If you ignored an opportunity to escape or the kept going after the threat was stopped, you have moved from self-defence to fighting. (source)

Are you defending yourself against unwanted violence, or are you just fighting? These are questions that can be hard for even the most experience combative to answer. It can also be hard to teach people the difference between the two. One thing is for sure, failure to understand the difference, and when each is appropriate, can be the difference between life and death, jail and freedom. Regardless of the style you train it is an increasingly important thing to understand. In this post, and the two following, I will attempt to help you understand this important difference.

I thought I would start out with my personal definitions of a fighter and a warrior.

Fighter: Someone who, either through natural talent or acquired skill, has decided that they enjoy fighting; both the giving out of and receiving of the physical punishment associated with fighting. Essentially, they fight for the thrill of it.

Warrior: Someone who develops their martial skills, and associated personality traits, to be honed so that, when they are required to, they have the ability to fight, win, and survive, be that for protecting themselves or others. Essentially, they fight because they have to.

Now let’s add one of my favorite quotes, one I have used many times.

“It is better to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war.”

Now, whether you are a fighter or a warrior is unrelated to your actual skill. Having the skill and not needing it is always far better than needing it and not having it. This difference however is how you choose to use those skills.

So ask yourself, “what are your intentions regarding any martial skills you have developed?”

Now, what does this have to do with self-defence vs fighting?

It’s simple, because the more you train and the less real conflict you actually have to deal with, the easier it is to forget why you should train and develop your skills. The reason being so that you have them when you need them, but not so you can impose your will on others, or show off, or fall into the trap of your ego, the point when you start choosing to fight rather then disengage.

The difference between the two, fighting vs disengaging, can actually be quite grey, and will depend on your society’s laws, what your personal belief systems allow, and, of course, what your emotional and general intelligence is. In theory it should be black and white according to the law or accepted standards, but it rarely is, and it can be especially hard to tell the difference in the moment.

So let’s start with the most fundamental difference.

In a self-defence situations you are, either on account of failed judgment or bad decision making, in a situation in which you are confronted with potential or actual violence. You attempt non-violent methods to get away but they fail and you must employ violence to the point where you can escape or stop the individual(s) from being a physical threat to yourself or others. The moment the threat is stopped, you stop. This usually means one person does not actually want to get physical, the victim, but the other, the attacker, is forcing the situation (quite literally).

In a fight, you and the other person are willfully, or perhaps unwittingly, deciding to engage in a back-and-forth exchange, agreed upon ruleset or otherwise.

Basically, one is a matter of must fight, and the other is a matter of choosing to fight.

Not only that but your strategies, though similar, are different. In a fight, you usually assume it is one-on-one or at least “someone equal” rules. The rules could have been established or are “understood” as a matter of social or cultural knowledge in a given country, region, or group. In self-defence, you assume there are no rules, you assume are always outgunned, and you are most likely fighting for survival.

Too often individuals think that just because they have the skills to fight that they will always have the upper hand in a self-defence situation. While partially true, as they may posses the skills to beat most people on average, it creates an ego trap that assumes this is always the case. However, your champion belt, black belt, or natural skill may not be enough if there are five guys with intent and weapons. Knowing when it’s shifted from what you thought was a fight to a self-defence scenario is what will keep you alive. Falling into your ego trap might just get you killed.

Throw the local laws and public perception into the mix and this situation just got a whole lot messier.

Another reason the difference can be hard to know is that often we forget the “why,” as in why are we learning something and why is something effective. If you don’t really understand your training, it can be far easier to make the mistake of fighting when you should be treating an encounter as self-defence situation. Furthermore, if you forget the “why,” you may even overestimate your own ability, which results in you choosing to fight when you had the opportunity to run.

Perhaps a better explanation of this lies in history, specifically the history of combat styles and their origins. For example, many styles of Chinese martial arts actually started as self-defence forms, as peasants were tired of being bullied by local warlords who were stronger than them. They then took up their farm tools as weapons and taught each other to fight, so as to fend off the local warlords, who turned out were not so strong after all. Eventually the styles developed from what were perhaps once very effective styles for self-defence. As time passed and the need for literal self-defence on a day-to-day basis diminished, its origins were forgotten and became cultural rituals or traditional martial arts. Or, as sometimes happens, much stronger occupying forces banned self-defence or martial training, which resulted in a more artistic style so people could continue to practice under the guise of “dance”; this famously happened with Capoeira in Brazil and Arnis in the Philippines). Though, don’t bother trying to bring up the loss of effectiveness to the practitioners of these styles. Objectively however, there’s a reason why many styles are not very well represented in MMA or other combat sports, while other styles are.

Essentially, these styles changed from self-defence styles to more artistic styles over the years, becoming detached from reality. Though they have their strong points they are no longer easily applicable in combat anymore. A person trained in such styles may quickly find themselves overwhelmed in a self-defence situation, as they were not actually training for effective self-defence, whether they knew it or not. All because they forgot the Why. Simply possessing skills in a specific style does not actually mean you have effective methods to defend yourself in most situations.

I could draw many examples of styles from history and find similar results. If you simply train to learn to fight you may not actually have the strategy or effective tools to understand proper self-defence, or, more importantly, life and death scenarios. Thus you will find yourself sucked into a fight when the situation really doesn’t warrant it.

To make matters even more grey, you cannot separate fighting from self-defence, but you can separate self-defence from fighting. As in, the former can exist without the latter, but the latter cannot. The basis in all self-defence styles is the ability to fight, physically, mentally, and technically, otherwise you really aren’t going to be much of an issue for the attacker. But to be a proficient fighter in the ring you really do not need to know the strategies, concepts, and techniques of self-defence.

Confused yet? That’s okay. I will explain training and thinking for fighting, and training and thinking for self-defence, in order to further expand on this topic.

In the mean time, spend some time thinking about What it is you train, How you train, and Why you train. Be honest, and think “do I have sufficient skills to defend myself in life or death situations, or do I need more?”

Written by Jonathan Fader

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