The difference between a martial art and self-defense training is a huge subject. Martial arts and self-defense training are completely different, but they are absolutely the same. This is a hard concept to understand. I’m a martial arts school owner and I’m a self-defense instructor, and I completely understand the differences. But many do not. Many confuse the two.
I’m going to begin by saying there have been no new techniques or moves created for thousands of years. You have to remember, when the martial arts were first created, they were created in a era when people had to use them and they had to work. There were no second chances. They had to be battle-ready, they had to be tested, and they had to be effective.
The lands were pretty much lawless. There were feudal lords. There were empires invading empires. So understand that when they first came to be, it was because they were a necessity. They had to work. So martial arts in a sense are the most effective ways to defend yourself.
Now, today’s martial arts are completely different. Many martial arts focus on sport. You have pre-determined knowledge of your opponent, you have a controlled atmosphere, you have a referee, you have trophies, you have title belts, you have a point system, you have a padded floor, and you generally enter this competition or this arena or this event knowing that you will, for the most part, survive.
Can you die in a martial art oriented match? It’s possible. Anything is possible. But please understand that, for the most part, when two people go into a sparring match, there’s fear there, there might be some anxiety, but there is not what we call primal fear. That’s the kind of fear that will shut you down and completely erase all your techniques. Everything you’ve learned will go right out the door when primal fear hits, if you have not trained in the basis of reality. Your mind has to get used to real-life scenarios.
Martial arts generally have a hierarchy. (And when I say generally, please understand there are so many martial arts that I can’t speak about all of them.) It’s a master instructor, assistant instructors, the top instructor. Where a martial art came from and how it was developed, that’s how the name originated – from the country or the individual originating a specific art. They will have belt systems, and the belt systems generally show the most senior student. (The story behind the black belt is, the longer you would practice, the dirtier your belt would become. So you had a white belt, and it eventually got darker and darker and darker and it would turn black. Hence the term most senior student or “black belt.”)
Many martial arts have been handed down for hundreds and thousands of years. Some are more recent. Some have a legacy spanning thousands of years, with a founder that created it thousands of years ago.
The martial arts is the long-term pursuit of physical and mental excellence. However, if there is not an additive of reality, the training does not link when it is carried over into a real-life situation. That is the major difference. Hitting a bag, breaking a board, conditioning for a fight and never experiencing it in your mind – realistically in your mind – the link isn’t there. It has poor carry-over qualities.
A self-defense program is completely different. There is generally not a hierarchy. You have several instructors. An academy-type atmosphere is more prevalent. Generally there is not the protocol of a martial art. You have general respect, but there is no bowing, no “yes sir,” “no sir”. The traditional martial art uniform (called a gi) is not there. Instead students are in a t-shirt and shorts and tennis shoes. And they’re specifically trying to learn immediate and effective techniques that they can carry outside that day.
When you walk out the door you might not be in any better shape, you may not have been studying for years, but you have something you can use right now. Something that if you’re in the mall, if you’re walking out to your car, if you go home and someone’s there, if you get into some kind of fight, you can immediately use it. You don’t have time for years and years and years.
Now, the best combination is the self-defense program that moves into a martial art. This is outstanding, and you really want to look for this when you’re looking for a martial art system combined with a self-defense program.

Going back to my original statement about how there has not been a new technique developed for thousands of years, I would like to explain that and expand upon it a little bit further.
I say there hasn’t been a new technique, but we have so many different martial arts. We’ve seen so many different things on TV. You’ve got to understand that we deliver them differently. We name them. We teach them differently. We call them all sorts of this, that, and the other, but there’s really been nothing new invented. We can call the same punch ten different names, but it is still the same punch – the same lock, the same choke, the same take-down, the same basic maneuver.
The difference is all the delivery systems of the modern man. These are great, because it exposes so many different people to self-defense and martial arts. But we must come to the basic understanding that they were formatted many, many, many years ago because the warriors of old had to use them, and they came about in that era.
I also want to expand upon the fact that the modern-day martial art is more sport oriented. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. If you’re going to be a point tai kwon do stylist you’d better be good at point tai kwon do. You’re going to win a lot of trophies and be very good at that if you’re training for that. That is your forte. If you’re going to be an MMA cage fighter, be really good at that, and train for that. But understand that they are sports.
Through my law enforcement career, working in corrections, and through my many, many years in the martial arts and being a teacher, I’ve had a lot of different real-life experiences. In those situations, no one ever tried to get me in an arm bar and tap me out, because in a self-defense scenario in real life, generally your opponent is highly unskilled. They’re aggressive, but they’re highly unskilled.
When two skilled individuals meet, it is a test of skill, conditioning, knowledge of your opponent, knowledge of the rules, and knowledge of your limited environment, whether it be the mat or the cage or what have you. However, when you get into a real-life situation, for the most part – 90 percent – your opponent is highly unskilled.
Also you have to remember, someone with a lot of skill is generally a well-kept and disciplined person. So they’re not out there looking to start a fight with you. So your attacker is probably going to be highly unskilled.
That doesn’t mean they can’t hurt you, but this lack of skill leads to a lack of general knowledge of reality. They might have overconfidence when in fact they’re highly unskilled, which is disastrous if they actually meet someone who is skilled.

They always say, “Hey, all these fights go to the ground.” Well, generally two people that meet are unskilled individuals, so it’s going to go to the ground, because that’s all they know. I have a 3-year-old and he will tackle you. I didn’t teach him how to do that. That is basic human nature to try to grab somebody and try to take them to the ground. So when two people meet who have no training and no background, then yes, they end up on the ground.

A skilled individual can get you on the ground, keep you on the ground, and hurt you on the ground. Or they can hurt you standing up and keep you standing up and not get taken down. That is a major, major difference. Skilled versus unskilled – skill wins.

The biggest muscle you have – the biggest weapon you have – is that thing between your ears called your brain, and you have to use it.
I’m very simplistic in my talking about self-defense and its applications in reality and martial arts, and I want to be super simple, to drive the point home.

Author's Bio: 

Chris Sutton is a certified A.C.M.A Martial Arts Instructor and a life time Professional Martial Artist with over 25 years of training and teaching experience.

Chris trained in the Chinese & Japanese Martial Art systems, specifically Kung fu and Aikido, earning Multiple Black Belts. After many years in the Chinese and Japanese Martial Art systems Chris began to train under World champion Kick Boxer Jim Graden, with further influence from the legendary champion Joe Lewis In the Elite Kickboxing System earning another Black Belt.

As a professional reality combat Instructor Chris is most recently recognized for his effort in the creation of the cutting edge self-defense program C.O.B.R.A.

Chris has become a lifetime student of professional Martial Arts and Self defense training, philosophy and continuous education.

Member of M.A.T.A -Martial arts teachers association. Chris has also trained and collaborated with Hall of fame Martial Artist - Sifu Brian Spiegel

Brief summary of Additional Professional Experience

*Certified and experienced Law Enforcement Officer-City and County,

*Corrections Officer

*Boot Camp Drill Instructor,

*UBC Instructor,

*Head Instructor of the United Martial Arts Academy

*15 time gold medallist in the I.L.E.G. Olympic Games.

*Author - The psychology of self defense

*Self Defense Representative - Kids Day America