Discipline? Confidence? The instilling of virtue in the next generation? Health and fitness? Art, maybe? Sure. I'll allow all those things to be listed as the purpose of a martial art. However, all (and I do mean all) of these things take a back seat to the granddaddy purpose of them all:
Yes, fighting. Fighting is what martial arts is, for God's sake. Think about it for a moment: Self defense without fighting is learning to stay indoors and praying no one breaks in. All real martial arts have their roots in fighting. This may seem like a truism, but with the way many martial artists treat their training, you might be surprised.
I'm not here to tell you what style you should practice. I don't care what style you practice or if you practice one at all. What I am here to tell you is that if you are a martial artist and are not sparring or competing in some type of fighting event, you are missing a vital part of your training. There are valuable tools that are built in sparring, such as timing, distance, and the ability to not curl into a ball when someone attempts to rearrange your face.
A martial arts master who has never fought another human being (even in sparring) is NOT a martial arts master, regardless of the level of skill he or she possesses in breaking boards, doing kata, or what-have-you. How can I say that? Because in fighting another human being, you gain real world experience about combat that you can't gain through other means. You may have gained immense power/speed/technique from your martial arts training, but until you spar/fight with another person, there is no application to what you are doing. Sure, you may be able to drop a guy in one shot with your amazing, super special punching technique, but you don't really know that until you fight someone. You also don't know what will happen if that person just so happens to dodge.
I'm sure there are many who will disagree with me. "Oh, no! My master has been training for 30 years and has never fought with anyone!" --- Then, how do you know if anything he's teaching you works? Because that's what's important. If your style fails you when you need it the most, you might not be able to correct your mistake. You might be dead.
Whatever style you practice-- you need to spar. That means you need to spar using safety gear, so you and your partner aren't seriously injured. Minimum is gloves, mouthpiece and a cup. If you're just grappling or doing a Kyokushin spar, you can drop the gloves. You should also spar against different styles. If you are a stand up fighter, spar with grapplers. It'll let you know the limits of both your styles when matched against one another. If you're a Judo player, try a wrestler. Spar against anyone you can from any style you can. You and your partner will learn a lot.
If you want to say that sparring isn't realistic, I have two retorts. 1st- It's really the best you've got unless you want to go out picking real fights or venturing into very dangerous areas hoping to get mugged. (Shouldn't have to say this, but DO NOT DO THIS!) 2nd- Self-defense techniques where you defend a single lunge punch you know is coming and then hit your immobile opponent three times or just wailing on your Body Opponent Bag doesn't really rank up there in terms of realism, either.
Of course, if you've been reading Real Anime Training, I've always been a proponent of sparring. And how could I not be with the countless number of fights that happen in the anime that we cover. Goku spars, Kenichi spars, Ippo spars, Baki spars, and a lot of guys just pick fights, but the point is the same. If you are practicing a martial art and you are not fighting-- start now.
That's all for today guys. Until next time, good luck and train hard!