent on murdering or seriously injuring you. It’s not that you should be naive, just that you should realize that most of the violence that’s out there isn’t life threatening. What you most often encounter are lots of slaps, pushes, grabs and sloppy punches.
You also don’t necessarily want to defend yourself by knocking-out or seriously injuring someone. The person attacking you could very well be a minor or a drunk friend. You don’t necessarily want to send them to the hospital (or deal with a nasty lawsuit). This is why less violent arts, like aikido, can also be very useful in many real-life situations.
Training vs Reality
The dichotomy between training and reality is probably what’s responsible for most of the confusion in regards to realistic self-defense. For those who are interested in training for realistic self-defense, probably the most important factor is to make sure that the circumstances, distances and types of attacks you’re trying to defend against are realistic.
Strictly from a self-defense perspective, the two martial arts I’m most into—aikido and Krav Maga (which isn’t actually an art, but a self-defense system)—appear on the face of it to be on opposite extremes on this spectrum. Aikido training attacks are either grabs or strikes that are mostly derived from traditional Japanese sword fighting. As the technique is applied, the attacker cooperates with the move and this is why many aikido techniques are so elegant, flashy and beautiful. Training like this will obviously not prepare someone to defend themselves against all street-level violence—nor does it set out to do so.
This is why it’s foolish to use aikido training moves against MMA fighters, and there is a whole sub-genre of online videos that show MMA fighters painfully schooling “masters” of spiritualistic arts. Since aikido is often picked on as one of the least realistic arts in this context, I feel obliged to point out that someone who tries to use aikido training techniques against an MMA fighter by squaring up against them only demonstrates their own personal foolishness, not the objective worthlessness of aikido. You can easily find videos of people from any martial discipline making fools out of themselves. Misunderstanding or misusing a tool discredits the user, not the tool.
Krav Maga training, by contrast, will teach you, through various stress-drills, to deal with the physical and psychological aspects of street-level violence. For example, you’ll have someone aggressively yell in your face, push you back and then lunge at you with a punch. In other cases, you’ll have three people attack you at the same time, one with bare hands, one with a large kicking pad and one with a rubber knife. The resulting defenses are going to be rough and ugly. You’re taught to deal with unexpected shocks, and to overcome your natural tendency to freeze up when you get surprised or overwhelmed. You learn to accept a certain amount of punishment and to keep going even as you get clobbered along the way.
Good training isn’t just a matter of how hard you go. It’s a matter of how well it prepares you for what you’re trying to achieve. It’s about instilling the capabilities habits, tendencies and instincts you’re looking for.
Traditional Warrior Spirit
Much of the Warrior Spirit idea comes from the Japanese concept of Bushido (武士道), which can be translated as the ‘way of the warrior’. Having lived in Japan, studied Japanese language, culture, history and literature, and having practiced a number of traditional Japanese martial arts, I can say that there’s definitely value to be gained from it. But it’s also important to understand what it isn’t, and to address some misconceptions that many people have about it.
Warrior Spirit, as the term indicates, is a spiritual pursuit. It’s most easily associated with martial arts (at least in the west) but it actually covers a much wider range—from art, architecture and flower arrangement to politics and business. It’s difficult to translate exactly what it encapsulates but it contains ideas of minimalism, stoicism, discipline, honesty, diligence, loyalty, honor and service.
In the martial arts realm, Warrior Spirit mostly applies to how students should conduct themselves and pursue the study of the art, rather than to actual fighting. The era of the Samurai, or even of imperial Japan, is long gone, and Bushido these days is largely an artistic, spiritual pursuit.
The reason I wanted to delve a bit into this (and likely bore a few of you while doing so) is to explain that the traditional notion of Warrior Spirit is very often misunderstood, misplaced or misattributed. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the modern competitive fighting arenas. Nothing could be farther from traditional Warrior Spirit than the gloating victory dances UFC fighters break into after winning a match.
Modern Warrior Spirit
Now, if you want to apply more modern and straightforward Warrior Spirit principles to martial arts, the first thing you should understand is that Warrior Spirit often conflicts with self-defense. It once again comes down to your goals. If your number one priority is to protect yourself from harm then you would be wise to either avoid the danger or run away from it. Warrior Spirit, on the other hand, is centered on the idea of engaging the enemy—of running into danger rather than away from it.
Though he firmly belongs in the annals of ancient tradition, many people like quoting the famous Japanese warrior, Miyamoto Musashi to emphasize points about modern warfare. One of the things Musashi said in his Book of Five Rings was that “The only reason a warrior is alive is to fight, and the only reason a warrior fights is to win.” He also said that the way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death, which implies that one has not only accepted the enemy’s death but also one’s own.
I admit there’s something noble sounding (and also a bit bad-ass) about this, but you have to keep in mind that it also contains goals and motivations that are different from what a normal citizen should have. It’s not a question of who’s more noble or bad-ass, but of which goals you’re trying to achieve and for what purpose. A duel to the death (more commonly known as a battle) might be an acceptable or even desirable thing for active-duty military combatants, but it shouldn’t be for the rest of the population.
Here too, I can speak from experience. During my service in the Israeli Defense Forces, I was in multiple combat situation where, going completely against self-preservation, we charged right into danger in order to engage the enemy. We all accepted the fact that as soldiers (or warriors) our own self-preservation was secondary to the military objective.
Now, as thrilling as that may sound, you have to realize that unless you’re currently serving in the military, your own goals should probably not align with those of a warrior. Again, it’s not a question of capabilities or resolve, but a matter of goals and circumstances. Most people are not warriors because they’re not in the military.
When I was living in Japan, and received a black belt degree from the 26th generation master of the traditional sword and staff fighting art, Shintō Musō-ryū, I was, in the traditional sense of Bushido, doing my best to imbibe the ancient principles of Warrior Spirit. But in the modern or physical sense, I was in no way an actual warrior. I stopped being a warrior 20 years ago when I finished my IDF service.
It’s OK to maintain a certain spiritual connection to the idea of Warrior Spirit, but unless you’re currently serving in the military, it’s probably best not to take it too literally.
Now, it’s not uncommon to find security and law enforcement professionals adopting the Warrior Spirit idea. On a philosophical level, this is a bit closer to the mark. Both law enforcement and security professionals live by the motto of ‘Protect and Serve’, and willingly put other people’s safety before their own. But as soon as you get into the physical realm (especially during non-emergency situations), you find that there are substantial differences between military operations, and law enforcement and security operations (not the least of which are legal restrictions).
Having made the transition between military and security myself, I can tell you that the differences are not to be taken lightly. I’ve had the misfortune of having to fire a number of Israeli and American military veterans who simply couldn’t handle the transition into the security field; with all its unique stresses, ambiguities and customer service requirements. The militaristic Warrior’s Way is often too simplistic to handle stressful yet sensitive situations, and I’ve seen more than one veteran get in trouble by unnecessarily charging and tackling disruptive yet non-hostile individuals.
Warrior Spirit and Protector Spirit are not the same thing, especially when part of what you’re trying to protect are your client’s image and reputation.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. As I said in the beginning, if you’re interested, now it’s your turn to share your thoughts in the comment section below. I’ll be very grateful if you do.