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In Defence of Combat Sports

In Defence of Combat Sports

One of the never-ending controversies in martial arts is the role and influence of the combat sports. Some are ardent supporters and some see the sporting side of the martial arts as a heresy that should be challenged and slighted at every opportunity.

Those who would class themselves as “Traditional Martial Artists” often see the modern sporting offspring of the traditional arts as an aberration that is a betrayal of a the values, objectives and ethos of their non-sporting forerunners. Those who concentrate on civilian Self-Protection are also often quick to slight combat sports for their limitations, rules and lack of “realism”.

For my part, I see myself as a traditional martial artist who emphasises karate’s traditional role and objective; which is providing an effective physical solution to the problem of civilian violence. While I have competed in various combat sports, it was never where my heart was and it’s never been the overriding objective of my training. If I were true to stereotype then I’d be expected to be very “anti-sport”. That’s most certainly not the case however! I think the sporting expressions of the martial arts –in all their various guises – are hugely positive pursuits and in this article I’d like to share the reasons for my thinking.

In this article I’m going to come out in defence of sport against the traditional and reality based neigh-sayers. The reason I feel the need to do that is that our combat athletes are normally incredibly bad at doing this! The arguments put forward in defence of sport to the traditional and reality based communities are normally very poor. They are frequently logically unsound and actually bolster the arguments made against sport.

I also feel that the traditional and reality based communities can get more than a little arrogant when they run down sport, which in turn raises the hackles of the combat sport practitioners because they see the sport they love, and all their skills and hard work, slighted. Those in the traditional and reality based communities could also do with a greater understanding and appreciation of sport; just as those from the combat sports communities could do with a greater understanding and appreciation of tradition and the realities of criminal violence.

Within the overarching world of martial arts, there is room for, and value in, all the various aspects of what we do. If we acknowledged and valued the expertise and skills of practitioners of other aspects of the martial arts – as much as we value the expertise and skills of those of our own particular martial subset – the martial arts as a whole would benefit from the united front and we could all spend our energies building up what we do, instead wasting time pointlessly trying to bring others down.

So let’s make a start on the various issues surrounding this topic. One of the most frequent attacks made against combat sports is they lack “realism” from a self-protection perspective. Take any combat sport you like and you will see attacks made against them on this basis. To give a few examples:

Points Karate: Too much jumping around at long range and the controlled punches mean that power is never developed.

Kyokushin: No head punches which leaves practitioners vulnerable to head punches in real situations.

MMA: Too much time on the ground which is suicidal in real situations.

Judo: Too heavy a reliance on the gi, and the total lack of strikes leads to dangerous habits when striking is put back into the mix i.e. hands low and head forward.

Boxing: The lack of kicking and grappling make it too one-dimensional. The reliance on the gloves as cover also has no relevance in a bare fisted self-protection scenario.

Thai-Boxing: The knees and elbows in the clinch are all well and good, but the lack of takedowns into ground work mean an potential area of conflict is entirely ignored.

And so on.

The thing is that all these arguments are valid. So case closed, sport is rubbish? I don’t think so! All these arguments are based on the HUGE misunderstanding that sport is preparation for self-protection, instead of an end in itself.

Nevertheless, we frequently see the various combat sports attacked on this basis, and bizarrely we also see practitioners of combat sports try to validate what they do on this basis too!

The bottom-line is that all combat sports are a poor preparation for self-protection. And not because of the nuances of the individual sports just mentioned, it’s because all combat sports are one-on-one fights and self-protection has nothing to do with fighting!

If you are truly interested in effectively preparing to deal with criminal and civilian violence then it’s not “fighting skills” you need, but training in the nature of crime, awareness training (i.e. what you need to be aware of and how to maintain that state of awareness), verbal de-escalation skills, an assessment of lifestyle and a healthy attitude to personal security, a knowledge of law, and so on. Train in any combat sport (or traditional martial art) you like and these key skills won’t be taught.

Training in a combat sport to learn self-protection is a little like taking swimming lessons to get good at football. There is some cross over in terms of physical fitness etc, but everyone would acknowledge that this is a poor idea … and no one would try to state “swimming is better than weightlifting when it comes to preparing for football because the both have a cardiovascular fitness requirement … so if you want to be good at football you should swim!” Everyone would hopefully agree that if you wanted to get good at football, you should train in football! Likewise with self-protection, if you want to get good at self-protection you need to train specifically for that.  

