The difficulty in differentiating between martial arts. by: James Garforth

What are the major differences between martial arts?

This question is undoubtedly important, given that it may steer the decision being made by an individual that wishes to take their first steps into the ‘martial world’.

Over the past week or so I have seen a number of articles that attempt to highlight the differences, some through prose, and some through the use of tables to ‘categorise’ key features and characteristics. Whilst this is not a direct response to any particular article, the issue I have is that when you begin to ‘categorise’ martial arts, you start to create boundaries with regards to what you can expect to find within each of them.

My biggest concern came when I saw people trying to quantify what you can expect to see, for example “Karate contains 60% usage of the hands, and 40% usage of the feet, in contrast to TaeKwonDo where you will find that it is more like 75-80% usage of the feet, and only 20-25% usage of the hands“.

I would like to initially dismiss this statement, at least from my perspective, as categorically false. There is virtually no feasible way for any individual to quantify and make such sweeping statements. Martial arts focus on the development and refinement of a repertoire of techniques, that can be used in an appropriate situation. Every student of a martial art will have favorite and least favorite techniques, that they will apply in these given situations.

To illustrate my point, within the ‘GodoRyu Karate’ association, we have 4th Dan black belts who are either particularly tall or particularly proficient at kicking, and therefore when sparring you will predominantly be held at a safe distance with such techniques. On the other hand my 6th Dan instructor, who is shorter in stature, prefers to work on the inside with mawashi tsuki (hook punches), empi (elbow strikes), grappling techniques, and hiza geri (knee strikes). In a much broader sense Kyokushinkai Karate, is particularly proficient in kicking techniques, but also focuses on hand strikes at shorter distances.


As a student of business strategy and marketing, I like to attempt to draw links between the issues that I see within the martial arts world and that which I have learned through my academic studies. This particular issue of categorising martial arts and the dangers that come with it can be likened to the ‘competences’ of an organisation. A competence can be basically be defined as a bundle of resources that help to deliver a ‘competitive advantage’. An issue with competences is that within changing market environments they can become a ‘rigidity’, in that you have become so proficient in one area, you are now unable to adapt which can result in failure.

Now if you humour me as I somewhat tenuously extrapolate that to martial arts; a martial artist may have built a competence in kicking which gives them an advantage over individuals where there is plenty of space to keep an opponent at distance (market environment), if you change that scenario and that same individual finds themselves in a crowded pub or nightclub, their ‘competence’ in kicking is going to become a ‘rigidity’ in that they are not proficient enough to adapt to the situation.

In suggesting TaeKwonDo as a martial art, focuses 80% of its training of kicking proficiency, you are suggesting that TaeKwonDo does not fully equip you for varying scenarios – which I refuse to believe is the case.

Bruce Lee was not the first individual to consider that martial artists should focus on a variety of techniques and not become confined within the boundaries of a ‘system’ – this has always been the essence of martial arts. In doing so you allow yourself to become fully equipped for appropriate situations. It would therefore be ludicrous to suggest that any “true” martial art, would limit its students in such a way.

My point is this; when answering the question “what are the differences between martial arts” it is somewhat unjust to provide a broad stroke answer or begin to quantify what one might find.

A ‘true’ martial art provides a practitioner with a varied range of tools and techniques that can be used in order to succeed. Whilst I accept that there are relatively significant distinctions between the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ martial arts, I find it deceptive to suggest that there are such concrete differences between members of these.

Whilst nuances can be found, and an art like TaeKwonDo is renowned for its kicks.

Any significant bias towards one direction or the other, is more likely dependent upon personal preference.

If you would like to discuss this issue or would challenge this perspective I would be more than happy for you to contact me at


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