What is the "Best Martial Arts" for Self-Defense? - by Wayne Muromoto
A while ago, someone emailed me asking my opinion about the best martial arts to study in terms of self-defense.
Stupidly, I was my usual facetious self in answering that question, until the person gave me the reason why he queried me. He, a young, healthy male, had been robbed. In the course of the crime, he had been assaulted and found himself unable to protect himself from bodily harm. The physical injuries were minor, but the experience shook him to his psychological core. To have your sense of self, of destiny, and control taken over by a criminal is surely one of the worst feelings you can have, and in a sense, this young man might have had a sense of being violated similar to the trauma suffered by sexual assault and rape victims.
One way this young man thought he could rebuild his sense of self-confidence was through becoming trained in a martial art that would enable him to fend off such an attack in the future. Once I realized the seriousness that underlined his question, I tried to reply to him in the way that I am writing now: Basically, I told him, in all honesty, no martial art is a foolproof method against being hurt in a robbery or crime, if the assailant is unarmed, or with a knife, or especially a gun. You can slip on a banana peel, miss a block, or be in the wrong place in the wrong time and get clobbered. Or worse, your life could be in danger if you resist.
Then again, there are instances when compliance or resistance don't really matter one way or another; the attacker is just bent on doing you harm one way or another, and, unable to escape, you just have to figure a way out of your predicament using whatever means are at your disposal, including martial arts. With that caveat, I told him that martial arts can give you a better sense of awareness and physical ability to possibly deal with an attack, but it's no panacea.
Now, although I practice martial arts, what I then informed him was my own, honest opinion, and I had nothing to gain or lose because he lived thousands of miles away from me and I wasn't looking to recruit him for my school, or for any particular martial arts school. If my following opinions rile anyone, then just take it as it is; simply my own opinion, and there are, I'm sure, many more opinions coming from all quarters.
The first line of self-defense, even before being physically trained, is self-awareness. In this, I include being aware of one's own limitations as well as being aware of one's surroundings. If a dark alley seems suspiciously like a great place to ambush someone, then don't go down it if it's late at night and you're walking through it alone. Take a slightly longer route home. So know your own limitations, and avoid the possible places or situations where you could get caught. Old martial artists would call this "winning by not fighting." You maneuver yourself out of a combative situation before it even happens. In a similar manner, if you don't want a fight, then don't go into a bar known for its brawls acting and looking for a fight. Know yourself, know the others. Again, in knowing oneself, don't dress or act the part of a victim. Walk erect but not proud, aware of your surroundings, and put away your Rolex watch and fancy gold chain necklace. Be "normal," i.e., don't act overconfident, but don't act like you're scared of your own shadow.
Don't rely on externals to protect you. What I mean is, don't pack a Saturday Night Special when you decide to go to that raunchy bar on the other side of town. In some places it's illegal to carry a concealed weapon. And in the worst case, it gives you a sense of false confidence. Just don't go to that bar, period. Don't place your hopes on having a pistol in your drawer at home, or carrying a knife or baseball bat in your car, or a can of Mace on your key chain, or a stun gun in your purse. While Mace or a stun gun may help, there's no iron-clad guarantee that you can reach for it in your purse in time to protect yourself. Remember there are limitations to any weapon at hand, and be aware of the local law regarding carrying such weapons on your body and the damage you can inflict in a given situation.
I'm not advocating or denouncing gun control laws here; that's another matter entirely.What I'm talking about doesn't deal with guns as a means of self-defense. I don't want to go there because that's another humongous controversy.
That said, sometimes all your best intentions come to nothing; you try to avoid danger zones, you try to not exude fear or false bravado, and still the bad guys try to rob you. The advice I hear from local police officers is the advice I prefer. If a robber wants your money, give it to him.
