Judo is actually the basis for modern police hand to hand training, and more
often than not when you have an officer offering a “self-defense” class in
the US, what you’re actually getting is an adapted form of Judo. It’s not the
exact same martial art, but they’re still close enough that a practitioner in
either can instantly recognize and understand the other.
Tae Kwon Do also has a very strong following as a practical martial art,
particularly in South Korea.
These aren’t bad examples. Almost all modern martial arts are like this.
There’s recreational forms, and practical forms. Which makes it sound like
there’s a hard line between the two, like you go out there and learn a
recreational version of Shotokan, and then come back and take a different class
to learn a version you could potentially use in a real situation. That doesn’t
If you’ve trained to be a practical martial artist, your focus has been on
applying what you’ve learned in real world situations. It doesn’t matter if it’s
Judo, Tae Kwon Do, or even Tai Chi (and, yes, there is a practical strand of
Tai Chi), if you trained to apply it in the real world, then you’re going to be
able to apply it outside of a controlled environment.
If you trained as a recreational martial artist, you might not be able to
transition over into a live situation. Again, this can go for nearly any
martial art, even ones like Krav Maga and Sytema, that ostensibly only exist
for practical application.
It is worth remember that martial artists are people; unique individuals,
just like everyone else. So it is entirely possible for a recreational martial
artist to rely on their training, buckle down, and work their way through real crises
without any problems. Or they can attempt that gun disarm they learned and get
shot. Unfortunately, it goes both ways, and being trained with either goal
doesn’t mean you’re going to win.
Two things affect if someone is a
practical or recreational martial artist. Their outlook, and (more importantly)
their instructor’s outlook. If the instructor and the students have conflicting
outlooks, it will cause problems. Not violence, but it will affect their
ability to communicate.
A recreational martial artist comes to learn a new way to relax, a way to
entertain or divert themselves, to learn something new, maybe just to exercise,
or any number of other reasons.
There’s nothing wrong with this approach. It’s fine. I’ll admit,
recreational Ninjitsu practitioners strike me as very odd. But, it’s a
legitimate choice. Also, the whole thing about using martial arts to find a
kind of spiritual enlightenment, or meditation isn’t bunk. You can actually use
it as a venue for that.
A practical martial artist comes to learn how to deal with immediate, human,
threats. In the process, they horrify most recreational martial artists.
As a practical martial artist, you’re learning to use your body as a weapon,
with the expectation that you may, some day, have to.
Either way, you still learn the same stances, you’re taught the same
techniques (mostly), you undergo (most) of the same physical conditioning.
The biggest difference is: For practical martial artists the priority is in
being able to execute the techniques, closely enough, to make them work. You
still drill for perfection, but the ultimate goal is to be able to apply it to
another human being, and that doesn’t require perfect form. You also learn more
about how opponents will respond and behave.
Really, that’s, basically, the difference. Were you taught to hone your
motions into mechanical perfection? Or did you learn how to skip steps in your
katas, because the real goal was to be able to flow between techniques, picking
the right one for this moment and, not perfectly execute a pre-scripted routine
in the dojo?
Practical martial artists also need to update their training periodically. This
is because, as their training is used in the real world, their opponents learn
and, develop ways to counter and exploit it. So the martial artist then needs
to keep their training up to date. The two biggest examples of this are
military and law enforcement who receive regular updates to their hand to hand
The differences also create a serious disconnect between the elements of the
community. I alluded to it above, but, the core here is recreational and
practical martial artists evaluate themselves on different metrics. I’m also
going to stress, this doesn’t make either group less, or more, legitimate as
martial artists. It’s very easy to look across the gulf and say, “those guys
don’t know what they’re doing,” but, it’s a lot like taking a sports car and a
pickup, sticking them next to each other, and then evaluating the car on its
towing capacity, or the truck on its top speed.
Recreational martial artists are, just that, artists. At the upper end of
the spectrum, they can be fantastic performers.
Practical martial artists are much less interested in looking good
(generally speaking), the purpose is to give the practitioner more options for
dealing with someone who is trying to do them harm. In comparison, they’ll look
sloppy. Hell, I can admit, I look like a terrible martial artist, most of the
time, but, I was always far more concerned with being able to use my training
to provide a degree of safety.
It’s also worth noting, both groups of martial artists can actually get
pretty omnivorous at times, when they’re looking at other martial arts. You
never completely lose your first style, but sometimes you just see something
neat and “borrow” it.
There’s a weird gray area here, which is really in the recreational side, the
competitive martial artist. These are people who participate in MMA,
professional boxers, or other prize fight circuits. They’re training to deal
with an opponent within a controlled environment. In a one-on-one situation,
they can potentially handle themselves, but they haven’t really been preparing
for combat. This frequently results in a few problems. They go way too hard,
and they don’t (usually) know how to handle multiple attackers.
We’ve said this before, many times, but multiple attackers are a serious
problem. They are exponentially more dangerous, even for trained combatants. The
problem is numbers. Fighting more than one person is a balancing act as it
substantially increases the openings an opponent has. It’s a situation where
the inverse of Hollywood is true. Multiple attackers are the most difficult to
deal with, which is why the media always has characters fighting multiple
attackers to the point where it has become commonplace. The truth is, no matter
what your skill level and background, two on one is a dangerous situation to be
in. Forget bigger numbers, an extra person can seriously mess with you. There’s
a real reason why the military works in units and cops, generally, travel in
pairs. Sport martial artists are (slightly) more likely to overestimate their
own abilities, and wade in when they’re outmatched.
For a lot of sport martial artists, when they do get into a fight, they tend
to apply their training, which is true for nearly everyone, but it’s a problem
because they’ve trained to go full throttle. Without moderating to the
situation they’re in, this results in some really messy beatings. Once the
police are called in, they view it as an egregious overreaction, and we end up
with another story about a punch drunk fighter unable to distinguish real-life
from the ring. And before the incoming ‘but’ arrives, I’ve heard the stories
about third degree black belts who did try a gun disarm in a real life
situation and got shot.
The way I’ve phrased it sounds like there’s some insurmountable gulf between
recreational and martial artists, but that’s not actually true. I’ve known a
lot of recreational martial artists over the years who were fantastic people,
and learned a lot from them, and vice versa.