For the longest time, I have regarded the study of martial arts as the equivalent of wearing a seatbelt when I drive. I hope that it will never be needed, but I want it to be there if the worst happens. After years of examining various styles and weighing up their effectiveness, I chose Wing Chun, but I believe the principles, or mindset, behind an art are arguably more important than the choice of art.
Over the years, I have seen many masters of various fighting styles perform, and I have a good idea of which are the most effective styles for self protection. I have noticed a common thread, and it ties in with my own experience of using traditional martial arts in violent confrontations. In most martial arts classes, the first thing they will teach you is how to hit. The skill of the masters, and a quality present in all the most effective arts for self protection, is the ability to avoid being hit.
There's something known as the "sledgehammer" theory of martial arts. This translates to hitting an attacker as hard as possible, and not worrying about being too accurate. My own approach would be to hit hard enough to stun, so that the heavy artillery can follow. An overly hard first strike will compromise my balance, and it is the strike which is most likely to be intercepted by a block or nullified by a slip or duck. If my first punch hits, then that is fine - I can follow it with more. If it misses or is blocked, however, and all my effort has gone into that first strike, I am compromised.
I also believe that movements should be trained with as little muscular tension as possible. I deliberately slow down and soften my movements during training. To some this would seem like madness, but I would remind you of a factor which arises during a fight - adrenaline. The natural tendency during a fight is to stiffen, use our strength and move more quickly than we thought possible. This is made possible by our heart pumping blood around our bodies more quickly, our lungs drawing more air into them and other physiological differences brought on by the stress of the situation. Unfortunately, our fine motor skills can suffer too. So, we may stiffen and our fine motor skills may suffer. I have found that the best way to counter this is to train in a relaxed manner, so that a response of relative calm and fluidity of movement is programmed into us.
There is also much argument about whether grappling styles are effective for self protection. It is widely accepted that fighting on the ground is something that should be avoided, if possible, as it entails creating a vulnerability to other attackers. The attacker who works alone is a rare beast, unfortunately. My own position on this is that grappling has its place, but my preference is for those movements to be fleeting, transitional movements to another strike. If I ever get brought to the ground, my life will probably depend on me getting up off the floor as quickly as possible.
My main point, however, is the importance of defence. The vast majority of attacks will be ambushes - totally unexpected by the intended victim. The likelihood is that stopping that attack reaching its target will be the first priority, and this requires training of blocks, parries, deflections and evasive manoeuvres. This is what I have seen from the true masters. Their defences are impenetrable. A punch is a punch, a kick is just a kick and a head butt, elbow or knee strike are the same, regardless of the level of mastery. The master can, however, fire these attacks at will, because he has trained his defensive skills to the point where they require no thought. All of his conscious effort is directed to firing an attack through a gap in his opponent's defences, because his own defences are like a solid wall.
I will not tell you that one style is better than another. Let's leave that to the kids who fill the internet with that kind of nonsense and have probably not had exposure to any art, or too few to make an informed decision. How you train your style, and the quality of your tuition, is much more important. Saying that one is better than another is foolish at best, and irresponsible at worst. If, however, you find that your instructor places too much emphasis on attack, take the time to concentrate on defensive movements in your time away from the class.