The paradox of Tradition and Self Defence

A topic of much discussion – often heated – among martial artists and combatives instructors, is the role and relevance of traditional martial arts (TMA), as well as competition styles such as MMA or boxing, in self-defence training.

The notion that TMA and Krav Maga (KM) are mutually exclusive is a paradox. It's like saying that a knife is not a weapon because today we have tanks. True, but dying from a knife wound won't make you any less dead than being blown to smithereens. The answer, to me, is why not have both?

Quite often I hear KM (which for the sake of this article will be a universal name for self defence methods) described as ‘a lot of martial, not a lot of art’, which is true to a great extent. But then again, its purpose was not to be an art, but to be a self-defence system. The many variations, organisations and clubs that teach KM around the world often describe ‘their’ version of KM as being the original or the superior, etc. But let’s not forget that KM comes from a traditional background of Judo, Jujutsu and Boxing. 

I would therefore define KM as a set of principles and techniques that are used for self-protection.

While the techniques vary from teacher to teacher, the principles remain mostly uniform across the different KM school and focus around eliminating threats in the shortest amount of time to allow for a quick escape.

TMA, on the other hands, are steeped in tradition and can be very clearly defined as ‘arts’, particularly the older styles of Japan, China and South-East Asia. Their technical demands and specifications are usually very specific to each system, and follow a clear path in terms of building both skill and character. The code of behaviour and character development in most TMA is also very specific, and almost uniform across systems. It generally focuses on the virtues of Bushido, or similar, and emphasises such values as respect, loyalty, honour, courage, etc. But let us not forget that they, too, originate from a combative need. Although the context may now be outdated, the need was still authentic, and as such can be learned from. 

I believe that the benefits of TMA to systems like KM or other modern combatives come from two sources, as outlined above – the code, and the technical base. Please allow me to expound:
1. Technical base – TMA emphasise a strong technical ability at the core of its progression. The same is true for competition sports. This technical base, while not always relevant in a modern combat context, is a huge benefit to the application of combative techniques in self-defence, as it teaches principles that are important to the understanding of how and why certain things work. Lowering the centre of gravity, the ability to feel and redirect energy and knowledge of human anatomy, its strengths and weaknesses are an intimate part of progressing through the ranks in TMA. Speaking from personal experience, I have found that 6 months spent focusing on doing Bojutsu and Kenjutsu, improved my Krav by the equivalent of double that time, just because it focuses on principles that are incredibly important to make techniques effective. What this creates, ultimately, are well-rounded martial artists. Nearly every outstanding combatives instructor has a background in TMA (I say nearly, not all). My favourite example for this is Brazillian Jiu Jitsu and submission grappling. BJJ is not an effective self-defence system when considering multiple attackers and weapons, but it teaches incredibly important aspects of self-defence. Most fights will go to the ground, and without intimate knowledge of positions, transitions and submissions it could be difficult to fight your way out in a street fight against someone who may possess some skill in this area, or if you have not rehearsed those things enough to be able to do them instinctively under adrenal response.
2. Values and ethics – the values emphasised in traditional martial arts form the core of a training group. They are exemplified by the behaviour of both instructors and students. These values, as previously mentioned, usually revolve around respect, camaraderie, loyalty, etc. And, perhaps most importantly, TMA emphasises leaving one’s ego outside of conflict. The resulting behaviour of an experienced practitioner should be to walk away from a physical conflict unless impossible to do so.

The logical set of questions that follows from this, in my eyes, is as follows:

1. Does this mean that one has to do both?
I believe the answer to that is ‘no’. It really depends on what it is that you hope to achieve by training.
2. Are there benefits to doing both?
Absolutely. TMA and competition sports offer a lot in ways of developing both attributes and skills such as timing, distance, endurance, power, speed, etc., all of which can play a pivotal role in self-defence.
3. Are there cons to doing both?
The answer is yes, sometimes. If you only train for competition or in a TMA environment, you will find that you will start to ignore or forget some of the basics in self defence training, such as multiple attackers, high-value targets, weapons, etc.
4. Do the benefits outweigh the cons?
Once again – yes, but that depends heavily on how the two are combined.

Personally, I do believe that having a solid foundation in some fighting system, whether it is traditional or not, will always add to your KM or self-defence, which to me comes full circle to the definition of KM – it is a way of applying techniques that is specific to the set of circumstances that are considered realistic.

This, of course, can then open a whole other can of worms about what is considered ‘realistic’, the value of ‘pressure testing’, and so on, but that is another discussion altogether. And let’s get something else straight - I know amazingly talented KM and self-defence instructors who have no experience, nor interest, in TMA.

A very wise and skilled instructor has recently made a statement I wholeheartedly agree with:
When you are on your dying bed, the last thing you will be thinking about is what style of martial arts is the best. 

As long as you achieve your goals, learn the skills you set out to learn and become a better human being for it, it doesn’t matter what you practice!

Stay safe, stay tuned.


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