Monday, August 12, 2013

Is Martial Arts Training For Self-defense Really A Good Idea?

It has occurred to me that practicing martial arts for self-defense is not that sensible an idea.  On the surface, it makes a lot of sense.  I mean, train in the martial arts and you learn great skills for fighting and you can protect yourself if you are attacked.  And yes, I have read the anecdotes of people who have used martial arts for self-defense.  In addition, I’ve been training in various martial arts for over 25 years, during which time I have touted the arts I train in as wonderful forms of self-defense.

Lately though, I’ve been reconsidering the equation.  I can use martial arts to defend myself if I am ever attacked.  This may help me avoid injury and losing personal property.  These are both laudable things.  The odds of my ever being in a situation where I will need these skills however is small.  It is even smaller if I take very sound and excellent advice of Marc MacYoung at No Nonsense Self Defense and simply avoid areas where violence is likely.  Since the vast majority of violent crime happens in very concentrated areas this shouldn’t be difficult.  

Basically, the odds of being injured and/or losing property in an attack are really small if I avoid dangerous areas.  OK, but I still think self-defense training might be a good idea.

Let’s see, martial arts classes run anywhere from $50 to $150 per month.  That’s $600 to $1800 a year in most cases.  Since, in my experience, you need to practice techniques regularly for them to be effective when you need them, basically you are going to be paying this as long as you want your skills to be effective.  So over 10 years you will pay $6,000 to $18,000 just for the training.  That doesn’t include the cost of any uniforms and equipment you might need.  If you go on for 20 years you’re at $12,000 to $36,000.  Now you are way over what you can expect to lose in some sort of robbery of your person.  I know never carry anything close to that in cash and valuables.  About the only way you could steal anything close to that much from me is to take my car, and that’s insured, so fighting for it would be a stupid risk..  Besides, in 2002 the rate of carjackings in the US was 2.1 per 10,000 people.  That’s 0.02% chance of being carjacked.  Add to that that carjackings are most common in particular, known and generally lousy neighborhoods where I don’t go and the odds get even less likely.

Ok, so maybe martial arts training isn’t a cost effective way to protect my property.  What about protecting myself?

I can guarantee one thing that will happen if you practice martial arts.  You’re going to get injured.  It will happen.  It’s the nature of what you’re doing.  Just like football, in martial arts practice people bang into each other and the ground, so from time to time people get hurt.  It’s going to happen, and just like in football, it’s a known and accepted part of what goes on.  Every person, EVERY PERSON, I know who has trained martial arts such as Judo, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, Jujutsu, Hapkido or any other vigorous, useful martial art, has been injured.  The longer we train, the more injuries we accumulate.  In my more than 25 years in Judo I have broken a collar bone, cracked several ribs, sprained my ankles a few times, hyperextended my elbow, torn my ACL completely, and accumulated more bumps, bruises, strained  and pulled muscles, torqued joints and other assorted injuries than can possibly be remembered.  This list, or something like it, some with worse injuries, some not quite so severe, can be rattled off by anyone who practices a martial art for any length of time.  If you insist on a practicing an activity that has lots of hard contact you will be injured.  Not a question of if, just when.

So wait a minute.  If I study martial arts for self-defense, but I keep getting injured studying martial arts, have I really gained anything?  Lets see.  Someday I might be violently attacked and injured. OK. That’s bad. If I train in martial arts, I am certain to be injured repeatedly.  Um, let me think about that.  I might be a victim of a violent crime someday, but if I train in martial arts to defend myself I am certain to be injured repeatedly as long as I continue to train.

Somehow this doesn’t make training in martial arts seem very sensible.  There is a small chance I will be a victim of crime at some point in my lifetime.  During such a crime I could lose personal property and may be seriously injured or even killed.  If I train in martial arts, the cost will be tens of thousands of dollars over my lifetime (far more than could ever be stolen from me by anyone other than a banker or a hacker), and I am guaranteed to get injured over and over.

Dang.  It’s a good thing I don’t do this stuff for self-defense.  The cost-to-benefit ratio for training in the martial arts for self-defense is so bad I’d have to quit.  Fortunately I train in the martial arts because I love the training and the arts for what the teach about all sorts of things that have little to do with self-defense.

I didn’t write this to knock martial arts for self-defense.  I believe they can have immense value, but this value is not easily quantifiable in dollars and cents.  How do you quantify the feeling of security and confidence that training can impart?  That’s a tough one, especially when it is so different for everyone.  

