“Martial arts” is a generic tern, which in most peoples’ minds includes any kind of physical activity with elements of self-defense or prepares against some kind of physical violence.  However, I think it causes a lot of confusion to lump all systems, styles, and activities together, and in the end drives away potential students who cannot find a match for their particular needs and personalities.

In my mind, there are actually three categories of martial studies: (1) Martial Arts, (2) Martial Sports, and (3) Martial Ways. The distinctions between them, how their goals and motivations are different, and the implications on their different training environments can be very important. I have trained and gained rank in each of these different categories since 1980, and the following thoughts are based upon my own personal experiences.


Martial Arts (Bujutsu / Bugei)

The purpose of a Martial Art is survival.  Most traditional martial art systems are embedded in historical lineages, and had originally evolved to solve very real life-and-death problems in a particular culture, historical period, and part of the world.

I generally find it reasonable to assume that each martial art was the most perfectly effective system for surviving in the historical environment in which they evolved.  For example, Okinawan Karate (originally “toté” or “China Hand” and kobudo dating back to the 1500s) developed to help unarmed farmers and tradesmen deal with the predations of armed samurai and ronin during the Satsuma invasion of Japan in the 1700s, and its moves are characterized by requiring stable footing in thick grasses and fields of the RyuKyu Islands.  The powerful kicks of Savate purportedly were developed in the 1800s for sailors to fight on boats, where rough water might require one or more hands to be occupied holding onto ropes and braces for stability.  The characteristic patterns of Arnis, Escrima and Kali developed during the Spanish occupation of the Philippines and Indonesia in the 1600s and 1700s, where the closeness of the jungle forests required most locals to carry machetes (bolos) for clearing vegetation and most combat situations were in close, dense environments.  The historical martial arts we have today would not exist if they had not been effective enough for their practitioners to survive the dire conflicts of their time and place.  Sometimes, there was a trade-off between surviving right now and long-term health and injury.

“In Old Karate, you learned your art through pain. You learned quickly that your techniques had to be fast or powerful or both. If you did not embrace pain and its lessons adequately, you simply did not survive” ― Soke Behzad Ahmadi, Ryukyu Kobujutsu

The battleground of a Martial Art is life-and-death combat against uneven odds.  While defined in historical and environmental contexts, Martial Arts developed out of life-and-death situations where the odds weren’t fair and the stakes were lethal.  Martial Art systems, at their core, are methods for gaining a superior advantage over opponents, or for allowing disadvantaged combatants to overcome stronger, more numerous, or better armed opponents.

“In combat, the larger force dictates the rules. The Navy Seals are always the smaller force. To win, you need to break the rules.” – Navy Seals motto

The trophy of a Martial Art is the practitioner’s head.  At the simplest level, the reward for a successful encounter is that the martial artist survives for another day, that the soldier survives for another mission.

The focus of a Martial Art is technique (jutsu). Most Martial Arts – bujutsu – are very practical, and focus on proven techniques, tactics, and hidden methods necessary for surviving the combat scenarios in which they were forged – and for ensuring their practitioners gain sufficient proficiency to make a difference in as little time as possible. The purpose of technique is the tactical manipulation of opponent’s weaknesses and the application of destructive attacks.


Ikken Hissatsu: “One strike, one kill” or “One fist, certain death”

The obstacles of a Martial Art are comfort and provincialism.  One can train for 30 years in one’s comfort zone, and never reach any great insights or skill; alternately a single hour of training pushed to one’s very limits or even into the “terror zone” can be worth more than a hundred hours of intellectual or academic practice.  Even sweat is no protection from comfort; to quote my teacher, “one true cut is worth more than a hundred suburi (repetition practice cuts)”.  Similarly, limiting exposure to training and ideas outside of one’s own dojo, or more importantly, one’s own style or art, ensures that one’s skills will never be questioned or challenged but also that that all improvement will be incremental.  “The light bulb was not invented through the incremental improvement of candles.”

“You can only fight the way you practice” ― Miyamoto Musashi

“Cry in the dojo, laugh on the battlefield.” – Unknown

Martial Sports (Taisen / Supo-Tsu)

The purpose of a Martial Sport is competition.  For combat sport practitioners, the purpose is the meeting and overcoming of challenges, of increasing and proving one’s strength and skill to one’s self and others, and in some cases the acquisition of fame, money, and respect.  Martial sports mostly have their origin in historical martial / combat arts, but have had their techniques modified to accommodate rules that ensure relatively even odds, fair play, and prevention of permanent injury of death.  In many cases rules have evolved to prolong the interaction of the competitors for the benefit of the audience.  One needs only to consider the padded gloves and many rounds involved in professional boxing, or the differences between the flashy aerobatics of Wushu versus Kung Fu, or modern sport Karate variations versus their  Okinawan predecessors (there are discussions that the characteristic gyakutsuki punch of Shotokan is an “over-rotation” deliberately introduced by the pioneer Gichin Funikoshi to reduce its lethal potential to break ribs).  This is not to say that Martial Sports cannot be quite effective for certain situations “out of the ring,” but that is not their primary purpose of study.

