I started training in the Martial Arts at a young age, and they have been a constant positive influence in the formation of my personal values, ethics and morals. I consider myself a Martial Artist, and I coach professional and amateur fighters to compete in Mixed Martial Arts. I say all this as a disclaimer; I am not knocking traditional martial arts (TMA) in this post. Having said that, my years of experience with TMA as well as various self-defense systems, along with my time as a Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) and SWAT Operator have led me to the conclusion that TMA and Self-Defense are related, but they aren’t siblings; more like cousins.
When I give this talk, I typically break down the meaning of “Traditional Martial Arts”. In this case, “traditional” typically means Eastern MA, such as kung fu, jiu-jitsu, karate, tae kwon do, etc. “Martial” means military and pertains in a relevant way to self-defense as the combat part of the term. Then we run into the word “art,” which I’ll define as representation. Most often we want our art to express an idea or topic, and we want it to be aesthetically pleasing or to fit a certain form. What this often means is that a TMA will take place within a given rule set and then within a given set of ranges. Therein lies the first problem with TMA if we rely upon them as a self-defense system; self-defense can have no rule set, and it cannot be contained by any less than all possible ranges of unarmed combat.
Bruce Lee identified five ranges of unarmed combat; Kicking, Punching, Trapping (hand/food immobilization), Standing Grappling and Grappling. If my TMA is Tae Kwon Do then I function in the ranges, kicking and punching. If I am a boxer, I function in the range of punching. If I practice Judo or BJJ, then I function in standing grappling and grappling. The problem here is that if I only practice one of those arts to the exclusion of other styles, I will by definition be untrained and unprepared to operate in the excluded ranges, and if I must defend myself and face any possible attack from any possible range, that simply will not suffice. It is certainly true that training in any one of those arts will make me better prepared to defend myself than if I had no training at all, but we have to look at the bigger picture. Therefore, a comprehensive self-defense system must train it’s adherents to function in all ranges of unarmed combat, to consider environments other than the gym or approved competition space, the introduction of weapons and of multiple attackers. One such system is Krav Maga.
Krav Maga is a very simple and direct system of self-defense which originated in Israel from the mind of Mr. Imi Lichtenfeld. Lichtenfeld, a Jew, was fortunate to escape from Eastern Europe during the time when Nazi’s were killing his people in millions. The eventual creation of the system we know today as Krav Maga undoubtedly went through evolution and change, but the core principles remain the same. Among those, it must be simple and direct, and it must emphasize violence of action. Krav Maga takes what is best and most useful from many different martial arts, simplifies those concepts and then distills them into a system designed to build into it’s practitioners a set of practical and efficient skills which can be learned in a comparatively short period of time. In theory, one could simply cross train in various TMA and achieve this, but we then run into what I see as the second major problem with TMA as self-defense; the training method.
An efficacious self-defense system should incorporate stress, confusion and exhaustion into its training methodology. As my mentor in Krav Maga, Master Mark Slane says “If we don’t teach you to perform under stress, confusion and exhaustion, we aren’t teaching self-defense, we’re just teaching self-defense techniques.” It is critical then that our training method actual produces the desired result; a practitioner prepared to face real world violence, and that includes not just physical movement, but the reality that they will experience emotional trauma, their skills will degrade under stress, they will struggle to function at all if too fatigued and they will likely freeze if they haven’t effectively trained how to respond under stress to mitigate its effects. The question often becomes in TMA/Self-Defense circles, “is it better to train TMA or in a self-defense system like Krav Maga?” The answer, I believe, is that to optimize our training, we should study both.
Martial Arts like BJJ and Judo allow us to develop a very high degree of technical skill, and their training methods allow us to become very good at applying our grappling techniques within the rule sets. Muay Thai Boxing teaches us very efficient and powerful striking with our shins, knees, fists, elbows etc. Krav Maga, while it does teach us a broad skill set, does not delve into deep technical development like those Martial Arts do. This isn’t a criticism of Krav Maga, but a recognition of what it is and was intended to do; quickly develop a set of simple functional skills. I have found that the best Krav Maga practitioners I know also have a background in or cross train in TMA, where they develop to a higher degree than they would in Krav Maga the technique emphasized by the respective arts. When they bring that higher level of technical ability back into their self-defense training, they are much more formidable and capable of executing their self-defense training.
To wrap things up tight like a gi choke, I’ll say that TMA have their place and their value in self-defense and should not be overlooked. If I only had time or opportunity to train in one system for self-defense, it would be Krav Maga. If my goal was to become a BJJ champion, I’d find and train at a credible BJJ academy. If my goal were to become a Muay Thai champion, I’d find a Kru and commit to learning the intricacies of that sport. If given sufficient time and the opportunity to develop a high level of ability to defend myself, I would train in Krav Maga and cross train in a grappling art and a striking art. Whatever system you choose to train in, commit yourself to your training for as long as you are there, and you will no doubt leave better prepared than you were when you walked in and learn a lot about yourself along the way.