Martial Art? Combat Sport? Self-Defence? Self-Protection? What’s the difference? Why does it matter?

By Josh Nixon, ESP

Please note: This article is now outdated. It is merely retained here for archive purposes, so the changing nature of things here can be seen by all. Consider the following just my older thoughts on the matter, from which the current ones have come.

Here is the updated version of things: http://evolutionaryselfprotection.wikia.com/wiki/Self-Protection

In discussions of different training systems, it becomes immediately apparent after a quick Google or a sift through YouTube that the terms used in the title of this article are used more or less interchangeably by a great many people. This may seem unimportant, but it is becoming a big issue in the martial arts community today. In an attempt to help with this problem, and also to clarify my use of these terms online and offline, I thought it would be useful to produce a short list of these terms, and how I would define them, with some examples of common traits. Note that the following is merely my personal use of these terms, and other peoples’ usage of them will vary, as they are of course completely free to do so.

Martial Art: A martial art is exactly what the name suggests – an art. An art is a method of expression through application of creativity, and is typically concerned with aesthetics. As such, martial arts are often concerned with aesthetics, historical traditions, cultural customs and philosophy. These systems will often focus most of their training on one aspect of fighting, though not always. Martial arts can be traditional or modern, and different systems are often mixed into hybrid systems, usually in order to address what the instructors feel is a shortcoming of their original system. These are often termed Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), though this term is now used more for combat sports systems so many adopt the alternative term Hybrid Martial Arts (HMA) to avoid confusion. Martial arts can be thought of as a method of self-perfection rather than necessarily self-protection, though of course all martial arts training will have some real combative merit, and will often be extremely potent systems with which to protect oneself, so they should be respected as such.

Combat Sport: A combat sport is, again, exactly what the name suggests. If a system focuses on competition then it is a combat sport. These systems are often characterised by points-based sparring, where points may be awarded according to damage dealt, submission, knockout, etc or on aesthetic grounds, for example. Tournaments are often held on a regular basis, and the more well-known ones are the ones you see on TV and online. If training is focussed solely on fitness with any combative merits being considered secondary then that system could also be considered a combat sport.

Self-Defence: Self-Defence is where this topic gets confused on a regular basis, and arguably where it matters a little more pressingly. Self-Defence is a term used for reactive systems that are geared towards dealing with a combative situation by reacting to a physical attack. This includes Reality-Based Self-Defence (RBSD) systems. These systems are not concerned with aesthetics, historical traditions, cultural customs or philosophy.

Self-Protection: Self-Protection is a term used for systems that, in addition to the reactive methods of Self-Defence, incorporate proactive methods such as pre-emptive striking, and a great emphasis on awareness, evaluation, avoidance, evasion and communicative, noncombative strategies such as verbal de-escalation. An understanding of psychology thus often features prominently. As a result, self-protection systems are concerned heavily with how to stop a situation from becoming physically combative in the first place so that in a sense the physical combatives are secondary in focus. However, these physical combatives will often take up a large portion of the training time in sessions. These systems are also not concerned with aesthetics, historical traditions, cultural customs or philosophy.

So why does it matter? It matters because any confusion between these terms can lead to extreme differences of expectation and reality in training. For example, a traditional martial arts class marketing themselves as a combat sport might not be delivering what the students who have seen their posters are looking for, if they rarely hold tournaments or are not very competitive in their training. Similarly, a combat sport class focussed on UFC-style cagefighting could accidentally mislead prospective students by marketing themselves as a martial arts class, as people seeking a martial arts class may be looking for the tradition, philosophy and artistic values that a sports-based class would simply not be concerned with. This becomes more concerning when martial arts are marketed as self-defence or self-protection, however, as confidence in a martial arts technique trained from a perspective which is concerned with aesthetics can often be extremely dangerous in a real combative situation, or even fatal.

This article is not a criticism of any system, style, art or form, but rather a comment on the terminology used to denote them, and an appreciation of the effects that the confusion of these terms can have. Remember though: don’t judge a class necessarily by what it categorises itself as, because at the moment there is almost an interchangeability in many of these terms. Now that these terms have been clarified however, at least if nothing more our ESP-related discourse will be clear and unambiguous.

PHDefence (24.09.2011) Feedback

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It feels like ages since I’ve done one of these! It always does when we miss a week. Today we did some work on Jiāosao with Paul, and a good section on ground mobility too just to get you all back into it. In my section I took you through sparring in various forms, increasing protection and intensity. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of condition white drills implemented in sparring in the future. No, this picture isn’t PHDefence; it’s a 2008 TKD spar from Wikipedia. It’s a sweet kick though.

Next week, we’ll be working on specific issues that come up in sparring, so get thinking! If you often get caught in the same place, or if a particular technique never works, or if a particular one always works on you, then tell me next week and we’ll work on those problems specifically. It’ll be epic.

An important announcement: YOU NEED SPARRING GEAR!

