This is something I wrote for a group of friends of mine who heard about me starting Aikido and got interested in martial arts themselves. I did a bit of research before writing this, mostly by visiting different MA and self-defence websites. Please give it a read through and help me fact check it before I post it for them. Its in a pseudo FAQ format. Much of it has todo with questions they asked me about self-defence and a lot of it is not Aikido specific, infact I intended most of it to be not specific to any one martial art. Also, its pretty long.
What is a fight?
A fight is an altercation, whether for sport or in a life & death situation, one person is trying his or her best to put the other person down and keep them down.
What is self defence?
Self defence is the act of distracting / disabling or neutralizing an opponent for the purpose of survival and / or escape in a life & death situation, self defence is not something you willingly enter into, it is not sport and it is not a fight.
What is a martial art?
A martial art is a stylised, formalised set of techniques, usually to illustrate some principle of body mechanics and movement. Some arts teach the practitioner to rely on techniques, some arts teach the practitioner to rely on the principles illustrated by these techniques. Techniques can only go so far, usually there is only a certain limited range of techniques which can be applied to any one attack. Attacks on the other hand are varied and nearly unlimited and even though the martial artist tries to classify them into rough groups to practice against, if he or she relies solely on techniques it is doubtful whether one would be able to apply these techniques in a self defence situation.
What are martial artists training against?
The martial artist's training consists of forms or katas practiced solo to train the "body memory" in movements which may be unintuitive at first coupled with sparring sessions against his peers to train instinctive response and correct technique against different body shapes and sizes.
Martial arts training makes certain assumptions in training, many of these assumptions are fallacy or inaccurate, making training less than realistic:
1) Your opponent is skilled in your particular martial arts style
This is a dangerous assumption because is becomes all too easy to start expecting certain behaviour patterns in certain situations. If you assume that a straight punch to your opponent's face is going to result in a forearm block then you are going to be unprepared for an opponent who might instead evade your attack and put an elbow in your face or parry your attack and counter attack.
2) Your opponent is going to be unarmed
This is rarely the case in muggings, hijackings and rapes, your attacker would not be attacking you unless he was sure that he would be able to pull some secret weapon and best you. The best responce to an attacker with a knife or a gun is to co-operate or risk running away. Do you think the cash in your wallet or your gold wristwatch is worth getting shot over because you decided to disarm your attacker?
3) You will be facing one opponent
Once again this is rarely the case, muggers, hijackers and rapists are cowardly creatures and will take willing accomplices along to help them in their perverted pursuits. Just because you can defend yourself against one attacker does not mean that you will be able to defend yourself against multiple attackers. Remember that life is not an action movie, your opponents are not going to take turns attacking you, they are going to rush you and try to restrain you, and this is if you are lucky and they are unarmed.
4) You will be facing your one, unarmed, martial artist opponent in an open, well-lit environment with soft floors.
This is not so much a wrong assumption as it is a limitation of training. In reality you will be facing your attackers in a dark, cement floored parking lot between cars or in a crowded bar between other people, barstools and a floor covered in broken bits of glass and slippery patches of spilled drinks. In general the situation is always going to be less than optimal. Do you want to risk injury by taking your opponent down and ground-wrestling him into submission? This might work for the Gracies in the UFC but while you are busy wrestling your opponent on the glass covered slippery bar floor, what about his pals? Think they are going to stand around waiting their turn?
5) You are allowed to break bones, rip out throats and outright kill your opponent.
The police get into trouble for using excessive force in restraining a hardened criminal, if you think you can use your deadly, bone crushing techniques against some depressed drunk who thinks you were looking at his girl at the bar then you are gravely mistaken. You will get into trouble and depending on circumstances and the law, you can go to jail where you will be facing hardened criminals with no humanity and no regard or respect for life on a daily basis.
What kind of attacks can I expect in a self defence situation?
This is realy a silly question, if you knew exactly what was going to happen, surely you would have nothing to worry about, nevertheless, when facing a single, unarmed, drunk / doped up / out of his mind attacker you can expect him to first try and grab you either to restrain you for a punch or to throw you to the ground. Then you can expect to get kicked when you are down. An unskilled attacker not thinking about his actions would very, very rarely try and do a high kick to your face, the most natural response in rage is the grab and punch.
Is is still worth doing a martial art for self defence then?
