What is the difference between a martial art and sports?

This is a question that someone asked me. It really is a common question and a good one. So here is a essay at explaining it...

>        I have been interested in Martial Arts since I was a young
> child but my parents could never afford to send me to classes. I have
> recently renewed my interest in the Martial Arts and was wondering if
> you could answer the following question? I would like to know what is
> the difference between sports and martial arts? If you could help
> explain this to me I would greatly appreciate it.

What is the difference between Martial Arts and Sports? This is a good question. There are many differences and many similarities. To answer your question I'm going to go back a little bit and think about the history and think about the motivations for sports and martial arts. Then we'll do some comparison/contrast between the two, and give a final kind of summary answer.

Historically the purpose for Martial Arts rose out of three classes of people. Royalty, the military, and the peasants. The military of course needed training to use weapons (of all sorts, including bare hands if they lost their sword) to defeat their enemy. A lot of the Chinese Martial arts includes training in many exotic weapons that were at one time used by the military. Royalty trained in the martial arts for discipline, to develop their will, learn strategy of combat, and to hopefully be better able to defend themselves from an assassination attempt. Tai Chi was invented by a Kung Fu instructor to a person of royalty. He had to find methods to teach his master, who was not overly athletic or skillful. The peasants just needed to be able to defend themselves against robbers or military attacks. For example the peasants in Okinawa were at one time forbade to carry weapons. And the military (the Samari) were really getting into roughing the peasants up. So they created methods of fighting with empty hands and weapons available. Most of the weapons associated with "Karate" are in fact agricultural implements that the Okinawan's used to defend themselves. Numchucks were used to thresh grain, the Kama was to harvest grain, etc. Actually there are also traditional forms of fighting with a boat oar. But, not looking cool, very few people still practice it today.

Anyway, the point of this is, that originally the purpose of martial arts training was quite clear. Coming up with, and training in methods of fighting that could be used in combat, or self defense against the military, assassins, or thieves. They may have staged competitions as well, but the goal was to learn to fight over learning to compete in a contest. Now a change that occurred in the 1900's or so, was a focus more on the spiritual, mental goals rather than the military goals. Most martial arts today, have as one of the main goals of bettering the individual. And to emphasize this most martial arts now have the name "Do" at the end. Do meaning art way or method. so Judo, Karate-Do, Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, Kendo, etc. The fighting only martial arts in some cases have the Jutsu (at least the Japanese) at the end, hence Ju-Jutsu, Ken-Jutsu, Aiki-Jutsu etc.

Now the purpose of sport is competition. To excel at the game bound by the rules of the particular sport. To display (to the spectators) a thrilling game well played. To improve ones own abilities, by learning to compete to win, honestly, and fairly.

Now, some comparison/contrast. The purpose of Martial Arts, is to learn/practice practical fighting skills to defend one-self against military, or criminal opponents, and as a path to better oneself, mentally, physically, and spiritually (by development of will). While the purpose of sport is to provide thrilling display of competition, and while doing so to better oneself. Ok, now. Martial Arts have a sport component, most martial arts now have competitions. So most martial arts also have a sportive component. And at this level they are no different from other sports. There's a set of rules and people compete within those rules. The rules are set up for safety, to emphasize the types of techniques they want to make it exciting, and for fairness. Thus there are sex, age, weight and skill classes to make the competitions as evenly matched as possible. There are also techniques that are thrown out to make it more safe for competitors. And there are rules set down to make to more exciting. Modern Tae Kwon Do has disallowed punching to the face, and gives more points to kicks to the head. This forces the game to be played with lots of exciting kicks. Sport Judo has rules which emphasize the cool flips and throws to make it more exciting. Boxing has rules so that the fighters are constantly throwing punches, as they don't have to worry about kicks or low punches, or getting thrown to the ground, and again this is done to make the match more exciting.

Now contrast this with martial arts training, where the point is to get useful fighting skills. When fighting for my life the last thing I want to do is to make it fair! I want to get as much advantage in my favor as possible. And most likely if someone is going to attack me, they are going to want to put as much favor on their side as well. So I'm not likely to fight against someone in my own weight class. If I'm doing sport oriented fighting I want to do most of my fighting against people in my own weight class, but for self defense training I want to train against all classes. So martial arts classes have you train against opponents that are much much larger or smaller and in the whole spectrum of skill and ability. Now in fighting for my life I want to learn how to get an advantage. So I want to learn how to fight dirty, and I want to learn how to use as many available weapons as possible (including things like sticks, sand, a knife, cane etc.), and I want to learn when and how to get out without getting killed! In sports I have to obey the rules, I can't use things unavailable to my opponent, and I have to stay in for the duration. So while most martial arts have a certain set of "rules" for training, they are also always considering the "rules of the street" (i.e.. no rules). And we point out what works under a certain set of rules, but what the outcome is on the street, and sometimes we change the set of rules to emphasize other aspects. And we do different sets of exercises that teach skills that are useful "on the street". We may practice kicking solo, at knee level, or groin level, etc. While with our partner we obviously do not do the same. Or we may practice eye gouge or throat strike, but not to our partner. So martial arts training includes lots of different exercises that are intended to keep training safe, but simulate in different ways actual fighting. While in sports you are always look at how to take advantage of the rules and you never bother with thinking about "what if the rules were different".

Now a secondary goal of both sport and martial arts is improvement of the individual. Some of the ways this is accomplished is the same, by development of athletic skill. Martial arts training also includes training in respect, honor, integrity and a moral code. Obvious to the above statement of learning "dirty" techniques is that I must do so only when my life is threatened, we don't want to go around teaching criminals. So an integral part of martial arts training is training in a moral code of ethics. When to fight when not to etc. Funakoshi the father of modern Shotokan Karate, said "Karate is for self defense only" and "There is no first strike in Karate". His point was that I use Karate for self defense not to be a bully. Sports don't always include moral training, martial arts by nature have to. Now another point of contrast is that sports expect excellence out of people, and many times require meeting certain minimum requirements before one can enter. For example, I have to be picked to get on the team, and I have to prove myself to do so. Most martial arts training has the attitude come one come all. If I was trying to get the best team I try to start with the best athletes, but with martial arts I train those that have an interest. And everyone, has a need to defend themself. As pointed out under my Philosophy section on the web page...

"A Karate class is not a stage upon which the superior talent emerges and is dramatized. The Karate class is a community of mutual responsibility where the weakest are strengthened, not where the strongest are glorified. The sensei creates within the class the commitment to cooperation and responsibility, and in this atmosphere is the greatest learning made possible"

Sadaharu Kurobane (A Wado Kai Sensei in Denver)

The part about "stage upon which the superior talent emerges" is referring to sports, the second part refers to martial arts.

Rank. Another difference between sports and martial arts is how rank is recognized. Rank in sports is recognized as the number of wins. Rank in martial arts goes back to military training and some of the same discipline and formality is taught. Usually sports are more informal in this aspect. Rank in the martial arts usually corresponds to time, and individual growth and development, as well as formal testing.

So the summary in this short essay (and yes it is short we could write a whole book) is that sports are about dramatizing competition, and martial arts are about individuals of all walks learning fighting skills, and a moral code and discipline.

You probably didn't expect such a long answer, but it really is a good question and one that takes a lot of explanation to begin to carve out a answer to...

Erik Kluzek, Sep/12/1996

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