I do know that with a little discretion about where you go, what you do and how you behave, most men don’t really need self-defense training.  Stay away from places known for fights and violence, and your odds of needing to defend yourself go way down.  Detroit is known as an incredibly dangerous place, but even there most of the violence is concentrated in a few really awful neighborhoods.  I love going to Detroit for shows and food and cultural activities, but I know enough to avoid areas of the city where violence is not uncommon.  This strategy works great for men.
Women have a whole different paradigm to deal with.  Women have to deal with men, and the do so from a position of being smaller and weaker.  The statistics for violence against women are much higher than those for men.  In one subset, 5 times as high.  For women, martial arts training can be exceptionally valuable.  Not that there is any particular style of system, but that they learn that it’s ok to fight, they should fight, and that they can do so effectively.  Any reasonable martial arts system can do these things, and the effect on their lives can be far wider than just knowing how to fight back if assaulted.   it can translate into being treated with greater respect everywhere in their life, because they don’t accept intimidation from anyone.  That alone might be worth the monetary and physical costs of training.


Ronin scholar said...

Yay, Peter! It's about time someone other than me noticed that the self-defense claims are marketing tactics. Thanks for a fairly well-reasoned post. There are many reasons to study budo, but self-defense is not really one of them.

The Budo Bum said...

Jim Baker has been making jokes about this for years. I just finally got around to actually throwing together some numbers :-)

keyboard samurai said...

I guess after 20+ years, being a teacher I look at the self-defense angle from a different perspective now. First off, I haven't wracked up the injuries and hospital bills you have while at the same time having students means that while I'm not making a living at it, I am covering the costs of my own training, so I think some of your calculations are not really something you can generalize. In fact, I'm pretty sure I'm a lot healthier in my 50's than I would be otherwise without this drive of physical activity. My need for self-defense has always been pretty low like yours especially as MacYoung's rules have been pretty easy for me to follow mostly, however the knowledge I have acquired has proved to be of use to students who for occupational reasons are at high risk and have had to use the self-defense side of martial arts. I don't make any claims to self-defense in my marketing mostly because I agree that the majority of students would be ill-served if that was the only reason they showed up to class. I've also learned that what proves to be useful in a self-defense situation from students that have had to use their training is often surprising and unexpected. My feeling from reading you whole article is what you really end up saying is it is not a good idea for you or someone like you (you point out the different issues for women). Fair enough, but isn't that obvious to you by now? My issue is that I've students or had students that are not at all like me and their answer to this question could very well be legitimately yes. I see nothing wrong with it being in someone's top 5 reasons for training. I disagree strongly with the statement of another commenter that "there are many reasons to study budo, but self-defense is not really one of them." Go study ikebana then is my response to that attitude. Budo comes at it's roots from the need to defend oneself.

Ronin scholar said...

In fairness to the above poster, I have to say that the two or so times I have had to make someone unhand me I used roll back and press from my taiji class. Said class was being offered only for health reasons, not as a martial art, and yet that technique proved surprisingly useful, even though the teacher would never have expected anyone to make use of that technique in that way. So I take the point about "you never know."

That said, you can indeed learn a lot from an kado (i.e., ikebana) class.


Ronin scholar said...

To follow that up just a hair further, while no one can say what may be useful to someone in a violent (or potentially violent) situation, someone looking for a martial arts class for self-defense will be disappointed in all likelihood, and someone who advertises self-defense as a big reason to sign up at his school is not being entirely ethical, IMHO.

The Budo Bum said...

This post was really a shot at the industry of people out there selling various forms of martial arts by implying that the US is far more dangerous than it actually is, and saying that what they are teaching is the greatest self defense system ever. Unfortunately, most of what these guys teach is likely to get their students sent to prison if they ever use it outside the dojo. The link in the post that followed this one does a pretty good job of describing what can happen and why. They guys teaching killer techniques and ultimate techniques of the special forces are really just setting up their students for a horrible experience with the law. I think that is criminally negligent.

I think taking martial arts for self-defense is a perfectly valid reason to start studying, but I think there is so much more to the martial arts that these other things should quickly grow to eclipse self defense as a reason for continuing to practice.

blkeagl said...

Hi Peter,

"Every person, EVERY PERSON, I know who has trained martial arts such as Judo, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, Jujutsu, Hapkido or any other vigorous, useful martial art, has been injured."

I haven't yet had an injury that I can ascribe to training in 30+ years on the mat (shotokan, kenpo, wrestling, aikido, and now aikibudo).

Bumps, bruises, muscle pulls, tennis elbow, and similar things sure, but nothing that ever rose to the level of actually needing to seek medical care, emergency or otherwise caused by something I did on the mat.

In addition to that, almost all (but not all) of the injuries I've witnessed or taken part in always could be ascribed to in-attention to details in how to train, safety, limits, ability, or readiness to take part in that level of execution. Usually something that can be written up to someone so enthusiastic that they aren't inclined to pay attention.

That said, martial arts training is much than simply about self-defense, but starting it for that reason is certainly a reasonable idea to me, even now.

