Printed in MAWired, Vol 4, No. 5, June 1997.

Martial Arts for Self-defense

I think the martial arts are great----I enjoy the ones I do, I like the ones I see, and I think that just about every single martial art out there has at least SOME very good things about it----if not a LOT of good things about it.

However, what we are talking about here is training in the martial arts for self-defense purposes, which is a very specialized thing---and not all martial arts have strengths in this area. (If nothing else, not all martial arts have IMMEDIATE strengths in this area---and if someone wants to learn a martial art for self-defense, it needs to start teaching it from the beginning.)

Now, in general, all martial arts will help you prepare to defend yourself, at least indirectly---you will be in better shape, more flexible, more able to withstand punishment, and have more control over your body. These are all good things.

However, being a football player will do much the same thing. To me, for a martial art to be a good self-defense art it needs to do several things:

I love Aikido, and think that Tai Chi is wonderful. However, are they good self-defense arts, in my opinion, according to the criteria above?

Not really.

If you have taken Aikido or Tai Chi for 10 years, and practiced diligently, conscientiously, and continually, and thought about what you are doing with regards to self-defense, there is a fairly good chance that you will be just about untouchable.

On the other hand, after one year? No. The way those arts are taught, the general mindset of the art and the things those arts emphasize do not teach self-defense----at least, not right away. (In certain limited circumstances, you might be able to find an instructor who teaches self- defense applications from the beginning. But that is EXTREMELY rare. As usual, the Absolute Law applies: No rule is absolute, as there is always an exception. However, for the above case, it's not likely.)

And most people can't wait 10 years to learn to defend themselves. I highly recommend both Aikido and Tai Chi---there are some VERY important things you can learn from them. However, immediate self-defense is not one of them.

Things to check

When attempting to find a martial art that teaches self-defense, there are a couple of simple things to look for. Each martial art is different, and moreover, each instructor teaches their martial art differently. WTF Taekwondo at one dojang might be completely different than WTF TKD at another, Praying Mantis at one kwoon can be very different from Mantis elsewhere. You just have to go take a look.

Attend a class---what do you see happening?

Are people practicing practical self-defense?
Are people practicing reactions to common self-defense situations? Or are they doing rote forms, practicing flying spin kicks, or using archaic weapons that you could never carry on the street? (Remember, your point here is self-defense----you are not looking for instructions on how to use a halberd. If the art teaches that as well, fine, but that is not the primary goal of your search. Similarly, while occasionally forms deal with real-life situations, most do not do so in a realistic way. The point for forms is, are the forms used to perfect techniques for self-defense, or are the forms supposedly the self-defense practice itself?)

Are the lower belts practicing simple, efficient ways to deal with attackers?
Or is it just the higher belts who are working on self-defense? Yes, all beginners need to work on basics---however, you should ALSO see them working self-defense techniques. After all, if you join, that is where you are going to be---and you are here to learn to defend yourself.

Is the instructor teaching a mindset in addition to the moves?
Can you see the instructor making sure the students are understanding that they aren't learning to beat up on people, they are learning to stop people from hurting them----and that it is ok to do whatever is necessary to accomplish that? (I'm not talking only about being able to seriously damage someone here---I'm also talking about the other end of the spectrum, so that people who are being harassed, manhandled, etc---but not directly VIOLENTLY attacked, know how to deal with the situation-----and are building the self-confidence to do so.)

Optional, but a good idea: Does the martial art (and the instructor) teach self-defense reactions in a way that makes sense to you?
Meaning, the way that particular martial art reacts to an attack----does that fit the way your mind works? Do the reactions make intuitive sense to you, in the style in which they work? Does it fit the physical limitations of your body? Example: a very tiny person might become VERY good at judo---but won't be able to do much in the way of self-defense in only a year. Size can (and WILL) make a difference.


An important note here: If an art doesn't match any of the above criteria, that does not mean anything with respect to whether it is a viable art or not. When you are looking for strict immediate self-defense, you are looking for a small sub-set of what the martial arts are about.

Some arts are simply better for immediate self-defense, particularly if you are someone who isn't going to stay a practitioner for years----just someone who wants to pick up the basics.

Does this make them better martial arts? Not at all. What it means is that they are STRUCTURED differently, in terms of learning techniques. Does this mean some arts won't teach you to defend yourself? Not really. (Though some won't---but that is because of the instructor, not the art. There isn't an art out there that isn't applicable to self-defense---but there are instructors who don't know how to impart that knowledge.)

For some arts, that self-defense knowledge just takes longer. And when looking for an art FOR SELF-DEFENSE purposes, that isn't the way you want to go.


Thomas Howard is a martial artist who has entirely too many friends who have been attacked, and wishes everyone he cares about knew how to defend themselves. Comments about this article should be sent to Thomas.