It is possible to study a martial art and neither be learning self protection nor self defence. It is possible to study self defence and not gain an understanding of self protection, nor become proficient in any martial art. It is possible to train in ‘self defence’ and not learn anything applicable for self defence. It is also possible to study self protection but not learn anything applicable to actual self defence.
When I teach my Shotokan students I am fully aware that what I am teaching them is a martial art, it is not self protection.
I can say however that what I teach them is focused on self defence since all their drills are designed to build in necessary and reasonable (proportionate) responses to an actual or imminent physical assault and their honest belief as to its likely consequences should they fail to act in defence of themselves (or others). This is not about playing by any competitive ruleset, it is simply about the deliberate choice to build a functional integrated skill set that can be practically tested (or observed successfully employed full contact in competitive arts) and safely trained which is therefore highly likely to be effective under pressure and highly unlikely to place my students in danger of facing prosecution.
I say that I am teaching them a martial art because I did not design the core of the training syllabus they are learning or choose its order. The core of the syllabus they study is the initial Shotokan kata and they are taught in the commonly presented order. The focus therefore is proficiency in developing the skill sets of that martial art along with the mental and physical health benefits that regular training brings with the likelihood of successfully defending themselves against unsolicited violence as a welcome side effect (of which more below). My Shotokan students thus achieve an ability to defend themselves through a predominantly Karate Do Kyohan kata orientated syllabus in a martial art that was slightly refocused to improve their physical mobility, balance and coordination – a martial way (Do) that has the potential to include (or have as its primary focus) a fighting system (Jutsu).
I can justify Shotokan kata practice as self defence training only because the legally underpinned drills the students practice against HAOV (Habitual Acts of Violence) come directly and visibly from those kata. If that were not the case, then I could only describe the kata training as a facet of the martial art. If the physical kumite drills taught were not predominantly focused on HAOV then I would not have any real grounds for describing them as training for self defence. For something to be deemed as training for self defence it has to be related to a probable physical assault and it has to be a response that would subsequently be deemed a legal use of force so as not to result in charges such as actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm or manslaughter. In some instances, where a classical martial arts technique is taught or used that has no purpose other than to kill (often on a person in no position to defend against it or to pose any current threat through their position), then the charge might even be murder – such training is not self defence training. Such a technique might be appropriate for my syllabus if I were teaching commandos how to quietly remove sentries, but as I’m not, it isn’t. This isn’t about being gentlemanly or non-violent, it is about my duty of care to protect my students from harm (including prosecution) outside the dojo. I can describe their kihon training as martial arts because it involves the development of martial skills (in my syllabus kihon is almost entirely pad work with kata used to develop other attributes independent of partner work), but I can also describe it as focused on self defence because those same skills are employed in the HAOV focused legally underpinned kumite drills.
This is not to say that there is no self protection training in my Shotokan syllabus. It exists in the requirement to attend scenario simulation training days with me for the Brown belt grades and beyond. These events are comprised of scenarios that may result in a simulated assault and response that may be construed as self defence, but the majority of the time in each is spent unpicking and analysing each event for the lessons on how best to avoid, deter, negate and escape aggression and physical violence – the broader non physical elements of self protection.
In contrast to my Shotokan I can describe my DART Karate as self protection, even though the majority of any given class is naturally focused on physical training for self defence. My reasoning behind this is that every student in those classes not only practices self defence focused drills in each class but also is examined at every grade on a syllabus document that is packed with information relating to self protection (as well as a reading list on the subject). The syllabus itself is prioritised according to probabilities of threats and action and as with my Shotokan students, DART students are expected to attend scenario training to ensure that they understand the principles of self protection in addition to demonstrating their ability to defend themselves (or others) as appropriate in challenging training.
I would say therefore that DART students are training in self protection even though they spend the majority of their time focused on developing appropriate skills for self defence, but are they studying a martial art? Well their primary focus is to be able to successfully extricate themselves from the most likely situations, but of course as time moves on and they train for longer they do so with increasing speed and efficiency indicating skill development, and they train to continuously expand and improve that ability. They study kata, two of which are specifically built from careful combinations of their self defence drills and two of which are ‘classical’ kata, of which one is used extensively in legally underpinned HAOV focused stand up and ground drills and one is used more for underpinning attribute development. As they progress further through the grades they increasingly move from simply drilling ‘need to have’ and ‘good to have’ to adding in elements that are ‘nice to have’ and ‘fun and cool to have’. As a result, I would say that over time their focus on refinement and adding breadth to their depth means that they are now effectively training in a martial art for the purpose of self defence rather than just ‘training self defence’.
In both approaches therefore I can see a martial art, self defence and self protection. One student may start with the aim of learning a martial art but over time also become well versed in self protection with the ability to effectively use force in self defence, while another may start initially wanting self protection (which they might at that point in time call self defence) and become very adept in that regard but over time also become a highly proficient martial artist.
There are overlaps between studying a martial art and becoming better able to act in self defence. There are also training elements that are exclusive. Understanding self protection as a whole is not the same as training in either. A clarity of focus is understanding what you are doing through the different elements of your training and what each is intended to achieve and can obtain.