The difference between Martial Arts and Combat Sports

Traditional martial arts are not a sport – or to say it better: they are not just a sport and, according to the numerous scientific researches conducted on this subject, they can produce effects not only on health and fitness but also on one’s emotional and psychic balance, promoting, in fact, a holistic development capable of radically transforming for the better – and in all aspects – the quality of life of the practitioners.

We hear, often out of turn, about holistic disciplines. Holistic is an adjective that comes from the noun holism, a Greek word meaning “all” or “the whole” (holos). But in the western philosophical language, it ended up indicating a sort of super-totality, an object (or concept) that cannot be represented through the sum of each of its parts, because this sum would always be someway lesser than the object (or concept) itself.

The basic difference between sports and traditional martial arts has recently been defined in the field of neuroscience (Johnsone, 2018): sport is a system for increasing specific attention (AT – Attention Training). For example, those who play football (for American people: soccer) learn to improve their ability to focus attention on a ball that moves in space with variable speed and direction and to take into account, as a whole, all the positional variations of the other players. However, this skill does not necessarily come in handy, for example, during a math lesson. Traditional martial arts, as has been shown, are instead Attention State Training (AST) systems. In other words, they do not only activate specific attention but improve and enhance the state of attention, which is the ability to activate and focus one’s attention on everything. And a greater and better state of attention is something that always comes in handy: at school, at work, and in usual daily life.

Further researches then showed a correlation between the constant practice of traditional martial arts and the decrease in the rate of aggression and antisocial behaviors, with a consequent increase in the ability to regulate and manage one’s emotional states and stress tolerance. The remarkable thing is that in two different and independent studies, conducted by researchers Nosanchuk (1981) and Trulson (1986), this correlation appeared only in traditional martial arts practitioners, while it was completely absent and – pay attention! – sometimes even reversed in combat sports practitioners. In other words, in the context of these two papers, some combat sports athletes showed an increase in the states of anger, triggered by the same sports practice, and the consequent antisocial behavior.

To avoid misunderstandings and better focus on what we are talking about, it is necessary to provide some specifications. What do we mean by the expressions “traditional martial arts” and “combat sports”? Many instructors may disagree, but in the two studies quoted, the discrimination between the two types of training was defined as follows:

Traditional martial art: discipline that, in training, provides for the systematic study of forms (Kata) and fundamentals (Kihon), while contemplating a blows control dealt during the sparring (soft-contact or no-contact), the Zen meditation practice (Mokuso) and a strict formal discipline based on respect for etiquette, people and things (Reigi).

Combat sports: psycho-motor development practice focused on the search for maximum performance in competitions which generally does not involve the study of forms and in which spiritual elements, such as meditation, control, and respect for the etiquette (formal and substantially), are secondary or totally absent.

From these definitions, it is clear that the difference between traditional martial art and a combat sport is not so much the discipline itself (Karate or, for example, Kick-boxing), but the way the discipline is taught and the environmental factor in which it is practiced. By environmental factor, we mean the way the dojo or gym is managed – and for what purposes.

Hence, we could find karate instructors who live (and therefore transmit) their discipline as if it were a combat sport and boxing instructors capable of doing the exact opposite. As usual, it is not things but people that make the difference. Or, to put it down in a famous Zen motto, “it is not the Way that gives value to man, but man that gives value to the Way”.

Returning to the studies of Nosanchuk and Trulson, another difference between the constant and continuous practice of a combat sport and a traditional martial art is that, consequently, the latter will not only tend to minimize the possibility that the practitioners come attacked or bullied but also to maximize the probability that they will never become aggressors or bullies in turn. And it’s a big difference.

Whatever your thoughts about it, what seems most interesting to us is that these studies shed light on scientificity on that sensation of super-totality or holistic perception that traditional martial arts practitioners know very well. A sensation of bitter-sweet fullness which, like Yin and Yang in Taijitu, contemplates the co-presence of light and shadow, so that an increasingly sharper sense of psychophysical well-being accompanies a progressive awareness of one’s distance from perfection. And it is precisely in the acceptance of one’s limits, without ever renouncing the search for perfection, that perhaps lies the essence of the traditional approach to martial arts.

The two studies quoted:

Martial Arts Training: A Novel “Cure” for Juvenile Delinquency, Michael E. Trulson, Texas A & M University, USA.

The Way of the Warrior: The Effects of Traditional Martial Arts Training on Aggressiveness, T. A. Nosanchuk, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

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