The Purpose of Self-Defense in Tang Soo Do (Karate)

In part 7 of this series, I will be going over the purpose of self-defense, ho sin sul, and how this aspect of Tang Soo Do training fits into the global self-defense system.  It can be somewhat confusing when referring to ho sin sul as self-defense; isn’t the entire art of Tang Soo Do for self-defense?  Ho sin sul is a relatively loose translation to self-defense.  Typically, ho sin sul is meant to correspond to grabs or techniques against close range attacks.  As with everything else we do in Tang Soo Do, ho sin sul are not stand-alone self-defense techniques.  They are yet another piece of the overall puzzle.

Self-defense training is an intricate part of karate
Ho sin sul is often referred to as self-defense

As with one step sparring and basic techniques, when observed by an outsider, some self-defense techniques look rather silly.  Beginner level techniques such as simple wrist grabs do not appear very realistic from an outsider’s perspective.  No one will just grab your wrist and stand there!  You’re correct, but there is a reason for all of this, and I will go over the purpose of self-defense techniques in more detail.

Where does self-defense fit in?

I have placed ho sin sul as part 7 in this series for a reason.  I feel self-defense naturally falls in place after free sparring.  Think about it like this:

Basics –> Forms –> One Step Sparring –> Three Step Sparring –> Free Sparring –> Self-Defense

We build up all of the skills from basics to free sparring to strike, move, and defend from a distance in order to not get hit or grabbed.  Self-defense starts to teach you what to do when someone is able to get a hold of you.  In essence, you failed in some way and your opponent got a hold of you.  I’m not saying you should wait to teach self-defense until after you’ve introduced free sparring.  There are many simple self-defense techniques that can be introduced very early on.  I am also not saying that there are not some aspects to forms that involve grabs when looking at applications.  Students typically do not get heavily involved in the applications of forms until well after they have done self-defense techniques.

So, with all of this in mind, the purpose of self-defense in karate is to teach the following items. When combined with the rest of the aspects of Tang Soo Do a complete self-defense system is achieved.

Self-defense is still only one part of martial arts
Ho sin sul is still only one piece of the overall self-defense puzzle

Close range

As mentioned briefly already, ho sin sul teaches techniques from close range.  Usually at close range we are more concerned with grabs over strikes, although knees and elbows are still a concern. The vast majority of techniques in other areas are limited to striking and evading.  Ground, grappling, and weapons techniques are also included in ho sin sul training.  Ho sin sul gives students options and knowledge for when the striking distance is breached.

How joints work

Elbows, wrists, shoulders, knees, ankles, and fingers.  Ho sin sul teaches students how to utilize your opponent’s joints to inflict pain/discomfort in order to remain safe.  Most techniques show one rather simple lock or joint manipulation.  After years of training, students have a broad knowledge of how joints work and can use the technique appropriate for the given situation.


All areas of training teach us control in some way.  However, self-defense adds a layer of control to the mix.  Varying the power of a kick or pulling a punch short is one example that is used often.  When doing self-defense however, students learn how to vary pressure on joints or the neck for chokes in order to maintain compliance but not causing permanent damage.  Students also get to feel how the technique is done when practicing with another student.


In the most simplistic sense, self-defense teaches students how to get free from someone’s grip.  It sounds like a no brainer to a martial artist, but you would be surprised how many people cannot get free when someone grabs them.  Whether being grabbed by the wrist, elbow, shoulder, or other location, it is actually counterintuitive to get free.


This is an area I feel needs some attention.  I call this “what if” training.  We all have had a white belt student say, “well, what if they do…”  While this is annoying, it also has merit.  In most places, ho sin sul training consists of 1 technique per grab (sometimes 2).  This is very problematic in my opinion.  Take a headlock for instance.  An attacker could be punching, cranking, or trying to throw you.  Teaching one technique to defend against these 3 variations will not work.  Students need to learn attacker ques.  When they do this, I do this.  Not just when they grab like this.

There are many smaller overlooked things self-defense teaches us
One purpose of self-defense is to teach us how joints work

I will end this post with some controversy.  When you get a black belt, you do not know how to defend yourself.  Sorry.  All you have done is learned all of the things required to start learning how to defend yourself.

That is why I feel black belt level training should be mostly forms, sparring, and self-defense.  There should be a lot of analysis of forms techniques to understand how to use them.  Strategy in sparring to understand effective fighting skills at the striking range.  Going through all the what if scenarios of various attacks and grabs.  Lastly, at the black belt level, practitioners should be putting it all together as well.  Combine sparring and self-defense grabs into a simulated, controlled fight situation.

That all may seem like a daunting, endless task but, isn’t that what training in martial arts is supposed to be?

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply