Self DefenseOne of the favorite arguments amongst martial artists is to compare the relative values of a sport martial art like Muay Thai to a traditional martial art like Wing Chun, against the standard of the revered Street. The Street, of course, being the mythical place were evil monsters exist whose only purpose in life is to defeat your most beloved training technique.

It happens within styles as well: your sport Judo isn’t as good for real self defense as my old-school Judo. Or Olympic Taekwondo vs your current kwoon Taekwondo.

It’s a bit of a pointless argument. Odds are, neither are really good at preparing you for a self-defense scenario. It’s really not the purpose of most martial arts schools. Most schools are around to preserve knowledge, and to pass on the traditions of the teacher. This isn’t a bad thing. As Cicero says, it’s in our nature to seek out different kinds of truths, and to learn from those who profess to teach these truths.

The problem is when a teacher is non-critical of their own thinking or of what they have been taught, and they repeat lessons without really thinking about it. If I’m told my art is the real thing, and good for the street, then I will tend to believe it and repeat that message. And my training will likely reflect that belief. Probably with lots of suitably gory terms like bone breaking, neck tearing, and groin stomping. Feels brutal — therefore must be good for the street.

When I used to teach Vigny’s system of cane work, I loved to recount and embellish the story of how he developed his art. Nightly crawls in the depths of Marseille, trying techniques out against the most dastardly scum. What a system! Obviously only the best, most useable techniques would survive such a method. Or so I told myself. The fallacy comes in thinking that merely aping is the same as teaching.

Self defense doesn’t really rely on techniques. True self defense comes from the ability to make a series of decisions and act on those decisions. The “Evil Street Predator” succeeds so often not because they have superior physical skills (it’s almost universally the exact opposite) but because they understand that some situations make it very hard to be decisive. If I want to kidnap or murder you, I’m not going to spend time training the ideal technique. I’m going to think of a way to confuse you. I’m going to ask you to help me with something, and I’m going to look like a nice guy in distress when I do so. Right away you are going to be in a decision loop of wanting to go about your day or doing the right thing. My actions after that will be focused on keeping you in that decision loop while I do whatever I want to you.

The problem with the more traditional methods of teaching is that there is very little decision-making to do. You simply follow instructions. There may not even be sparring. Even some of the “Reality-based” self defense classes can have this problem if they teach rigorous patterns to set attacks. One could argue that sport styles might even offer better decision making ability because of their constant tactical demands.

A good self defense class will be one that puts you into increasingly more uncomfortable situations, and demands that you make decisions at each stage. It will be a class that reviews each decision you made, and helps you understand what things made you go into a goofy-loop (thanks for the phrase, Clive) of not being able to do anything. If you aren’t doing scenario training, you aren’t doing this. It doesn’t have to be a big part of your training, but it does have to be a constant practice. A few classes once in a while, some refreshers, and you are good…as long as you practice decision-making and the requisite awareness in your daily life.

If you’re training this way, it doesn’t matter so much what technical training you do. You should be able to sort your training into things that help and support your decisions (likely less than a handful of techniques); things that are good for you or fun; and things that support your tradition and might be useful for other people in later times.

As long as you keep complacency from your teaching and training, it doesn’t matter so much whether your school is traditional or sport-oriented. You can teach valuable lessons in self-defense within the confines of your style by keeping an eye towards decision-making in class.