How effective are martial arts in the real world? Whenever I speak to people about what I do for a hobby this is the first thing that they ask, and it fascinates me that this is, for many, a primary concern. Nobody asks what the practical uses of football or badminton are, so why is it a question that is apparently unique to the martial arts?
First off, why do I practice the martial arts? There are three main reasons. Firstly I see them as a gateway into the period in which I am interested. Tenshin shoden katori Shinto ryu, for example, is an art dedicated to the weapons and tactics of the samurai: sword, spear and halberd as well as elements of military strategy and unarmed combat. Secondly, I do feel that some of the training I do does have valid, real-life application in a self-defence situation. Thirdly, I enjoy it! It is fun and it is good exercise like any other sport. This is the main reason for practicing, not because I want to become Bruce lee and to be able to beat up anyone I choose, but because I enjoy practice, I like the people that I meet doing it, and it puts my body through some worthwhile exercise each week.
That said, I and many other martial artists do make the claim that what we practice could help us in a self-defence situation. I make this claim in reference to something very specific, however. One of my instructors works with the British Comb
at Association to provide realistic self-defence training, and in fact this differs rather drastically from the conventional understanding of a “martial art”. You see, it has the art bit removed. What we practice in these combat sessions does not look pretty, in fact it is dirty and brutal. Some say that it simply looks like mixed martial arts, but here they are missing the scratching, gouging and biting that are all encouraged reflexes (though not techniques that are applied to training partners I might add!) that could easily even the odds in a full on fight.
This does not mean, obviously, that I don’t believe traditional martial arts have value. Indeed traditional martial arts make up the vast bulk of what I practice. I simply think that how applicable they are as effective techniques is limited in a modern self-defence situation. Many useful techniques are contained in the traditional martial arts, but they often just aren’t trained in the right way for a full on fight! The techniques of traditional martial arts were created to be useful in the particular environments and periods for which they were created, and it would be naïve to expect their techniques to transfer across to modern self-defence without any modification. This is something that has been amply explored in the work of Dr. Nathan Johnson, whose book the great Karate myth explores and exposes the roots of karate in Chinese civil arrest and weapons techniques.
I urge you all, study traditional martial arts, its great fun and you can learn some interesting things and useful skills. However, it is important to understand what it is you are learning (art as distinguished from combat) and where it comes from. Do not be conned into thinking that your martial arts skills will be simply transferable as combat training. If you want to learn self-defence, do! But do so in a situation specific dedicated environment that is ultimately the only thing which will teach you how to effectively defend yourself in a modern day violent confrontation.
Jack Horatio Buckley Sharp 2016