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Standing on a whale, fishing for minnows
                       Polynesian saying

"Four Focuses of Martial Arts"
Now..."The Five Focuses"

On this page:
Self-defense/professional use of force | Tradition | Health/spirit| Sport | Demonstration | Further Resources

A condensed version of this article appeared in the July 99 issue of Black Belt magazine under the title The Four Focuses of Martial Arts. It has since been expanded to include Five Focuses.

Finding the self-defense or martial arts training that is just right for you can be a confusing and frustrating experience. Not only are there many different styles, but there are hundreds of schools, each claiming to be the best and able to teach you what you need -- whatever that may be. This is a quick rule-of-thumb guide to help clarify some of the confusion created by claims of schools that are competing for your business. It also can help you figure out exactly what you are looking for in the martial arts.

In the western world martial arts can be broken down into five distinct categories:

    #1 Self-defense/professional use of force
    #2 Tradition/physical art/self-discipline
    #3 Spiritual/health
    #4 Sport/tournament
    #5 Demonstration

Until you know about this diversification, everything looks the same. While they all fall under the general umbrella of martial arts, there are significant differences. A focus is like a tool -- designed for a particular job. While there is a certain degree of crossover, a focus designed for one purpose doesn’t work for others.

Each focus is real and valid, but it may not emphasize what you want to learn or what you need. As each focus has its strengths, it also has limitations. This also applies to instructors. It is nearly impossible to master all four focuses. Generally, an instructor masters one focus and teaches that. An instructor who is good in one focus isn’t necessarily qualified to teach another -- much the same way a plumber is not qualified to do electrical work. Although both plumbers and electricians are involved in building a house, there are significant differences in what they do. To a person unfamiliar with construction, there would be no way to tell the difference between the two. In seeking services, such a person could unwittingly believe a claim by a plumber that he was qualified to wire a house.

Sad to say, but instructors hungry for business will tell you they are qualified to do it all. Staying with the construction analogy, by knowing the four focuses, you will be able to tell the difference between, plumbers, electricians, framers and carpenters, and hire the right one for the job. Knowing the different focuses and going to an instructor who is qualified in what you want to learn will save you money, time and frustration.


Self-defense/professional use of force -- Of all focuses, this is the most limited. It serves only one purpose and that is the application of force to resolve a violent situation.

This can range from a weekend combat course for the public to takedown and control tactics for police and orderlies in mental hospitals. Or it can go as far as military close quarter (CQC or HTH) combat and killing techniques. It is for high-risk situations that have to be resolved immediately. The techniques are simple, effective and often brutal. You don’t have to spend five years learning them. Most of these can be taught in well under three months, if not an intensive weekend.

We cannot stress enough that this focus is a dead end.

Unless you are actively involved in a lifestyle where you are constantly in danger, soley focusing on this aspect over the long term is both paranoid and, literally, a macho fantasy. There is so much more to the martial arts and dwelling exclusively on this focus is a horrible squandering of something that can be much, much richer and deeper. It should be pointed out that violence is an extreme, but an extreme that still exists in a world of laws, rules and repercussions. And these are very real factors that must be dealt with in the aftermath of using self defense tactics. So the better public classes will also deal extensively with the psychological and legal issues that arise from using force.

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Tradition/physical art/self-discipline – This is the flower of westernized martial arts. It also is what most commercial schools teach. Benefits from the martial arts are often found in this focus. Self-confidence, exercise, courtesy, mental focus and self-control are just some of the attributes. Social interactions are also found here, friendships, social groups and community are common by-products of a martial arts school.

Under this focus, troubled children often bloom, their grades improve and unacceptable behavior subsides as they get farther and farther into the art. It is has positive, proven benefits for children and adults with Attention Deficit Disorder.

This focus takes years of effort, but it is well worth it. When that belt is tied around your waist, through your own hard work and dedication, you have accomplished something that no one can ever take away from you.

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Spirit/health – These are the gentle arts (such as Tai Chi Chuan, Ba-qua and Hsing-i) that help develop inner peace and harmony . They are poetry in motion. Yet their benefit to your body cannot be underestimated. Practitioners of these arts are still spry and limber at 80. While practicing these arts can be lifelong, you don’t have to have a five-year financial commitment to a school to be able to do them.

A more recent development along the heath lines is the cardio-karate fad. These classes are currently very popular and are good aerobic exercise. Care should be taken to differentiate between these and 'self-defense," however. They are not designed to teach actual self-defense. Like aerobics they're designed as a physical workout. Just as one example: Improper training how to deliver a blow can cause more damage to your hands/joints than what you give to an assailant. Cardio karate does not give you the proper body mechanics to effectively use against a living assailant.

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Sport/tournament –Tournament fighting is a demanding and challenging sport that requires great dedication and intensive practice. There are entire marital art styles dedicated to sport and competition (Tae Kwon Do is the national sport of Korea). This focus is great for safely channeling young and aggressive energy. It also is sport you can personally participate in with levels ranging from inner-school to international competitions. The style and the level of the competition determine the safety and the rules. It also can be a family event, with family members attending tournaments to cheer on and encourage the participant, if not participating themselves.

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This last category was suggested by  Fight Director  Michael J. Johnson (SAFD) Simply stated, martial arts for  television, movies, stage productions, demonstrations, kata competition or even professional wresting is a unique field unto itself. It is not only a professional field, but it is a very highly developed and exacting art. It is a focus  that requires as much, if not more, discipline, practice and sweat as any other. For anyone who would disagree that it is hard work, we cordially invite them to go try out for the Bejing Wu Shu team or attend a professional wrestling school. The drop out rate of said establishments are incredibly high because these programs are so tough; they are far more demanding than any commercial martial arts school.

Putting it bluntly, no other focus has done so much for the popularity of the martial arts. Like other martial art focuses, this specialization is highly influenced by external factors. Not only does it have exact requirements, but it is also influenced by trends. There is a semi-pro kata circuit. Also, film stars have made their entire careers based on demonstration martial arts. Although elitists, who believe that theirs is the only "true" focus will sniff in distain at the idea of demonstration not being "real" martial arts, all it takes is one viewing of Jackie Chan's My Stunts to realize how extremely complex and demanding this focus is.

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As you can see, each focus has a totally different goal. Along with different goals come radically different attitudes, training procedures, rules of engagement and standards of conduct. These differences have a profound effect on what you learn. They also have a profound effect on whether or not you stay at a school. Many people come to a school wanting to learn a particular focus. They leave feeling frustrated and betrayed because they were taught another.

Have an idea of what you want to get out of such training before you sign up at a martial arts school. Now that you know the difference between the focuses, you can more easily find a school or course that fits your needs and wants. If you walk into a school where the focus is different than what you want, you’re in the wrong place. It may be a great school, but it’s not the right one for you. Odds are you’ll just end up wasting time and money. Know in advance, and remember, one of the most common misconceptions is that an intense sport program is the same as a self-defense focus. It’s not.

Don’t buy the sales pitch of an instructor who claims that his school teaches all focuses. It is nearly impossible to learn one focus by studying another. If the school doesn’t teach what you want to learn, move on.

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