Most martial artists don’t get the difference between self-protection and fighting and that’s why this illogical thinking persists. Sport is not self-protection. Sport is sport. Practitioners of combat sports should not try to claim validity for their sport by calming it is ideal preparation for self-protection. Their sport has validity in and of itself. Likewise, traditionalists and reality based self defence types should not deride sport for being what it is. To my way of thinking, belittling sport because it is a sport, and not self-protection, is a little like criticising oranges because they are not “appley” enough!

Combat sports have many inherent values that do not require a dodgy appeal to the very limited cross over with self-protection.

What I’d now like to do is look at some of these inherent values. As part of this I want to compare and contrast with self-protection and traditional martial arts. While the comparison with self-protection is not a good one; there are many other contrasts were sport martial arts can trump their reality based and traditional counterparts. I feel it is to these areas that combat sport practitioners should point to when wishing to express the inherent value of their chosen path.

Objective measure of skill

When it comes to an objective measure of skill, sport martial arts have a huge advantage over traditional and reality based systems. Sadly, the vast majority of traditional systems measure progress against  dictates of style, arbitrary grading systems, the technical and aesthetic preferences of the head of that particular group or style, and so on.

It should be obvious that we are always best served by measuring by effect, but that’s not generally how traditional systems operate. Instead of measuring by effect they measure by, what I call, “artificial success criteria”. These criteria often have no relationship to effect or function, but instead are entirely based on some other arbitrary and un-objective measure. This is not, and should not, be the case in my view … but it is nevertheless the case for the vast majority of traditionalists.

Things are a little better in the reality based self-defence world as they will pressure test via scenario training. However, such scenarios are never real. They can be realistic, but the needs of safety mean they are always a long way from being real. It is also both extremely unwise, not to mention illegal, to seek out “real life tests” of physical self-protection skills.

In contrast to both the traditionalist and the realist, the combat sports practitioner has an objective and real test of their chosen skill set. The rules of the sport provide a true and objective test of their skills and hence they are far better placed to be able to ascertain, and hence improve, their skill level. As already discussed, comparisons to self-protection are largely illogical and unnecessary. When viewed as a self-contained skill set, which determines its own inherent values, sport is the only aspect of the martial arts that can be seen to have a true, objective and honest test that is available to all practitioners.

This leads me to the closely related second positive aspect of combat sports:

The encouragement of honesty and humility

My thoughts on this are sure to upset a few people because it’s largely an accepted “given” in traditional circles that sport builds ego and is hence inferior to traditional practise which seeks to control the ego.  I’m afraid I don’t buy that argument and all the evidence I have seen suggests to me that egos actually run riot most often in the traditional sphere because of the aforementioned lack of objective testing.

Competitors in combat sports are forced to accept their place in the pecking order and simply can’t believe they are better than they are. If a competitor loses, they have to accept that the other person was better (putting aside any questions of refereeing competence). This generally makes the dedicated competitor humble and keen to improve. If they try to convince themselves that they “know it all” then they won’t improve and will continue to be beaten by those practitioners who are seeking  continual improvement. It therefore becomes obvious that they are deluded about their actual ability.

Traditionalists tend to establish their place in the pecking order via things like rank, lineage, the ability of those who taught them, etc. It’s an un-objective measure and hence inflated egos can run unchecked. Add to that all the bowing, belts, and titles and it’s easy to see why the claim that traditional martial arts suppress ego is not always lived up to and, generally speaking, does not bear close scrutiny.

The reality based people have a similar issue. The fact is that in the western world, generally speaking, violent crime is relatively rare. We’d also accept that no one in their right mind would want to be a target of criminals simply to test their skills. That means that reality based practitioners are largely untested and once again can easily develop an unrealistic view of what they are capable of. The very fact that the words “reality based” are now so prevalent confirms this. Does anyone knowingly practise “delusional self-protection”!? Of course not, but we know there is lots of it about, and the reason there is lots of it about is because it is so rarely tested. False claims can be made and egos can run riot, and there is no inbuilt mechanism to prevent that; as there is with combat sports.

Practitioners of combats sports are routinely tested and always suffer if they overestimate their skills. Even people at the top of any combat sport can fall foul to this by believing their hype and hence not training as hard as they once did and underestimating opponents. For the combat sports practitioner, rampant ego (not to be confused with honest self-belief and confidence) is almost always suppressed because of honest objective testing. Even the most arrogant combat athlete will eventually become unstuck because of the effects of that arrogance. They will be forced to reassess their view of their ability if they wish to return to their winning ways.