Getting involved in a struggle over money is not worth risking your life. There are too many variables so that even as a trained martial artist, you may not survive unscathed. In terms of rape, sexual assault or physical assault, I would refer you to discussions with your local police as to what is the safest, most reasonable responses. I'm a martial arts instructor (a mediocre one at that); not a specialist in counseling rape victims, and I don't pretend to be one.
However, I'm sure that avoiding fighting with a criminal is usually best because you never know what other variables may put you in danger. The assailant could have friends lurking around the corner, for example. Or he could have a knife or gun that you missed seeing. Or he could just be bigger and meaner and stronger than you.
So what about the times when, as this young man noted, that you try to avoid difficult situations, but you nevertheless are attacked. Even though you give the criminal your money and try to avoid conflict by backing off, the attacker still assaults you and you have to fight for your life? Then, I said, you fight as if it's a matter of sheer basic survival. You use whatever you can, whether it's martial art, a two by four, whatever.
So he pressed me. What martial art is the best, then? In that situation I said, it's not so much the style of martial arts in itself, but how much you train and how well that martial arts fits you.
In most instances, assaults require a rapid response. You don't have time to think, "Okay, he's coming in with an overhead strike. I can use either an age-uke block and punch combination, or I could step to the right side, deflect the strike, and kick. . .or. . ." The attack comes quickly, and you must respond reflexively, without the luxury of thinking up a fancy defense. Whether it's judo, karatedo, aikido, or whatever, you need to train long enough so that your response is quick, simple and reflexive.
So if you take up any form of martial arts as a means of self-defense, then you have to focus on the basics, repeating the methods over and over again until they are a natural, reflexive part of you, so that as soon as you see an overhand attack, for example, you can react quickly, without hesitation or thinking, without intellectualizing what you're doing or letting the fear/flight emotional response render you frozen in your tracks.
Repetitive training will help. But mental training also helps a great deal. Martial arts practice is wonderful in that it puts you in a physical situation that challenges both your body, mind and emotion to maintain calmness and deliberateness in the middle of physical mayhem. It's a very good fit for training for self-defense, but not a complete fit, because when all is said and done, a real self-defense situation is still different from martial arts. But the martial arts can prepare you somewhat for it.
To paraphrase one combat veteran, "five minutes of real combat is worth months of basic training." In other words, nothing can prepare you completely for a real self-defense situation. Nothing. Proper training, however, will at least have you ready and more prepared compared to someone who has had no training at all. That is why soldiers are drilled repeatedly for combat; once in combat their reactions have to be reflexive, and the only way to develop that short of throwing them into real battle and letting the rate of natural attrition decide who has natural survival skills is to train the soldiers, over and over again, until such simple and complex tasks under duress become second nature.
Self-defense training's end goals is just that: physical self-defense. There's nothing wrong with that, but that is its limit. Martial arts has a myriad of goals: mental and physical health, self-confidence, spiritual training, learning body dynamics, and thus self-defense is but one of various goals of martial arts. That said, therefore, ten-step self-defense courses for women, etc., have obvious limitations and I am ambivalent about the worthiness of many of those courses. They may give some basic physical tools and techniques to people, they may bolster self-confidence, and within those limited parameters they may serve a purpose and be somewhat adequate.
But it is my experience that without constant and lengthy training in mental and physical methodologies, it is really hard to inculcate the rapid response reflexes needed in a real self-defense situation. I'm not saying such focused short workshops are entirely useless; I'm sure they serve some purpose, but as they are often structured, I don't think the benefits are as great as they are often touted, or as they could be if the whole situation was further studied by specialists in the field over a longer period of time.
Such short workshops may give a brief introduction to some simple safety and self-defense "tips," but students should always be forewarned that it will not turn them into a Jackie Chan overnight.
Nor should any of the aerobic-martial arts instructors give students a false sense that they can "kick butt" after doing aerobics-based martial arts, such as Tae Bo or kickboxing aerobics. I'm sure Tae Bo and the other spin offs are a great workout, and it will slim down and tone students, but unless it's augmented with traditional martial arts training, that emphasizes focus, power punching, proper balance for striking a real physical object, reaction drills and so on, aerobics-based martial arts' primary focus is on body fitness and toning, NOT self-defense. Ditto aerobic kickboxing. You may look great in a Spandex outfit, but it doesn't mean you can really kick butt in the street.