“The winner can brag, the loser can keep quiet” – Roberto Atalla, former BJJ World Champion

The battleground of a Martial Sport is the dueling ring.  The ring (or octagon etc.) is the consistently defined, well-lit and structured space where the competition (taisen or shiai) takes place. Encounters are scheduled and judged, and usually open (if not for the entertainment of) spectators.  Engagements are one-on-one, toe-to-toe, and face-to-face.

The trophy of a Martial Sport is, well, a trophy. The rewards of winning a combat sport match are the trophies, prizes, and titles set as stakes and incentives for the competition.  Referees (or scoring systems) observe, judge, and award points toward partial or ultimate victory. For some organizations and styles, winning leads to rank and promotion; ranking in international Judo is based mostly upon competition activity, and the renown of Martial Sport coaches and teachers is usually based upon the titles and championships they achieved during their careers.  Competing provides a no-excuses test of one’s ability and determination. Whatever you may say about sports competitions, there is value in the confidence arising from having found the courage to step into the ring, to measure oneself against another dedicated to your defeat, to have proven one’s grit and inner fire, and to have shown the value of one’s training and techniques.  For many, Martial Sports provide a sense of validation and accomplishment in a society lacking coming-of-age rituals and other opportunities for personal achievement.

The focus of Martial Sport is technique (jutsu) and conditioning (taiso). Like Martial Arts, Martial Sports practitioners focus on developing superior techniques and tactics for manipulating opponent’s weaknesses, and overwhelming their strengths.  Techniques can be very sophisticated, including sequences that set up reactions similar to chess strategies that entrap unwary opponents.  Many Martial Sport practitioners tend to specialize in a relatively small number of techniques which they may repeat until they succeed (as can often be observed in Olympic Judo).  Martial Sports practitioners place a much higher emphasis on physical conditioning for strength, youth and endurance than most traditional Martial Arts systems, and as a result most competitors have peaked by the time they reach their thirties.

“I drill techniques – my main techniques, my ‘A’ move, my ‘A Game’ sweep, the guard pass and sub I hit the most, over and over again. I’ve drilled them so many times, my body just reacts now. I can go out and let instinct take over. Most of our training is drilling, based on our individual games and what we do best. Before a big tournament I stick to the stuff I’ve been doing, and just drill it to death….If you’re thinking about what to do next, your competitor is already moving to his next move. It’s best to just react and let your body take over.” – Keenan Cornelius, Gracie Mag

The obstacle of Martial Sport is physical comfort. When asked what was the secret to mastery in Judo, the Founder Jigoro Kano replied “Training every day.” There is a direct relationship between sheer amount of training time and success in competition.  That means going to the dojo when the body is begging not to, it means always trying a little harder, always pushing one’s limits a little further, and not giving in when the body screams “I quit, that’s enough.”

“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion’.” – Muhammad Ali

Note, some traditional Martial Arts incorporate solo performance competitions (e.g. Iiaido, Battoh-Do and other Ryuha performing tameshigiri cutting, or archery competitions), but probably do not share many other characteristics of Martial Sports.

Martial Ways (Budo / Michi / Takemusu)

The purpose of a Martial Way is living.  Ultimately practitioners of a Martial Way are not concerned about imminent combat or proving themselves through competition.  Instead, they seek to cultivate, manifest, and embody the moral strength and martial wisdom gained through studying aggression, violence, and one’s reactions to them.  A Martial Way is in a sense a system of applied philosophy and morality, but it is a philosophy and morality that is exercised and tested with the goal of becoming a different, stronger person, who rises above conflict.  Martial wisdom recognizes that conflict is not just the physical manifestation of violence, but the psychological insecurities that instigate violence and the need to prove oneself.

The battleground of a Martial Way is every waking minute of one’s life.  When a follower of a Way realizes that all violence is psychological, and violent responses only propagate and continue the harm, that follower also realizes that the battle never ends, and there is no difference between the dojo and one’s relationships, one’s career and work, one’s family, one’s community, one’s integrity.  These are the battles that we as human beings must fight over and over.  That means that practitioners strive to be vigilant, studious and self-critical in all aspects of their life, and to seek serenity, strength, perspective, and a penetrating alertness which is never shaken.  To succeed on this psychic battlefield, practitioners must balance the idea that destroying the enemy is not always an optimal solution, while simultaneously staying grounded in effective, life-or-death martial practice in the dojo.

