I find that today many people call themselves martial artists, when in fact they are combat sportsmen. For some reason they get upset when you tell them this. It is not, or shouldn’t be construed as an insult. There is a lot of athleticism and hard work that goes into becoming a combat sportsman. There is, however, a distinction.
A combat sportsman trains with the objective of doing tournaments, competitions and the like. His objective is to win medals and trophies, or to up his ranking within a circuit. There are rules to be followed and a referee to make sure that these rules are adhered to. He is not intent on causing serious bodily harm to his opponent – this would be unsportsmanlike. Essentially, it is a game that two combatants take part in to see who the better player is. In order to be a good player, a person must practice the game. The more one practices, the better he should become. Following the rules and using the allowed techniques to the allowed areas and allowed contact levels becomes drilled and engrained into the player. It becomes second nature – the player no longer has to think about how to react within this setting – it just happens.
A martial artist trains with the objective of defending himself, his family and the things that he believes in. He doesn’t care about collecting trinkets and accolades. There are no rules and no referee to stop him from defending himself. He only fights in a life threatening situation and trains to inflict severe damage, and if necessary, use lethal force. He trains to use techniques disallowed in tournaments, directed at vital spots with full power and intent behind them. As with the combat sportsman, these techniques and reactions become engrained and thought is no longer required to react in this manner.
In any traditional martial art there is way more than just the competition and sporting side, however, these days there seems to be way more emphasis on the sport, often through the fault of instructors who, essentially, are misrepresenting their art. Many so called martial arts students have never even been taught a real self-defense move. In fact, many students take up “martial arts” with the sole objective of competition and sport in mind. When people think of ITF Taekwon-Do, karate, kung-fu and many other traditional arts, there is an automatic vision of a couple of guys fighting on a mat with very restrictive rules – this is what the general public sees, and therefore these martial arts are associated to be just that. This, in fact, does not even bear a resemblance to what these martial arts actually are. These martial arts are designed for something else entirely! They have devastating techniques and are designed to kill; however, this has been lost somewhere along the way. There is a lot more to a martial artist than competing in games. A world champion combat sportsman is not a world champion martial artist. One cannot be a world champion martial artist, but rather a world class one.
Tournament type sparring/fighting does have a place in martial arts, but should not be its main objective. It is an exercise, or game, that is played within a martial art. It is a tool used to help with timing, distancing and hitting a moving target. It can also be used to build camaraderie between students and teams. Martial arts students can be good at this game, but as soon as the main focus of training changes and the majority of focus is put into playing this game, then they are no longer martial arts students, but combat sports players.
The sporting side of martial arts has many restrictive rules in order to keep the participants safe. Gloves and various types of padding may be worn so as to limit injury to participants. Points are awarded for making contact to relatively large target areas and deducted for hitting targets deemed as too dangerous. There doesn’t have to be any real accuracy in technique – as long as the hand hits the face, or the foot hits the body (and so on) it counts towards the person who is throwing the technique. A person who understands the rules and practices to use them well can even manipulate decisions to fall in his favour. Sportsmen train to work within rules and function well within these rules – it does not make them better fighters than many outside the ring.
Martial artists train to fight without restriction. They generally don’t function well within rules. Because of this they, often, are not fantastic competitors inside the ring. Just because a person is not a great competitor, it does not mean that they are a great martial artist and street fighter. Many good martial artists would beat the hell out of good competitors – just take away the rules and the referee and there would be some very different results.
Now, I’m not saying that a combat sportsman would not be able to defend themselves on the street; likewise, a martial artist could also compete, but a huge mindset and physical adjustment would have to be made. The reaction of a martial artist would not be as defined as a sportsman’s in a sports arena because his “natural” reaction may be something other than what he is allowed to do. This would cause a delay in his reaction which could give a well-practiced athlete the edge in this particular scenario. Likewise, a competitor would lose the edge in a street fight against a martial artist because of his “naturally” restricted techniques. His reaction to do something devastating with accuracy and power may be inhibited due to his competitively trained techniques. A martial artist would have to “think” more in a sporting arena, just as a sports person would have to “think” more in a street situation. Thinking can be the downfall of a martial artist or a sportsperson in their respective environments. Taking a martial artist and putting him in a sport setting (or vice-versa) is like throwing a cat into water and expecting it to catch fish.
In reality, the majority of sport fights go to decisions, and if not, most last a long while before some sort of a knockout occurs. This doesn’t cut it in the street. The longer a fight lasts in the street, the worse off you are. The objective is to end it as quickly and efficiently as possible. Trying to attack general target areas with limited techniques is hardly going to accomplish this against a decent fighter or an attacker set on killing you. I often use the gun comparison with my students. A combat sportsman is like a gun loaded with rubber bullets. It can be intimidating, shoot and can hurt like hell, but its intent is not to cause lasting harm. It can be useful in a situation where an assailant is not completely intent on taking you out. A martial artist is like a gun loaded with real bullets. It can shoot and it can be lethal. Its intention is to do serious damage or kill. It is something you can rely on in a situation where you are at serious risk. Personally, I’d rather be carrying a gun with real ammo into a potentially life-threatening situation than gun loaded with rubber.