Cost-benefit analyses are fun and can point out some of our inherent silliness as human beings, but you have missed out on many of the benefits other than pure self-defense.

For instance, I learned how to avoid fighting by beginning my training at 14. Since that time, I can count on one hand the number of physical encounters I have had (wherein my practice has helped me in one way or another, but usually and mostly by helping me to de-escalate it). Before that time, I was in trouble a lot, and almost always not initiated by me.



The Budo Bum said...

Hi Tarik,

Those muscle pulls, strains and tennis elbow are things I would include in my as injuries. Minor, but painful and annoying. I'm glad to hear someone has made it as long as you have without anything serious.

I wholeheartedly agree that martial arts training is much more than simply self-defense. I allude to that briefly, but here I was looking strictly at the self-defense aspect, since that gets so much play. As you say, cost-benefit analysis can be fun, and that was part of the reason I wrote this. It was fun just to throw together the numbers and see what came up.

Having said that, almost much of what I post on my blog is about what I consider are vitally important parts of budo that generally have little to do with self-defense. The mental aspects, self-development, mastery of the self.

Part of the fun of this post was hornets nest I have stirred up on various bulletin boards around the web. The reactions have been interesting, to say the least.

I am sorry that I did this in such a way that people such as you and Craig missed me deep love for the other aspects of the martial arts.

Ronin scholar said...

I think anyone who has read your posts with regularity already knows about your deep respect and love for budo. I would not even worry about it!

The points you make in this and the following post are deeply important. There are no real standards for how martial arts study is advertised. Generally I consider this a good thing (if there were standards, who would impose them, and who would judge? A number of years ago a TKD association tried to implement standards in NJ, though happily they did not succeed).

The only way for ethical conduct in the martial arts to be upheld is through our own efforts. That's why this post and the one following are important.

Unknown said...

Martial arts, if coached correctly, are a wonderful vehicle for the positive expression of masculinity and the warrior archetype. Thanks!

Unknown said...

I believe it's a good idea; not only for self-defense, but for helping others as well (in case of emergency!).

Other than self-defense, learning martial arts does have health benefits. Many martial artists and MMA fighters already proved it=)

Unknown said...

Personally,i find it as a good idea.
Learning martial arts is not about hurting others or revenge, but a skill packed with responsibility in times of danger.

Martial Arts Brisbane

Kamal said...

I frequently ponder about this. Martial arts and self defense are two different worlds, but they do cross over. On how martial arts work in self defense, I frequently use the following quotes:

"SELF DEFENSE is about recovery from stupidity or bad luck, from finding yourself in a position you would have given almost anything to prevent.

It is better to avoid than to run; better to run than to de-escalate; better to de-escalate than to fight; better to fight than to die. The very essence of self-defense is a thin list of things that might get you out alive when you are already screwed."

From “Meditations on Violence” - Sgt. Rory Miller

Unknown said...

The answer can be difficult to give, it depends on what you are trying to highlight. If MA teaches you to handle any situation that life throws in your bubble, yes, MA is self defence. Before, after and In between. If you go less general, MA is not just self defence. And I generally don't like the "self defence" title for a MA. This is a way to calm the parents when the kid says to them that he wants to learn karate (just an example). No parent will send a kid to learn how to maim/kill an other person. Lets face it, nobody is joining a club with the idea that he will rich that level where he will never need/use the skills he wants to master. The road to that final stage is paved with good intentions (induced in a subtle way by your sensei also) but sometimes bad intentions are in the menu too. MA is giving you a vocabulary, words and even short sentences. But the practitioner is the writer after all, the ball is in his field.

Charles James said...

You said, and I agree, but, “How do you quantify the feeling of security and confidence that training can impart? That’s a tough one, especially when it is so different for everyone,” would then do what I do or did for a living, perform a threat assessment.

No where in any self-defense program in martial arts, particularly in karate circles, does anyone teach a full spectrum of self-fense that would include a self-assessment along with a threat assessment.

Anonymous said...

While the post is old, I like to comment anyway.
I'm an Aikido practitioner since over 30 years (I actually indeed got injured once, in the beginning ... but had no real injuries the last 25 or 27 years). I know probably about 1000 Aikidoka in person.
I dare to say: not a single one practices Aikido for self defense. We all practice: for fun!
On the other hand many of them practice Kenjutsu and/or Karate or another art, e.g. Capoeira or BJJ.
However, I live in Europe mostly. Violent areas are usually easy to avoid. The only one I know who needed his Aikido for self defense was attacked after a car accident. Some one drove into his rear. When he got out of the car, the other one smashed him into the face. He could not defend the unexpected blow and had a really huge bruise. But as the saying goes: "You should have seen the other guy!"

I think questions/opinions about martial arts and self defense differ greatly in Europe versus America. At least on Facebook or youtube :D

Angelo Schneider

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