Warriors and Magicians: Hard and Soft Martial Arts

I did a few years of Isshin-ryu karate when I was younger, before realizing that the best way to challenge myself in a (safe) one-on-one combat situation in high school was wrestling (though I wish I found boxing at that age as well).

I would call the martial disciplines that involve full-on sparring “hard martial arts” and those that focus more on solo drills, kata, and light sparring “soft martial arts”. I feel like both have a lot of benefits and draw backs, but it’s important to draw that distinction.

I had to delete and rewrite the following sentences because my natural inclination is to be critical of karate and similar martial arts, at least in the way they are most commonly taught in America (as a soft martial art). I’ll focus on the positive. My karate education helped me develop confidence, self-awareness, balance, speed, discipline, etc. What it didn’t do was make me a better fighter. I think, in theory, it can, but the emphasis was just not there. I competed a lot (both sparring and kata) and when I finally got around to finding a boxing gym, I learned more from the first time working the pads and the heavy bag, than I did from all that time in karate. That solidified in my mind, rightly or wrongly, the difference between soft and hard martial arts, between kung fu and muay thai, between aikido and judo. I know many people will disagree, but I’m strictly speaking from my own experience.

I bet if I went back to karate (or similar martial arts) now, I would get a lot more from it, which is just another reminder to expand your horizons in training and in life. Karate doesn’t have to be a fighting art to be beneficial. It can be a way to improve agility, flexibility, speed, and other characteristics that can be useful for the hard martial arts like muay thai, boxing, no-gi grappling, and wrestling. I mean look at the following intense demos:

In some ways, that’s a form of dancing, because there is little hard sparring. But I’m sure there are a lot of benefits that are transferable. Unfortunately, any art that lacks sparring, suffers from the danger of potentially over-feeding the ego. One of the reason I love jiu jitsu and judo is that my ego is constantly brought back down to reality with every hard training session when someone inevitably smashes my body into the ground or chokes me into near unconsciousness.

0 thoughts on “Warriors and Magicians: Hard and Soft Martial Arts

  1. Phil W.

    I agree with the ego-checking thing. When I was practicing Ninjitsu it seemed like all we did was spar- almost no forms. But the ego thing works both ways. If you pair a brown belt up with a white belt to spar, the brown belt is the one who is getting his/her ego checked, while the white belt is getting an ego boost, no matter what the “result”. They both get what they need.

  2. lubo

    I don’t mean to offend anyone but the difference between karate philosophy as it is delivered in USA and that in Europe is this: (as I heard it lately somewhere on TV) America is one big corporation, working for profit and thus selling – whatever it may be. If it takes to sell belts then so be it – karate clubs sell belts, one rank every 3 months(?) to please kids and their parents.

    On the other hand European karate (don’t know the rest of the world) delivers the essence, the true philosophy. It took me exactly 8 years at 4 x a week training to get my shodan and another 5 years to get my nidan in Goyu ryu karate.


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