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Please note: This article is now outdated.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:

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.


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

    1. Great response! I can’t pretend to be an expert of martial arts, as I’m a self-protection instructor personally, but from my admittedly limited understanding of all of these systems I would suggest categorisation as follows:
      1) Boxing – combat sport, as it’s competition-based.
      2) Capoeira – depends on how it’s trained. If it’s trained with emphasis on the traditions, language, music, etc then I’d say martial art, but if it’s trained with a view to competitive fighting/dancing/playing (different classes seem to have very different focuses especially with Capoeira) then perhaps also a combat sport.
      3) Fencing – combat sport if competition-based.
      4) Jeet Kune Do – martial art.
      5) Kalaripayattu – I’m not overly familiar with this one, but from what I’ve heard: martial art.
      6) Krav Maga – self-defence or self-protection, depending on whether individual instructors teach awareness, proaction, etc or not.
      7) Kyudo – Again, I’m not overly familiar with this one, but from what I’ve heard I would class it as a martial art.
      8) Muay Boran – If there’s any competitive aspect then a combat sport, but if tradition and aesthetics are focussed on then martial art.
      9) Pankration – combat sport, though some practice with a focus on the tradition of it so this would be martial arts.
      10) Point Shooting – combat sport.
      11) Taekkyeon – can be either MA or combat sport, depending on its focus.
      12) Taekwondo – again, can be either MA or combat sport depending on its focus.
      13) Taijiquan – martial art.
      14) Wrestling – combat sport.

      Note however that these are only vast generalisations, and are not mutually exclusive. You can train TKD, for example, both as a martial art and as a combat sport, as indeed many do. Any martial art can be practiced as a combat sport with the inclusion of an element of competition.


  1. A nice article, I’m not sure though if there is actually a big difference between self defence and self protection. I use the terms to describe the same thing depending on who I’m talking to. The phrase self defence seems to be an older phrase generally uses by the public and self protection a more modern phrase.

    If we were delving further it could be said that self defence is actually a physical act committed when you are actually attacked. However a name is only a name. I don’t think it matters that much in relation to SD and SP.


    1. Very true, as I said it’s a complicated situation we’re all in with these terms because everyone has a different definition of what they mean! Arguably this is true of all language, but I notice a particular issue here. I used to use the terms interchangeably when I started my training, but when I properly got into researching Peter Consterdine and Geoff Thompson’s work, I found their distinctions made in the ‘Pavement Arena’ series quite useful. Exactly as you say Andy: self-defence (in my distinction anyway) is the physical reaction, whereas self-protection would also encompass the proaction of threat awareness, evaluation and avoidance. As I said though, if nothing else this one is to merely clarify what I mean personally in my usage of the terms, so I can avoid confusing anyone who, as I used to years ago, might have called what you and I do a martial art, and would’ve considered traditional Wing Chun self-defence!


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