The difference between a martial artist and combat sportsman is not only physical, but mental too. Gen. Choi always said, “A single blow is sufficient for victory.” This is the mindset that martial artists should have behind every technique – whether it be in intent, the chosen attacking tool or the intended target you will be striking. This quote is not to say that you will only throw one technique, but every technique thrown should be as if it is your last. A martial artist doesn’t want to have a match with somebody; he wants to end the fight as quickly as possible by whatever means necessary. A sportsman has trained his mindset to follow the rules, manipulate the rules where possible and use only the techniques allowed within the rules. The objective is to win the bout. Safety is always a priority – that is why there are rules and a ref – everything is kept fair. I’m sure most have heard the saying, “You fight how you train.” This is definitely true -what you train is what will come out in the situation. You are not going to miraculously react in a different manner when a situation presents itself. Your body will react in the way that has been drilled into it – its, now, natural reaction. Training with the mindset of getting points and fighting over many rounds doesn’t cut it in the street. You may not think so, but that is exactly what will come out if your training focuses on that. A martial artist doesn’t care about rules. When his life is in danger he has trained his body and mind to respond with lethal force and devastating techniques directed at vital spots – this is what he has drilled and is now his natural reaction. Another major part of mental training for both sportsmen and martial artists is visualisation. If you predominantly visualise yourself in a ring fighting within tournament rules and winning competitions, then you are a combat sportsman. If you predominantly visualise yourself fighting in life threatening situations and reacting without restrictive rules, then you are a martial artist.
I have heard the argument, “tournament fighting allows martial artists to test their skills and progress.” I disagree! I think it allows tournament oriented combat sportsmen to test the skills they have developed in a game and how much they have progressed at playing this game. A martial artist’s progression and skill can be better tested and gauged in a much broader and well-rounded approach through the grading process. As stated earlier, many traditional martial arts competition formats have barely any resemblance to the true martial art, so how can one test progression and skill in the art itself?
There are many that say that if you train to inflict damage and develop lethal force then you are not following the martial code (Respect, Honour, Loyalty) and, in the case of Taekwon-Do, the tenets (Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-control, Indomitable Spirit). No real offence intended, but that is a really stupid point to try and make. I think of my heroes in the martial arts and not a single combat sports competitor comes to mind. I think of men like General Choi Hong Hi, Nam Tae Hi, Rhee Ki Ha, Choi Jung Hwa, Han Cha Kyo, Mas Oyama, Gichin Funakoshi and Ip Man, to name but a few. Traditional martial artists cut from a different cloth. They did not/do not train to win sporting matches. They trained with martial arts intent – to damage and kill where necessary. These men are/were high ranking and in most cases founders and pioneers in their arts. They knew the meaning of deadly intent. They did not train to play a game in a ring with countless rules and regulations. By sayingthat training with the purpose of having deadly intent and technique is incorrect, you are also saying that none of these great martial artists’ followed/follow the tenets or the code. Anybody trying to make this point and take the “moral high ground” has obviously missed the plot. The reason for the martial code and tenets is to show a martial artist the way. They were put in place and emphasized so that deadly martial artists would not go around maiming and killing at their every whim. Just because you train to quickly take out an opponent with deadly force and lethal intent doesn’t mean you go around murdering every Tom, Dick and Harry that aggravates you. A potential student asks, “How do I find your martial arts club?” The instructor responds, “Oh it’s really simple. Just follow the string of dead bodies I’ve left in my wake.” Do me a favour! If anything, training to kill will make you adhere even more strictly to the code and tenets. A martial artist that knows what he is capable of and is likely to do in a fight is even more eager not to end up in a situation where it would be necessary. He knows what the repercussions of a fight would be, and because of this would do most anything to get out of a situation without having to resort to violence. It’s the old saying, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I rarely see any of the code or tenets visible in combat sportsman – that would be a rarity, indeed.
I always try to speak from my own experiences, and I have seen both sides of the coin. When I trained for competition and put focus into it, I performed well in that arena. When my mindset shifted in about 2003 and I started putting a lot more emphasis on the traditional aspect of my martial art, I lost my competitive edge.
At the same time, however, I gained a fighters edge. When attempting to compete a couple of times after I had changed to more of a martial artist’s mindset I performed (in my opinion) dismally – mainly due to my reactions not being allowed in a tournament setting. What I wanted to do was prohibited, and even though I would easily have been able to use techniques that I train, it was not allowed, therefore causing “thinking” and resulting in a time delay before being able to respond with a “tournament friendly” technique. I have long given up tournament training myself, but I have many very talented sports oriented students and I’m sure they would best me in the ring – I am highly confident though, that none of them would want to get into a real fight with me. I try to emphasise to my students that a combat sports competitor only has so far that they can go within a real martial art. Competitive years are short lived. Students base their worth on how they perform in the ring and when they are past their competitive years, what then? If a student is only there to play the game, you will no longer see them once they start to lose matches – they retire from the sport. As an instructor I encourage students to compete as a training tool, but not to over-emphasise and put so much focus into it that they lose their martial arts edge. As I’ve been saying, sporting competitions only test a game.
The sporting side within traditional martial arts needs to be kept in context. If you want to take up a combat sport, boxing, judo, mma or Olympic taekwondo would be better suited. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a combat sportsman, so call it what it is – there is no need to insist on being called a martial artist. Both deserve respect in their own way.