The Inherent Conflict between Teaching Martial Art vs Self-Defense

The Inherent Conflict between Teaching Martial Art vs. Self-DefenseI was reading a fascinating book about skill development called “The Talent Code,” which delves deeply into the psychology and physiology that helps people to do this effectively. One of the most interesting chapters talks about the difference between the teaching styles of a soccer coach vs. a music teacher. The author claims that an effective soccer coach sits back and stays silient, allowing players to learn through open play, giving feedback in between sessions of play. Meanwhile, the effective music teacher interjects and instructs frequently to produce the specific results that constitute good playing. I believe this is only half the story.

The author’s argument is based on the idea that playing soccer, as well as writing novels, and delivering a comedy act is purely based on improvisation skills, while playing instruments, performing gymnastics or figure skating is purely based on specific skill performance. The truth is that there is both specific skill performance and improvisation in all these arts. A good soccer player has a mix of specific skills, such as shooting, passing, running, evasive ball-handling, etc, as well as improvisational skills that allow them to use these skills appropriately for each situation they face in a game. Writers also must learn proper of specific technical skills such as grammar, syntax, plot development before they can start to improvise and break rules appropriately to produce creative original novels.

On the other side of the coin, a jazz pianist certainly spends a lot of time familiarizing themselves with their instrument so they can play smoothly, but many styles of music, jazz included, also have a level of improvisation in performance that can’t be learned simply by reproducing desired sounds in the correct order. You could say the same about figure skating. While a skater spends the vast majority of their time developing specific skills in routines that they perform on the ice. There is also a level of improvisation that can occur when unexpected factors occur, such as variations in ice conditions and performance errors. The skater may have to do subtle improvisations to compensate for such factors to prevent errors in their routines, which would hamper their presentations overall.

The Improvisational Nature of Self-Defense

If you train in or teach a martial art for self-defense, you probably are already aware of this fact. Applied self-defense requires the ability to improvise and adapt one’s reactions to the changing circumstances of an attack. There isn’t simply one way to respond to a particular attack, whether that attack is a strike, grab, takedown, weapon attack, etc. Factors such as your own body type, your attacker’s body type, whether you have potential help nearby (or whether your attacker has their own helpers), your level of awareness leading up to the attack, your physical environment, etc. There are also factors within the attack itself such as how the attacker responds to your defense.

With all these factors at play, self-defense instructors need to provide training exercises that help develop students’ ability to adapt and use the bodies and skills to react with the most effective combinations for defense in whatever situation they find themselves in. I discuss this point in more detail in my blog post, Principles vs. Prescription: An Adaptive Approach to Self-defense. Training circles is one such example in which students practice responding against various attacks from various people. Live responsiveness exercises such as pushing hands are another good excample in which students learn to sense pressure and movement and to redirect energy in ways that put them in more advantageous positions. Sparring and grappling (standing and/or on the ground) are other examples that allow students to work on improving distance, timing, keeping and taking balance, all in the context of reacting on the fly as the situations dictate. But there is more to the martial arts than pure responsiveness.

The “Art” in Martial Arts

The specific tools we use, whether for self-defense or one-on-one style competition, are what define individual martial arts. The ongoing improvement involved in training these skills are an important part of the philosophical, as well as the directly practical applications. In the martial arts, we choose our weapons, whether those be hand strikes, kicks, throws/takedowns, joint locks, grappling, or even actual weapons skills, etc, then devote a significant portion of our training time to sharpening those weapons. This involves training exercises such as patterns, pad/bag work, or the practice of individual moves and combinations with a cooperative partner.

Art vs. Improvisation

Every martial art school strikes a balance between these two styles of teaching. Some are pure arts that only focus on the performance of the skills of their style without much or any training in the practical applications for which those skills were developed. Other styles focus almost entirely on improvisational skills, offering little time for technical development.

Being an instructor of martial art for which the goal is to teach self-defense, we must strike a balance between art and improvisation. If an instructor spends too much time on sharpening individual skills on inanimate pads or cooperative partners, students may find themselves hard pressed to use those skills having not spend much time learning the adaptiveness required to deal with a potentially dangerous, attacker who is intent on dominating them by whatever means they come up with. On the other hand, if an instructor only provides improvisational training, they may not get to spend enough time developing individual skills in order to apply them as effectively as someone who has. Subsequently, students can hit a wall with overemphasis on this style of training and stop making progress, losing their motivation to train. At my dojo, we spend about 70% of our time on art development, and about 30% of our time on improvisational development.

Every martial arts instructor needs to develop their own approach to teaching based on the needs of their style. Many simply use the training methods that were handed down to them, and while these methods may have their benefits there are factors that can affect their effectiveness. The social context and our knowledge of psychology and physiology is always changing, so it’s well worth an instructor’s time to consider these factors and how they teach to provide the best possible ways of teaching their arts to their students.

Personally, I’ve recently been spending more time developing/improving improvisational teaching methods to add to teaching tools. I’m also always on the lookout for fresh ways of teaching form to keep art-oriented training interesting. The students who experience the outcome of these investigations seem to appreciate the efforts made. It also helps keep me developing myself as an instructor and student of the martial arts.

Now over to you. What martial art do you practice? How much time do you spend on art development vs. improvisational development in your martial arts classes? What training methods are emphasized? Please share your experiences in the comments.

Get “The Talent Code” on
Get “The Talent Code” on
Get “The Talent Code” on

Comments (3)

3 thoughts on “The Inherent Conflict between Teaching Martial Art vs Self-Defense

  1. Lori-sensei,

    You mentioned “The Talent Code” at the beginning of this piece. I am always looking for good books to support my own development as an instructor. I would LOVE to see you write a list of recommended reading for martial arts instructors, (or create one on


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