Kano Paradox – art vs sport ?

Which approach in martial arts prepares us for self-defence – traditional or sport?
This question often causes a lot of debate with traditional martial artists explaining that life threatening techniques are more useful in real life situations due to their dangerous nature. Examples of these techniques might be eye gouging, striking the throat or attacking the groin. On the other hand we have combat sport, where the opinion is that sport is better to defend yourself as constantly repeating drills gives rise to an automated response to a dangerous situation. To have a clear view on this matter I would like to have a look at the definition of three aspects:
• Traditional martial art
• Combat sport
• Self-defence
I have repeated these definitions from as I think these descriptions are accurate and nicely written.

“Martial Art: A martial art is exactly what the name suggests – an art. An art is a method of expression through application of creativity, and is typically concerned with aesthetics. As such, martial arts are often concerned with aesthetics, historical traditions, cultural customs and philosophy. These systems will often focus most of their training on one aspect of fighting, though not always. Martial arts can be traditional or modern, and different systems are often mixed into hybrid systems, usually in order to address what the instructors feel is a shortcoming of their original system. These are often termed Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), though this term is now used more for combat sports systems so many adopt the alternative term Hybrid Martial Arts (HMA) to avoid confusion. Martial arts can be thought of as a method of self-perfection rather than necessarily self-protection, though of course all martial arts training will have some real combative merit, and will often be extremely potent systems with which to protect oneself, so they should be respected as such.”


“Combat Sport: A combat sport is, again, exactly what the name suggests. If a system focuses on competition then it is a combat sport. These systems are often characterised by points-based sparring, where points may be awarded according to damage dealt, submission, knockout, etc or on aesthetic grounds, for example. Tournaments are often held on a regular basis, and the more well-known ones are the ones you see on TV and online. If training is focussed solely on fitness with any combative merits being considered secondary then that system could also be considered a combat sport.”


“Self-Defence: Self-Defence is where this topic gets confused on a regular basis, and arguably where it matters a little more pressingly. Self-Defence is a term used for reactive systems that are geared towards dealing with a combative situation by reacting to a physical attack. This includes Reality-Based Self-Defence (RBSD) systems. These systems are not concerned with aesthetics, historical traditions, cultural customs or philosophy.”

Within Traditional martial arts we have lots of ‘mysterious’ moves, deadly techniques which executed properly will give us the advantage over an attacker.  However, as there are so many of these moves there is not enough time to train them all to become a spontaneous response to an attack.  Another problem is that it is not possible to repeatedly train these techniques – I cannot imagine anyone would be willing to join a club where the students regularly test their deadly strikes on one another as we might have more students seriously injured or hospitalised than at training.

Combat sports are different in that there are no fancy movements.  Everything is efficient and has the sole purpose of winning the competition and all of the training structure is dictated by the rules of the game.  Constant repetition of combinations and drills results in the development of muscle memory and subconscious responses. This gives an advantage over an attacker, but the rules of the sport also get imprinted in our brain and this may be a disadvantage.  For example, training in a knockdown fighting system a student may not be in the habit of punching to the head (because this is not allowed in competition) and subsequently is not used to being punched to the head either.  The existence of these rules can result in a student being used to a referee intervening when a foul has been committed.  All of this can work against us in a real life confrontation.

Self-defence teaches very direct techniques to damage an opponent without strict rules. Subconscious responses are a priority and survival is the main goal.   However, from my experience most of these self-defence groups pay less attention to fitness development. Some groups that I have met also promote a psychological setup where their students believe that after two weeks of training they will be able to win in a confrontation or will be able to disarm an attacker with a knife or a gun.  This is unreal and might even put the life of the student at risk.

So which one is better?  There is no definitive answer to this question as it all depends on the individual.

Getting back to the title of this article of Mr Kano and his paradox and leaving self-defence systems aside lets have look how this paradox was created.

Picture from Wikipedia

Picture from Wikipedia

The question of “which is better traditional martial art or combat sport?” was asked to Jigoro Kano (the creator of Judo) as he removed all dangerous techniques from his Judo and focused on sports methods.  In 1886 in Tokyo a Police tournament was organised of “real fighting” where students of Kano were challenged by masters from traditional schools.  Some of the masters were from Yoshin Ryu, a leading school of Ju jutsu.  Of the 16 fights Judo players won 13, proving that Judo is better in a real fight.  This is the Kano Paradox in that Jigoro Kano had managed to create a combat sport that worked better than the traditional ‘deadly arts’ by removing all of the life and health threatening techniques.

