Does martial arts teach self-defense anymore?

Does martial arts teach self-defense anymore?

Traditional martial arts (i.e. anything except cage fighting) have earned a bad reputation in recent years for being “unrealistic,” “ineffective,” and “useless.” Until just a few weeks, I would have refuted each of these arguments with fervor. However, the skeptics may be right for once.

On June 8, 2016 a man in a dollar store attempted to kidnap a 13-year-old girl shopping with her mother. The attacker lunged at the teenager from behind some shelves, grabbed her arm, and endeavored to drag her away. The teen’s mom immediately reached for her daughter, eventually jumping on top of her child to prevent the attacker from pulling further. The man eventually let go and fled the store.

Less than one week after the failed abduction, Rener Gracie of the Gracie Academy (and the esteemed Gracie family) released an online video breaking down the attack step-by-step, along with a simple yet effective technique to defend against it. Using the power of online publicity, he problem-solved a new source of fear that had only days before transpired in society and turned it into a chance for kids, teenagers, adults, women, men, and everybody to arm themselves with a tool of personal safety empowerment. He went out of his way to make a positive change in response to an actual threat to safety faced by families. 

More specifically, the critique often leveled on more traditional arts (and some mixed fighting arts as well) is that training situations are not realistic, and therefore techniques learned on the mat will be ineffective in real situations. No one could argue that about Mr. Gracie. In a matter of days, he altered Jiu-Jitsu by taking a pressing issue, creatively solving it, and sharing that solution with as many people as possible. Imagine the number of potential new students that are now interested in learning more about Jiu-Jitsu?

While I don’t necessarily agree with the critique cited above with full certainty, in situations like this I can understand their arguments. For one, the distinction between “traditional” arts and “modern” arts is irrelevant: martial arts are martial arts, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. More importantly, whereas some styles fight to hold on to traditions because they’re "traditions", Mr. Gracie held no such predisposition. Within a matter of days, Mr. Gracie evolved Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to reflect the needs of a changing society with changing threats to personal safety. This was not a millennia-old technique rooted in the traditions of medieval warriors. Rather, he creatively solved a problem using his knowledge of BJJ principles and wisdom of his experience teaching thousands of students over the years.

While I cannot definitely state whether this technique was new or previously in his teaching arsenal, I can guarantee that in the future he and his instructors will be teaching this one with much more conviction knowing that of all the lessons they teach, this one has unfortunately been shown to be a relevant necessity in real life.

When did martial arts stop solving problems? Look closely at key points of reference from various systems: 

In Hapkido, wrist grabs were originally designed for when people still wore swords attached to their hips. If someone reached across and tried to grab the other person’s sword, you had what resembled a wrist grab. The intention was never “in case someone grabs your wrist.” Wrist grabs solved a current problem of the times. I'm 23, and I still haven't been anywhere that wasn't a historical reenactment where someone carried a sword on their belt. 

Likewise, why is Wing Chun so focused on protecting the centerline? Because during its formative phase, boats were unstable and precise balance was necessary in order to stand while floating atop rocky waters. The pigeon-toed stance and emphasis on straight-line punches accomplished just that.

Of course all martial arts still teach self-defense, and the traditions in martial arts are the basis for all mixed martial arts practiced today. But as an industry, and individual martial artists ourselves, we must be open and adaptive to change like Mr. Gracie. We must be active, creative problem solvers. We must make the martial arts we teach a product of our own times. 

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