Almost all of the high level combat athletes it has been my pleasure to know and train with have been hard working, humble and have had a very realistic view of themselves and their ability. And while that is certainly true of many of the traditionalist and reality based practitioners I know too, that is often more to do with their inherent nature as opposed to something their training enforces and develops.

Positive lifestyle

The next inherent value of combat sports that they foster a positive lifestyle. Success demands discipline, a healthy diet, regular training, avoidance of cigarettes, alcohol, etc. It should be remembered that most violent crime is associated with alcohol. Simply avoiding alcohol and the places where people drink and then get violent is one of the most effective forms of self-defence there is. I recall talking to a friend of mine who was a keen amateur boxer and he stated that his boxing was the ultimate from of self-protection; not because of its physical application, but because he spent so much time in the gym there was almost no opportunity for him to be targeted by criminals! He has a point.

Lifestyle is one of the biggest contributors when it comes to violent crime. The age of most victims of violent crime falls in the teens and early twenties. Conversely, in the UK at least, it is the elderly that are least likely to be the victims of crime. It should be obvious that is not the physical ability to ward off assault that responsible for these statistics. It is the difference in lifestyle which is putting the younger people at most risk and the elderly at least risk. Getting our youngsters excited about combat sports, to the point where they are committed to success, can be significant part of self-protection – not because of any physical techniques – but because it foresters a positive lifestyle and hence greatly reduces the risk of them being a victim of assault.

It is should also be remembered that combat sports give youngsters a chance to “prove themselves”. One of the things that western society is lacking, in my view, is a recognised path to adulthood. It’s natural for young men and women to want to prove themselves and earn their adulthood. We have no society wide way of achieving this and hence young men and women create their own ways to prove themselves; and these ways are not always beneficial to society and the individual. Combat sports can provide one way for youngsters to test themselves and “earn their stripes”. So in this way too, combat sports can contribute to a positive lifestyle.

Reality based self-protection should always stress the need for a positive lifestyle and a healthy attitude to personal safety over physical technique, but in and of itself self-protection training does not provide aspects of that positive lifestyle in the same way that combat sports do.

It also needs to be said that some sections of the self-protection community have an unhealthy obsession with crime and violence. The disproportionate fear of crime can be debilitating to the individual in and of itself. Healthy awareness can also be replaced by a wholly unhealthy paranoia. Reality based self-protection is solely concerned with keeping the individual safe from crime and violence. It is about avoiding the negative; not creating the positive.

To reiterate what I said earlier, sport is not a good solution to self-protection. It does however foster a positive lifestyle which is a good thing in and of itself, and which can also, as a natural consequence, reduce the likelihood of being a target for violent crime.

The traditional arts can certainly foster a positive lifestyle too. And it can be a lifestyle that is open to people of all ages; whereas combat sports tend to be predominately open to the youthful.

However, there is not the same “demand” as there is with combat sports. The frequent testing of competition demands regular training, a good diet, and a healthy lifestyle. Traditional arts, while they can also foster all those things, don’t demand it … as it evidenced by the senior practitioners who, while still endorsing the positive lifestyle that traditional arts can foster, can only wrap their belt around their torso once. Combat sports, because of their competitive nature, don’t permit this hypocrisy. You have to live well to compete well at high levels. This brings us to the next positive attribute of combat sports:

Increased health and fitness

In western societies violence is far less likely to impact on your life than ill heath is. Way more people are killed because of obesity, heart disease, smoking related illness, etc than are killed via violence. As discussed a few moments ago, combat sports demand regular exercise and a good diet in a way that traditional arts and reality based self-protection do not. This is because of the lack of testing again. Physical fitness is a must for effective physical self-protection due to the huge demands conflict places on the body. However, the sight of out of shape self-protection instructors and practitioners is not an uncommon one. They can get away with being very unfit and out of shape because their skills are not tested like the combat athletes are and hence this glaring inconsistency is never exposed.

While traditional arts, reality based self-protection and combat sports should all promote physical fitness, only combat sports demands it. It is possible to be involved in traditional arts and self-protection and not be in good shape. It’s not possible to do either properly without being in shape of course, but we do see out of shape traditionalists and reality based practitioners all the time. The same can’t be said of combat athletes because they can’t win if they are in poor physical condition.