As I am doing both an art and a sport, I have views from both sides and like to mix all the benefits and concepts from sports and traditional martial arts.  Prior to starting wrestling my only martial art was Karate and so I had focussed more on the traditional approach to self-defence.  Unfortunately during this period (in my late teens) I was unlucky enough to be involved in a few incidents on the streets of Krakow.  Some I lost and ended up with bruises and a broken nose, but most I won and so I believe that Karate did give me an advantage over my attackers.  Now that I am older and living in a quiet neighbourhood, I have no need to focus only on self-defence and so can enjoy the art of Karate and free sparring in sport.

I would recommend that people just train in whatever programme gives them the most satisfaction, and not to worry about self-defence as I would hope that in reality very few of us are ever attacked.  Any form of sport will give benefits in case of a confrontation as being proficient in sports builds confidence.  This confidence sends a signal to a potential attacker that “I am fit, strong and not a victim”.  In any case, if we are attacked it is likely that our primal instincts will take over, which will use maybe 10% of our skills…  The rest is all down to our gross and fine motor skills under stress.  In this way it all comes down to the individual – some people who have never trained in martial arts/combat sports are excellent fighters when under stress and end up winning on the street whereas we see some great masters and boxing champions being beaten up.

Thank you for reading!

12 replies »

  1. I think this is really cool, because I take martial arts, and it’s interesting to read about what other people have to say about it. In MY opinion, I think that sport would better prepare us for self defence because it has all kinds of new things in it that would be better defence against all the new techiniques that people use today.

    • Hi Logankick
      thanks for comment, I think in general yes sport is a quicker way but it depends from teacher and combat sport. So many things to have influence on our behavior that it is really hart to say – yes it is sport or yes it is art.
      Thanks again for your time 🙂

  2. There aren’t too many moves in traditional arts to have time to become proficient in. There aren’t as many as you might think because kata usually present variations of the same techniques. Simply compare various kata and you’ll see a lot of overlap. Sport styles are watered down from their historical roots and therefore the techniques have to be modified for self defense. If a Judoka beats a traditional Japanese Jiujitsu practitioner, it doesn’t mean that sport styles are better. It depends on the individual curriculum, teacher and student.

    • Hi there Nekoashido, I did not say that one is better then other, just have explained what Kano Paradox is 🙂
      Appropriate your opinion 🙂

  3. “I cannot imagine anyone would be willing to join a club where the students regularly test their deadly strikes on one another as we might have more students seriously injured or hospitalised than at training.”

    Are you saying that choke holds, head kicks, and so forth from sport styles aren’t deadly or potentially so? Literally every combat sport in existence is based either directly or indirectly on civilian defense methods or battle field arts, which themselves had to have ways to practice strikes safely. If they didn’t, how would the styles have been passed on? Anyone who says they don’t spar because their style is too lethal is either full of shit and couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag, or was fed that copout by their bullshido teacher, or both.

    • What I’m saying is that I would not join the club where instructors test techniques like toho to destroy Adams apple, or shotei to put my nose bone in to the brain or take my eyes. Other techniques like chokes you can train in safe method, how you imagine testing eye gouging in safe manner to make sure it is working? To the no sparring I agree.

      • The same way you test other techniques. You don’t literally go all out even in sparring in sport styles. That invites injury. Equipment is used when you do want to use heavy contact. For using a strike like an eye gouge you would drill it in a safe manner in partner drills and test it on rice, gravel, beans, what have you. The Okinawans have done this for hundreds of years and use other tools as well. For say, spearhand strikes, you could apply slow and light pressure with one to a compliant partner to get a feeling of the mechanics and anatomy involved without injuring them. Padding (helmet, chest protection etc.) also helps prevent injury while allowing you to use precision strikes against a moving partner.

      • Well, it does not work that way, without doing technique properly you are not able to use it in real life. You got your opinion and that is fine with me, I have expressed my opinion. All the best

      • The thing is, you can practice the technique in a simulated way and as realistically as safety allows, and still be able to use it in real life. This isn’t opinion. This is training. But we’ll have to agree to disagree.

      • Look, it doesn’t even take that much force to break bones or gouge eyes or affect a pressure point strike. Proper instruction in mechanics and partner work as well as technique specific exercise routines all but guarantee success and sufficient power in those techniques. Look at the training methods of Aikido and kyushojitsu.

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