*Note: This is a reprint of an article I wrote under another name a while back.*

Lots of people associate martial arts with self-defense, and for good reason. Many schools advertise as teaching “self-defense” whether they actually teach self-defense or martial arts. There is a societal link between the two that has become so strong, that the two are often used interchangeably. Unfortunately this can cause, and has caused, problems. There are many differences, of which I’ll discuss four.

1. Realism in Techniques. No matter how “realistic” a particular school teaches its techniques, there are boundaries which are not crossed. I have yet to see a martial arts school that actually allows, much less encourages, techniques to be practiced as they would actually be used. If they did, they would have to allow at least six weeks between classes so that broken bones had time to heal, at the very least. What about eye gouges or strikes to the throat? Needless to say, in order for a student to learn, the techniques have to be pulled and carefully controlled. There is nothing wrong with this. What is often missing, though, is the realization that the techniques are *purposefully* made less effective in order for students to practice them. Too often what happens when a technique is needed is the student performs as they did in class…and stops short of actually harming their attacker.

2. Pain. Many techniques are based on pain, or–even worse–the assumption of pain. A broken nose will not stop an attacker. When an attack happens, a cocktail of endorphins and adrenaline hits the system. Many techniques that are based on causing pain won’t even be felt. This is not something that comes out in class because, even if a student has some adrenaline in the system, the amount is not even close to how much will be in the system during an attack. As such, pain-based techniques performed consistently and effectively in class rarely, if ever, work when you actually need them.

3. Purpose. Many schools try to sell martial arts as self-defense. This is far from the truth. If you break down the phrase “martial arts”, you come up with “the arts of war.” So how is this different from self-defense? As the name implies, the purpose of martial arts is eliminating the enemy. As much as a student may learn and change internally, mentally or emotionally, the expression of a martial art is always expressed on an outside target. Self-defense, on the other hand, is about keeping yourself safe. Rather than eliminating an enemy, the purpose of self-defense is to make sure that you continue living. The common protest to this viewpoint is that eliminating an enemy and keeping yourself safe are two sides of the same coin. In some cases, this may be true. However, if you’re at the point where the only way to keep yourself safe is by eliminating the enemy, you’ve already missed several opportunities to avoid such a risky situation. This is why I say that self-defense is an attitude.

4. Location. Most likely you will not need to ever use your physical self-defense techniques, but if you do, the chances of it happening in a martial arts school are exceedingly small. As such you probably will not have the amount of space you’re used to moving in, nor will the space you do have be conducive to the techniques you learned. Barring mental instability, most attackers are going to make sure they hold as many advantages as possible, and that you hold as many disadvantages as possible. One of the unmentioned assumptions in most martial arts schools is that the training area is a realistic representation of the places you’re likely to need to use what you learn. I say this assumption is “unmentioned” because most people don’t even realize they’re making it. When said outright, the fallacy is obvious. I can count the number of times it’s actually been said to me on one hand.

It may sound like I’m bashing martial arts. I’m not. What I’m trying to do is draw a line between martial arts and self-defense. Martial arts can be useful in many types of situations, including self-defense. Saying martial arts and self-defense are the same thing shortchanges the potentials of martial arts and limits the concept of self-defense.