Fight training vs self-defence – important philosophical differences
As 2016 rolls around, we have a new batch of students starting their Taekwondo journey with Walsh Martial Arts Australia. I have been training in the traditional, old school ITF style for over 18 years and instructing for the last 4 years. It is always valuable to explain to these new students the philosophy of how we train, and why. Even within Taekwondo itself, there are philosophical differences, with the more modern WTF style focused on the tournament and point scoring aspects and being seen as a “sport”.
The fundamentals and foundation of traditional Taekwondo lie in the emphasis on the exaggerated stances at white belt – forward stance, and horseback riding stance. Whilst these don’t necessarily have direct application in a normal self-defence situation, what they do allow is the student to fully utilise hip movement and body weight transfer to generate maximum power with each block and punch. This “one hit, one kill” principle will be revisited shortly, but this philosophy underpins the main difference between martial art self-defence and fight training.
The historical popularity of boxing, and now the rise of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) brings a different training philosophy to a practitioner. There is emphasis on not just the striking and defensive aspects, but there is much more conditioning and fitness based training. Fighters are expected to go multiple rounds and train to inflict and receive punishment.
Fight training is all about hitting and being hit. You can see this in the fight stance, elbows tucked into the body, gloves up to protect the jaw, chin down and shoulders forward for the same reason. Weight is on the balls of the feet to allow quick attacking and defensive motion.
By contrast, the Taekwondo guarding block is very different. Firstly, we always take a backwards step to come into the guard, which makes our first motion a defensive action rather than being aggressive and coming forward. Secondly our hands are away from the body, still at jaw height to protect the face, and elbows away but still near the ribs to protect those. What this does is create a “bubble” of space in front of us that says “you stay over there, but if you come into my space I will defend myself”. Thirdly our posture is such that we have our shoulders back and chest tall, chin up and eyes out to the world. This posturing has a similar philosophy to the animal kingdom, where they will stand on their hind legs and puff their fur out to appear bigger. This emphasis on stance is prevalent through all our training, to the point where students will stand with open chest, tall chin and eyes as a matter of natural course.
The main limitation of fight training is that the environment is restricted by rules. For example, boxing you cannot use your legs or punch below the waist, MMA fights prohibit attacking the groin, eyes and back of the neck.
If you have done any form of martial arts or self-defence training, you quickly learn that the vulnerable parts of the body that are otherwise restricted by rules are the most effective places to attack. The most effective form of pure self-defence martial art, although the term martial combat is more applicable, is Krav Maga. This combat is devised by the Israeli Defence Force to purely disarm and disable attackers with no prejudice, and mostly focus on the soft and vulnerable parts of the opponent to great effect.
With a set of rules, you can know in advance where your attacker will be attacking, and train and fight accordingly. In addition, you will be matched with a singular opponent of similar weight and usually experience.
In self-defence situations these factors will never be known. Your attacker could be drunk and violent, or a large brawler, or someone driven by ego and bluster, or even an equally skilled martial artist. They could have a weapon of some kind, or friends to back them up. Martial arts training covers a wide range of situations, and drill them over months and years until it becomes second nature.
If you take a fighter out of the ring or octagon and into the street, they will react in general the same way to a self-defence situation, which is the same way they train.
A martial artist has a moral and legal obligation to use reasonable force commensurate with the danger posed. For example, a drunk person in a bar is being aggressive but otherwise doesn’t seem to be actually posing an immediate danger can be subdued with various techniques until he or she settles down. Someone coming at you with fists raised and fire in their eyes can be met with a higher level of direct force, and someone threatening yours or others safety with a weapon can be taken down with close to maximum level force. Years of training make these kinds of decisions second nature and only take a split second.
Having started doing some boxing and kickboxing training myself, I can say that the intensity is super high, but time spent on the mitts or bags only make up a portion of the training time. As mentioned, conditioning and fitness play an important part of being able to go for multiple rounds of 3 minutes, and you train accordingly.
Martial arts training is quite focused; all aspects of the training have self-defence objectives. From the basic blocks and punches in the formal stances, to the patterns which are old but still valid ways of practicing non-contact self-defence, to kicking on the paddles and heavy bags to develop accuracy and power, and finally to actual self-defence applications – against punches, kicks, knife, baton, wrist and body grabs, and many other attacks. The objective is to be relaxed for the delivery of the technique or action and then absolute focus power and intensity right at the application of the action. This is the “one hit, one kill” idea flagged earlier. The student is expected to train at a 100% application in class which is a safe environment, so that in the stress of a self-defence situation, he or she is able to apply the action at a 60-80% level and still have it be effective.
The only goal of a bout is to beat your opponent, and you train to be faster, stronger, and better than them.
Whilst a martial artist is encouraged to have an ego, it is to the extent that they want to improve themselves. The goal of martial arts training is not to be better than your class mates, but to be better than you were at the start of the session. Each person is limited by their body type and shape, training experience, or maybe they just had a bad day at the office. How they train in the dojang despite all those things is a sign of their character and development.
None of this is a say that fight training isn’t useful or effective in defending oneself, but it just has different underpinning philosophies and different training objectives.
Having said all that, it might end up that I am not the best person to speak about self-defence! In 18 years of martial arts and Taekwondo training, I have yet to find myself in a situation that requires it. I’d have to say this is a combination of luck and not being in the wrong places at the wrong times. However, I would not be surprised if a large part of it was my posture and stance and the way I appear in the world. A long time standing in and practicing heavy formal stances, powerful hip movements for punching and kicking, shoulders back and chest open with my chin and eyes up and open to my surroundings, these are all factors that prevent a situation from even occurring. Thus the true value of martial arts training come to the fore, where the best self-defence is not even needing to defend yourself in the first place.
Alan Lau is a 4th dan Black Belt in Taekwondo and Branch Instructor (Ultimo, Redfern) for Walsh Martial Arts Australia.