It wasn’t much of an issue at PHDefence before, as sparring was an occasional thing. However, now they’re aiming to build up the sparring a lot; implementing it at least every other week, if not every week. I’m not saying we’ll be spending as much time as we did today on it every week, but there should be at least a small section of sparring every time. As such, it is imperative that all of you bring your sparring gear to every lesson. Those who haven’t got any really need to get some soon. Low grades can perhaps just about do without headguards and shin/instep pads for a while, but gumshields really are essential. They’re also (usually) ridiculously cheap. If you’re paying more than a few quid (say, £5 or so) then you’re either being ripped off or it’s unnecessarily fancy and technological (though if you’ve got an epic one with lasers and hidden bombs then by all means go for it). Bear in mind that not all gumshields can be re-moulded.

Here are some examples I’ve found on my travels around the Internet of the things you need. The basic kit includes:

  • Gumshield
  • Gloves
  • Headguard
  • Shin or Shin + Instep Pads

Other kit includes padded boots, torso pads, thigh pads, knee pads, elbow pads, forearm pads, groin guards, etc. To be honest, it’s all pretty unnecessary, but if you want a bit more padding then don’t let me stop you! Groin guards are perhaps a good idea, but you’d really need to be wearing it all lesson, which isn’t going to be overly comfortable. Your choice though.

The Three Kinds of Sparring Gear:

Basically speaking, there’s three kinds of sparring gear. Crazy and awesome one-offs aside, they generally fall into these three categories:

Fabric pads, typically white cotton in construction and almost always elasticated, offer the least protection but the most comfort. They’re also usually quite cheap. The foam inside is usually Ethylene vinyl acetate (also known as EVA) polymer foam.
Dipped Foam pads usually have Velcro straps instead of elasticated sleeves, and are coated in a plastic vinyl coating. This means they’re easy to clean and are more hardwearing. They also take a bit more abuse. However, over the years they can be prone to cracking and/or ripping in certain stressed areas, particularly the join between the shin and instep bits of shin + instep pads.
Rigid pads are the most hardwearing, and offer the best protection. They’re also usually very expensive. They have a hardened cover (usually Kevlar) or a leather cover with a rigid inside. This type is usually illegal in competitions, but that’s not really an issue. These will hurt if you smash into them with a shin, but if you’re sparring you should have shin pads of your own, and if you have there’ll be no problems. These pads aren’t rock-solid usually, but their padding is on the inside, so they’re geared towards the protection of the wearer rather than the person getting kicked, so bear this in mind. They’re great for Instructors because it means we can let you kick us properly hard (with your shoes, not your shins – think Oblique Kicks…)

This is the website that Paul uses – Ki Martial Arts – and here’s the protective equipment section for your perusal: http://www.kico.co.uk/products/protective-equipment/

Different Kinds of Gloves, etc:

Gloves come in all shapes and sizes – ‘sparring’ gloves typically have finger holds like these Blitz ones (right).

Alternately, your normal boxing style gloves are fine. Another kind of gloves worth a mention is MMA style gloves, which allow for grappling as well as striking, like these classic UFC gloves (below, left). I don’t think Paul’s too keen on junior members using these though, as they don’t absorb much of the impact from your strikes. They’re perhaps better than other gloves for light contact though, particularly if the sparring is going to the ground. Adults can make their own minds up really. I find them quite comfortable to use, but of course it’s not just you that you’re thinking about!

As for gloves being used for padwork, I would really recommend that you don’t use gloves when doing padwork. If you do, I would recommend ones like MMA gloves which aren’t too padded, as you miss out on the conditioning and the fine detail of the technique then using gloves in my opinion. If you really, really want to though, don’t use soft ones.

More sparring gear can be found on eBay, etc: http://www.ebay.co.uk/sch/i.html?_from=R40&_trksid=p5197.m570.l1313&_nkw=sparring+gear&_sacat=See-All-Categories

Of course, headguards also come in all kinds, from boxing style ones to martial arts style ones, to grappling ones (just help prevent cauliflower ear when grappling) to full face-visor ones. Pick one that’ll protect you enough, and you probably can’t go far wrong. There’s merits to having a face visor and to not having one: not having one will train your reflexes better because you’re getting hit in the face, which will make you want to keep your hands up, but having a face visor allows the sparring partner to employ elbow strikes, etc which would be dangerous otherwise. Weigh up the pros and cons and decide yourselves, or have a word with us in class.

The bottom line though is:

YOU NEED SPARRING GEAR!

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If you’ve got any doubts, problems or questions about whether this or that is suitable, just chuck me an email at csps.info@gmail.com

Individual Points:

I’m not going to put names on here, just initials, for the junior members. It’s probably not an issue putting first names, but just in case I’ll just stick down initials. If any of you are really conscious of your personal security, ask and I’ll remove your name or initials straight away. (I doubt any crims will be able to find anyone from initials though!)

G.C: Believe in yourself! I know it sounds cheesy, but you really should believe in yourself more – stop telling yourself you can’t do things, and start telling yourself ‘no, actually – I can’. You’ll go from being awesome to awesomer. :D Welcome back to Callum, who should be joining us more regularly from now on, so we’ll have a more senior student in our midst; a veteran from the Good Old Days! Honourable congrats to Charlie for throwing out epic punches despite a bad back, and goodbye to Owen for a while, as he’s going off to university soon. Hopefully by the time everyone’s back again we’ll have a full and separate adults’ class for them!

See you next week! Training was great this morning – there’s some truly awesome progress being made! Time to make some more though…

All the best,
FCIns. Josh Nixon

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