The next element of combat sports that I wish to extol the virtues of is that of …


For the vast majority of people, there is little everyday need for self-protection skills. If we do find we are fending off criminal assaults everyday, then it is our lifestyle that needs looked at, not an increased focus on self-protection skills.

The traditional arts are primarily practised for physical self-protection, personal challenge, interest and enjoyment. There can also be enjoyment found in self-protection training. Combat sports too can be great fun. Whatever aspect of the martial arts you choose to focus on; you need to enjoy it to some degree.

The idea we do what we do for fun is frowned upon by some people as they feel it cheapens the very “serious” business of the martial arts. The bottom line though is that people rarely spend lots of time and effort on things they find un-enjoyable. To some degree we all find what we do enjoyable; whether that the training itself, the results of the training, the feeling of making progress, the people you get to spend time training with, etc. People simply won’t do something unless it is felt to be serving some need and to be enjoyable as a result.

While what we find fun varies from individual to individual, we all like to have fun and enjoy ourselves. While combat sports may not be everyone’s idea of fun, it must be understood that for many people they are hugely enjoyable. And that alone is a good enough reason to practise them! For my part, I like exploring traditional kata and learning how they can be applied in the modern world. It’s fun for me. And because it is fun I do it lots and hence have got reasonably good at it. Now for others, they will have no interest in that … and that’s absolutely fine! Find what you enjoy and increase the quality of your life by pursuing your chosen martial niche. We should also accept that other people will do the same and that they may not agree with us about what they find to be the most enjoyable aspects of martial arts.

My own personal view is that any system I practise must be both life-preserving and life-enhancing. By life-preserving I mean it must be capable of dealing with the unprovoked violence of others, and it must keep me fit and healthy. However, that alone is not enough. It must also be life-enhancing; by which I mean I must gain enjoyment from it and it must improve the quality of my life. If it can tick those boxes then it appeals to me.

Now whilst sport may not be ideal preparation for self-protection; it is nevertheless life preserving in the sense of increasing  health and fitness, and for those that enjoy combat sports it is definitely life enhancing. I can therefore see how people would be attracted to it; especially if physical self-protection is not an overriding concern because it fulfils the other criteria extremely well for the reasons discussed in this article.

There are many other positive benefits to combat sports and there is a good chance I may not have picked up on your personal favourites (if you have any). The key point though is that combat sports have much inherent value. They don’t need to make a claim to be relevant to self-protection in order to have value. Nor should they!

Practitioners and supporters of combat sports should focus on the inherent value of what they do. Relevance to self-protection is essentially a strawman argument  against combat sports. Those who practise combat sports should therefore not choose to validify what they do on that basis! When the more intolerant wing of the traditional and reality based self-protection communities attack combat sports, there are far better arguments to be made in defence of sport.

Combat sport have a objective measure of skill; they promote a positive lifestyle; they increase health and fitness; they develop honesty, humility, a strong work ethic, self-discipline; they are also fun and can be hugely enjoyable; and so on. There is much that combat sports do far better than their traditional and self-protection based counterparts. The case for combat sports should be argued on that basis.

The martial arts has innumerable styles and methods all designed to address many different needs and objectives. This is something that, in my view, should be embraced. There is not “one true path” that everyone needs converted to. Diversity in practice and approach is what makes martial arts so popular: there will be an art and approach that will perfectly fit the needs of almost every individual .The trouble we have is when we try to make a single art or approach fit all objectives. It does not work that way around.

Identify the objective, and then find the approach that best addresses that objective. It is a HUGE and very common error to take one form of practise and assume it will perfectly address all objectives and contexts. No approach – whether modern or traditional, sport or self-protection focused – can be the optimum solution to all objectives.

Combat sports, while they may have some unintentional cross over, are not good solutions to criminal violence because they are not designed to be. Away from that, they have many intrinsic positive attributes which may fulfil the objectives of the individual practitioner way better than traditional or self-protection focused training could.

Self-protection skills are not the only thing of value that the broad church of the martial arts has to offer. We need to get away from using self-protection as the only valid measure. Combat sports are an extremely valuable component of the martial arts. They should not be dismissed or slighted but looked at objectively for the many benefits they have and the many things they do extremely well.

No approach can be all things to all men, so we need to accept the diversity in approaches, the differing needs of differing objectives, and what the individual finds enjoyable and beneficial will vary.

When we can do that, the martial arts as a whole will be much better off and we will see all approaches valued for their own inherent qualities.