But if instructors in those courses are honest, they will admit to the limitations, as well as the possible benefits, of such courses. If so, then I have no quarrels with them.
For example (and here I know I'm going to get clobbered by some advocates), in some self-defense workshops a favorite practice is to have a guy dressed up in protective padding from top to bottom "assault" a student. The student fights back with punches, kicks and all the methods he/she learned in the few weeks' worth of training that the class offered. All other things being equal, that's not a bad exercise. But it's not a be-all and end-all.
You usually don't get attacked by someone in such padded gear unless you're on a football field carrying a football. Attackers will come in all shapes, sizes, assortments and numbers. They will come at you unarmed, armed with bladed weapons, and/or with guns. Heck, you could even be attacked by someone trying to run you over with an SUV in an instance of road rage.
So I concluded by telling the young man that self-defense courses may be good for a quick dose of self-confidence, and possibly some simple techniques that may or may not work. But it's not the be-all and end-all of everything; it's a quickie stop gap band aid for people who don't have the time to invest in long-term martial arts. And quickie stop gaps can't guarentee you anything permanent or long-lasting.
Thus, if he really was serious, he should take up martial arts, but realize that he should accept whatever martial arts he studies as having more than the limited goal of self-defense. He should realize that everything goes hand in hand; learning the mental and physical discipline, the body dynamics, the basics, all will tie in to his need to learn self-defense, by giving him a firm foundation that will accumulate over the years, like compounded interest in a bank account.
And like compounded interest, there's no quick road to profit. You just have to keep training and training, until the martial arts becomes a part of you. But which martial art is the best, he reitereated. I replied (getting into my dumb-jokes mode again), heck, even learning baseball is great. If you learn how to swing a bat and throw a baseball, then you can swing a stick or throw things at the guy. Or run like heck away from the attack.
Maybe he would enjoy the grappling and free-for-all randori of judo. Or he might prefer the clean and intricate techniques of aikido, or the punching and kicking of karate. Or he may opt to do something like Tae Kwon Do or Chinese Kung Fu, or Filipino Escrima, or Western style boxing. What mattered was that he find something he could stick with and study for years and years. I'm real open about that. I don't think my own martial arts is the best for everyone. He had to find something that would best fit his character and tastes.
I close with a true anecdote, relayed to me by a student of an aikido sensei long since passed away. One day, the sensei came into the dojo with a torn T-shirt. As everyone changed to their training gi, the student said, "Sensei, what happened to your shirt?"
The sensei said that a petty thief had accosted him in the street just before he went to the dojo and tried to rob him.
"What happened?" the student asked.
"I have to study aikido more..." the sensei said. "He tried to grab my shoulder and pull my wallet from my pocket, so I grabbed him and threw him, and he tore my T-shirt when I threw him. The punk was so surprised he got up and ran away. Oh, but I have to study aikido more..."
"Oh, but sensei, that's great. I mean, you threw the guy!" his student said.
"No, you don't understand. I threw him, but it was with a seoi nage (over-the-shoulder judo throw). That's not aikido. I have to study aikido more."
The sensei had studied judo as a young boy for years before he devoted himself to aikido. When faced with an immediate situation, his most basic reflexes kicked in and rather than react in an aikido fashion, he reverted back to the imprinting he received as a child. That is what disturbed the sensei; he realized he hadn't truly integrated aikido into his gut level reflexes as he had done with judo. And this is a sensei who had studied aikido for decades.
So the moral of the story, I guess, is that true self-defense is based on long term training, over and over again. Like a lot of things in life, there really is no quick, short term solution that lasts very long. You simply train. What is the best martial arts for self-defense? One that you have trained in for years and years and years.