What is the difference between combat sports, martial arts, and self defence?

Combat sports, martial arts, self defence: what are the differences?


The subject is more complicated than it seems, since it can quickly turn into a competition between practitioners. The goal here is not to argue that certain disciplines are better than others, since there are just as many answers as there are ways to approach the problem. However, there are some fundamental differences between each discipline, and it can be useful to find out about them in order to orient yourself better.

Combat sports... the best way to measure yourself and compete against others

The word "sport" implies a well-defined framework with rules. That is one of the starting points for all sports confrontations, in order to put each adversary on a level playing field while respecting their physical integrity. Each sport has a technical panel to clearly identify what is and is not allowed. Combat is generally emphasised during training (often called sparring), and most exercises are working towards that goal. One of the main objectives of combat sports is to measure oneself against other fighters, and to make progress towards competition.


Physical preparation is strongly emphasised in these disciplines, since although the mental side is important in combat, the physical side can swing a match from one side to the other between 2 opponents subject to the same rules.


Of course, it is entirely possible to practise these sports recreationally, and they are open to children (with generally adapted rules).  


Some examples of combat sports: Boxing (American, English, Savate, Thai), Kickboxing, various forms of wrestling...

What is the difference between combat sports, martial arts, and self defence?

Martial arts... between tradition and modernity

The oldest martial arts used to be forms of combat used in warfare - hence the name. Under those conditions, there were no rules, and certain techniques were totally adapted to the context of the time. Over time, most of them have evolved, sometimes creating new "branches" that are closer to combat sports. So it is not uncommon today to practise competitive martial arts.


Now let's look at what most often distinguishes martial arts from other disciplines. First of all, they are generally taught in a dojo. To that, we add clothing that is usually specific to the discipline. A ranking system most often allows you to distinguish each individual's level of mastery (commonly indicated by belts of different colours). Add to that certain "codes," such as greetings or rules of the dojo, and what you get is a very unique, highly traditional environment.


As far as the practises themselves, you generally find methods that stem from the origins of the martial art. This is the case with "forms," the name of which varies depending on the martial art - for example, karate calls them "kata": true pedagogical tools for practitioners' development. They are codified movements done in a pre-defined order which highlight certain techniques or structuring principles of the martial art. Technical precision reigns above all, and the interest then lies in finding the meaning of the forms in question (particularly by trying to find their applications in real conditions). These structured forms are, in some ways, the heritage of their founders.


In addition to that, training often emphasises repetitions of single techniques or pre-defined strings of movements with a partner. Finally, most styles allow you to measure yourself against other practitioners in combat, with a level of intensity that can vary depending on the discipline.


In martial arts, combat is not always an end in itself, and in some cases it can be totally absent. Moreover, instruction can sometimes move away from pure technique and approach concepts that can seem "esoteric" for the uninitiated. This is ultimately one of the features that most differentiates martial arts - the act of seeking a certain harmony between the body and mind, no matter your age.


A few examples of martial arts: Aikido, Judo, Jiu-Jitsu, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Karate, Kung Fu, Tai Chi Chuan, Taekwondo, Yoseikan Budo...

What are the differences between combat sports, martial arts, and self defence?

Self defence... a pragmatic answer to modern society?

For the past several years, certain previously-unknown disciplines have gained fairly significant success: “self defence”. This generic term hides methods that emphasise ways to respond to everyday attacks. So there aren't really any rules for self defence since, by definition, an attacker could use all means at their disposal to meet their goals.


Training therefore emphasises learning simple techniques that could be used instinctively if needed (for example: hitting vital points…). Repetition in order to develop reflexes is therefore essential. Similarly, situation scenarios are often used in self defence in order to simulate real cases to best prepare oneself in case of need. Certain exercises also create stress in order to practise managing it better in the moment. Similarly, attention is also paid to the environment in this context, since the "playing field" is not limited to a dojo or a ring.


This is an important point about these methods: they highlight the attitudes to adopt in everyday life in terms of prevention and responses to attacks (while remaining in the scope of legitimate defence). Practising combat during training is highly recommended in order to be prepared in case of a real-life self defence situation. Here too, the level of intensity and practise depends on the discipline.


Note that, although certain initiatives are beginning to appear, competition is not a goal of self defence, since it is not easy to apply all of the principles without risking the health of the participant.


Finally, we should note that this type of practise is not often open to children.


Some examples of self defence methods: Krav Maga, Penchak Silat (also considered a martial art for more traditional styles), Systema …

It all depends on your personal motivations

Your personal motivations are what decide whether you choose a combat sport, martial art, or self defence method. In each case, there is no wrong choice, and trying out each of these disciplines is a good way to keep an open mind and form your own opinion. In reality, these disciplines are complementary, and it is not uncommon to see participants enjoy several of them. It is also very enriching to train with other fighters that train in sports/arts/methods that break our habits. Finally, it is a good way to break up your routine and force yourself to adapt your reflexes to a different context.

Combat sports, martial arts, self defence: WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES?

Nicolas - outshock ambassador


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