“The approach to combat and everyday life should be the same.” – Miyamoto Musashi

“To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace.” ― Morihei Ueshiba, Founder of Aikido

The trophy of a Martial Way is a life well lived.  By learning when to not fight battles, learning how not to be available for an opponent’s power, learning how to “hold one’s center” while neither fighting back nor giving in, by meeting all challenges and encounters with strength, peace, and adaptability, the Martial Way practitioner becomes a natural leader, somebody who makes few enemies, leaves few regrets, and attracts respect.  The measure of a practitioner’s commitment to their Way is their ability to deal with the pains, challenges and conflicts of life without hypocrisy or doubt.

“While many students may initially be impressed by a teacher’s technical skill, the students that remain follow the teacher’s heart.” – Mitsugi Saotome Shihan

The focus of a Martial Way is, well, focus.  To rise above physical struggle, the Martial Way practitioner seeks perception, insight, and vision. Cultivating seigan, “true vision”, involves learning to see truly into the hearts of themselves and others free from preconception. Seigan conveys considerable martial value, as it provides insight into what an opponent will do, how they will react, and what is necessary to see new options and solutions than those presented by the aggressor.

“Most bad decisions arise from insecurity.” – Mitsugi Saotome Shihan

The obstacle of a Martial Way is psychological comfort. All training takes place with groups of people, so it is impossible to avoid distractions of ego like rank, respect, politics, jealousy, pride, resentment, anger, etc. As much as striving to overcome one’s physical limits is incredibly difficult, overcoming one’s personality limits is even harder; the vast majority of people who are attracted to Martial Ways because of the philosophies and ideals don’t dedicate themselves to a lifetime of meditation, introspection, change, and constant challenges to their own identity and opinions.  The irony is that most shihan (master/ exemplar instructors) in most Martial Ways are no more “enlightened” (and I use that term with a grain of salt) than any “average Joe”.  It is up to the individual practitioner to find the path within the art, to discover and define what the Way means to them, and to drive themselves to pursue that Way through their own personal and private dedication.

I feel there is a strong parallel to the words of Joseph Campbell regarding the role of religion in relation to congregations and prophets. Any religion exists primarily to give a sense of community, belonging, structure, and meaning to the lives of almost of its adherents.  Its purpose for them is not to provide deep spiritual transformation or enlightenment, but to provide a buffer between the follower and the challenges (difficulties) of life and death.  The religious leader interprets meaning for the congregation, and provides moral advice for living in society. For the very few that dedicate themselves to transformative spiritual enlightenment, the religion also provides a safe path to guide and make sense of their visions, a way to channel and communicate the disturbing wisdom and insights of the prophets and mystics safely back to the greater community.  Few religious adherents become true holy (wo)men, few practitioners of Martial Ways successfully integrate spirituality and martial study to become warriors of wisdom and spirit.  Please note, I make no claim to spiritual authority.

Your Way, My Way, The Long Way

Each of the different categories offers great value. Every student is different, and every person requires different “ingredients” to make their own personal recipe, and to build the path they want to pursue across their lifetime.  When I was young, I was drawn to sporting arts out of driving personal insecurities and a need be both validated and to prove myself, mostly to myself.  As I grew older, my need for and rewards from competition paled, and I desired to surround myself with people driven by different ideals and motivations.  I sought arts that could last me my a lifetime of study, that offered insight and mystery beyond the ring, that rewarded dedication over youth.  Eventually even those goals also changed for me, and I began to find my life, my purpose, my identity defined by what I could offer to others and a recognition of my impact and potential to change the lives I touch.  As I grew and changed, the why I trained changed the what.

Does This Stuff Work?

Hopefully by this point, I have set a framework where the better question is “does this stuff work for the purpose it was intended?”  All serious martial systems should be quite effective for dealing with certain situations of violence.  But any other question about any particular art or school being effective needs to be considered in context.  Tai Chi Ch’uan does not produce many MMA champions, Martial Ways don’t always comprehensively prepare one for imminent life-and-death situations, and combat art or Martial Sport environments don’t necessarily help you become a better person.  Or flip these comparisons around in any combination; each category of martial training does a great job providing and preparing for something different than the others.  Choose wisely, and don’t be distracted by internet forum arguments that try to measure them against what they are not.  If it is important to you to gain skills in more than one category, it’s probably up to you to cross-train!

Of course, many schools and systems strive or claim to provide the benefits from more than one category. What has been your experience?

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