For the most part, no, dont do martial arts for self defence, do it because you want to live a long, satisfying, healthy life. If you can find a martial art that you enjoy doing, is on your level of physical ability and which as a side effect would help you face self defence situations, so much the better. Remember the word "martial" in martial art? That implies techniques of war. Try to find a martial art that emphasises the martial aspect and keep it in mind when training, then you will remain true to the spirit of the martial art and gain the maximum benefit from it. But dont become obsessed with its technical implementation in "real life" situations. Dont be swayed by talk of style x is better than style y because its more comprehensive or to become a great fighter do style x and then do style y and do a bit of style z. Its not the martial art that will win the battle, but the martial artist, someone untrained in any style with only natural ability and overwhelming intent will be able to beat someone skilled in any style of martial arts. Its the fighter not the style.
Which style of martial art would suit me best?
This is a question that you must answer for yourself. The overwhelming majority of martial artists take part in the external percussive arts like Karate, Taekwondo, Kempo, Kickboxing and the animal styles of Kung Fu. This is because the training is systematic, vigorous and you get a great workout without a lot of investment of time or thought. Most martial arts classes cost a lot less than joining a gym and they emphasise natural resistance training and flexibility which to me makes more sense than bulking up with huge unnatural muscles.
A much smaller group of martial artists prefer the internal "suppleness" arts like Judo, Ju-Jitsu (Brazilian and tradition Japanese), Aikido and Tai Chi*. These arts stress non-resistance, grappling and redirecting the force of your attacker. For the most part they take much longer to master than the external arts due to the amount of mental investment the participant needs to make, every technique has internal meaning in the sense that you are not just twisting your waist but you are moving your hips and leading the force of your attacker and not just resisting it head-on. The training methods employed are more "hands-on" than the external percussive arts and much emphasis is placed on unbalancing your attacker both physically and mentally.
* Tai Chi is an exception, its realy a percussive art but practiced with a deep regard for the internal and also stresses non-resistance to enable the practitioner to remain responsive to any attack.
So which one do I pick?
Think back to your last physical altercation, its probably going to be a highschool situation, whether you won or lost this particular fight is immaterial, just think about your first response. Did you back away or duck the attack and try to punch or kick back? In this case a percussive martial art would be a good choice as you are already instinctively reacting in the "correct way" for this particular set of martial arts.
Did you on the other hand try and close the distance to hold and restrain or throw your attacker to the ground? Then one of the suppleness arts would be a good choice because you are instinctively reacting in the "correct way" for this particular set of martial arts.
Slimming the choice you now have to a particular style is basically just a matter of visiting many different martial arts schools, asking to sit in on a class or join in on a free class and trying to see if the training method and teacher suits you. Maybe you need militaristic discipline and commands barked at you to feel like you are accomplishing something, maybe you prefer a softer approach from your teacher. Maybe you need to be taught in clear steps from most basic technique to most advanced, or maybe you need to be taught in a more ad-hoc fashion, where the basis of the teaching is not the technique but the attack and how to respond to it with multiple optional techniques.
What about the martial arts that are taught to the military or the riot police or special ops forces etc...
These martial arts are taught as a fall back for when your ammo runs out, when going toe to toe with a soldier or a spec ops forces type guy, expect to get a bullet in the head and one in the chest after you are blinded by a flashbang and you are unable to breath due to teargas, if his ammo ran out, prepare to get pushed back or knocked off balance long enough for him to reload and shoot you. The riot police have a tougher time, they are going to get into trouble if they just start shooting rioters but the ability to quickly and effectively restrain the one or two people in the crowd that want to try their luck is a valuable skill indeed. Punching and kicking a rioter is out though so they have to rely on grappling, take downs and joint controls and pins to get the point across. The Tokyo riot police go for a year-long training programme in Aikido at the Yoshinkan head dojo. This makes sense for us civilians because the most common kind of altercations we will face would probably be the old drunken bar brawl where no-one can get permamnently hurt and the only things damaged is the furniture and the egos of those involved. These same restrictions apply to bouncers, security guards and the police so a suppleness art would be the best choice for these people.
So I cant realy hurt someone with a suppleness art?
A good judo throw into a hard concrete floor can kill an opponent, infact, the larger the opponent is, the harder and faster he will hit the ground, if you pull him over you so that his neck or head hits the floor first, he is dead, no question about it. But why would you want to kill your attacker when you can pull him over further so that his back hits the floor first, gets him good and winded and while he is writhing around in pain trying to breath, you can tie his shoelaces together.
But I realy, realy want to learn a self defence martial art!
The best choice in this regard would be Krav Maga, a martial art taught to the israeli special forces. It emphasises real world responses to real world attacks but it has very little richness in the sense that the traditional asian martial arts have a history and a heritage and philosophy. If you cant find a Krav Maga school, try and take what you can from any of the suppleness arts because you realy dont want to get into more trouble than your attacker by defending yourself. If you think you are going to face some trouble in a month or so, rather not go for Tai Chi...