Update: my blog entry below is a really stupid rant. This article from a Systema view is really quite awesome.

If you are looking for martial arts or self-defense training, just like when you are shopping for anything else, you should be aware of the kinds of marketing messages you may hear. When I read the marketing messages of martial arts schools, I am a little amused and a little irked. Other than being masters of a specific skillset, remember that these people are ordinary people like you and me. They are also sellers in a marketplace and so need to make some statements to promote their services. Now, they are not expert marketers who’ve invested millions in quantitative and behavioral research and in brilliant ad campaigns with slogans like “just do it”. As such, their messages are a bit crude and you should be able to see through them and think about what you really want from the martial arts training you seek. Here are a few ideas to help you examine these messages:

Reality-based marketing messages:

Scare tactics. Scary stuff can happen. You need “real” self-defense based on skills tested in the street, real combat, etc. We only teach stuff that can save your life.

What they don’t seem to acknowledge:
Who are they targeting? Law enforcement? Actual combatants (soldiers)?
Also, they often seem anti-combat sports, saying that those things are actually bad for you and fail to acknowledge they have many benefits.

Ask yourself:
Are the benefits you’re going to get from this training what you seek? Are you really in the same market niche? What does it matter what law enforcement or soldiers get from the training if you are not one of those people? If you want to know what works for combat, ask real combatants. Don’t just listen to one person trying to sell you something no matter how amazingly good his stories, tales, and legends are. We all love these stories but do they apply to you?

Self-defense is about emergency preparedness. How paranoid do you want/need to be on a daily basis? Or are you developing or indulging martial arts fantasy syndrome? If you are fantasizing about martial arts, you need to realize that. If you want or need self-defense emergency preparedness skills, you need more than physical, technical skills. Do they have training for awareness, simulating scenarios and threats, training in different environments, simulating fight or flight responses, e.g., with sudden loud music to create stress and confusion, how to get help, what to tell the police, legal ramifications of your actions, etc.? Perhaps you can take a seminar with local law enforcement?

Sport-based marketing messages:
Do techniques under pressure so you’ll be confident they work. “Deadly” and “dirty” tactics can work better on top of this base. You can’t train “deadly” or “dirty” tactics with your training partners because you won’t actually hurt each other in such a way or you can’t keep training.

What they don’t seem to acknowledge:
Some other training for emergencies that usually does not involve training with the “live” real thing is still valuable and needed: Fires: stop, drop and roll, practicing escaping a burning building (without setting it on fire, duh). Car handling: anti-skid maneuvers, tire blow out, how to pull to the shoulder, Life saving: CPR, Heimlich maneuver. Sparring may develop bad habits for these situations as the reality-based folks point out.

Ask yourself:
Are the benefits you’re going to get from this training what you seek? Fitness? Fun? Doing things under pressure? Are there other concerns you want to address? (See above about self-defense).


Common sense should tell you there are some good arguments in both of these marketing messages and they are likely offering you something real that can help with what you seek, but the promoters can also take their own hype way too far. If they can’t calmly acknowledge the questions that aren’t really answered above, be careful of dogma. You are seeking some benefits, not to become indoctrinated in a certain dogmatic point of view. Not being able to see things “as they are” is supposedly a problem martial arts are supposed to help with, not exacerbate. Remember, the sellers are trying to make a buck and have a vested interest in their particular marketing message. There is no reason as a consumer you can’t carefully consider these messages without prior knowledge of the actual technical material. You should be able to think about the argument they’re trying to promote and whether it fits your specific needs/wants as a prospective consumer of their services. Perhaps you can take self-defense training with local law enforcement? (I have nothing to do with any providers of any of these services by the way). If you’re looking for more, perhaps you can study all of the above? Their training may be more compatible with the other approaches than they claim when they’re competing for students (and may assume students will only choose one route). Usually any instructor or school will let you have one or more free classes so you can experience for yourself what kind of training they do. Be aware of what you’re looking for and want and don’t be taken in and seduced by marketing messages. Don’t believe all the hype. Find out more and decide for yourself.