Learning martial arts can be hard work yet fun, but lack of precaution can turn a fun class into one of mishap and injury. While teaching a class, a well-trained and capable instructor would be aware of potential hazards and ensure that students train within specific rules, in order to avoid them.
In full contact martial arts training, a qualified and competent instructor will create an environment which cultivates a fighting spirit yet, encourage an atmosphere of healthy competition among the students. When engaging in sparring, students are taught to engage with maximum effort and at times push beyond their limits, but at the same time consider the well-being of their fellow students.
I have come across more than one instructor, who has adhered to the golden rule “safety first in martial arts training” and rightly so. My Sambo instructor, uses me to demonstrate throws frequently, most likely because I am one of the lighter students in the class. In the early days I would become tense as soon as I felt his grip, he would sometimes laugh and say “relax, I’m not going to hurt you. If I do then you won’t be able to come to class, less fees for me.”
My instructor usually comes across as a simple and jovial person, yet there is always underlying wisdom in his humor. In this instance his message was that nobody in the club benefits from injury, and prevention methods should always be used when training.
Negligence and Recklessness in Training
In the past I have attended classes where instructors would allow inexperienced students to spar bare knuckled and at full force. There are many opinions on whether this is the right way or not, while I understand the objective of such training methods, I also disagree with them.
On more than one occasion, I have received a punch to the face during what was supposed to be a light sparring session, only to be told “sorry”. “Sorry” does not fix a broken nose or a black eye, and it definitely does not cover the dental bill.
Inexperienced students tend to lack control. An instructor may turn blue in the face giving instructions to two unseasoned students while they engage in what is supposed to be light contact sparring, in most cases the end result is two tensed individuals becoming entangled in a clumsy, chaotic and potentially dangerous frey.
In some karate dojos, students are awarded black belts (dan rank) signifying that they have made it through the basics of the system and are ready to move on to the more advanced training as well as teach aspects of the system to the lower ranking students. The head of the school may usually have the most confidence in these higher ranked students, and lower ranked students may look up to them as examples of what they too can achieve.
It might astonish some to learn that there are dojos which quickly award their students with senior ranks despite the fact that they lack skill and refinement, and in some cases, these senior ranked students attempt unprotected sparring with other students. In my opinion, this is carelessness on the part of the head of the school and a sure sign of a shoddy dojo. (yes, I am “throwing shade.”)
I remember an instance where a student broke his leg because of this irresponsible practice and spent more than a year in rehabilitation.
Because of my view on this I have been criticized by some who share opposite views, in that they believe martial arts to be the ultimate test of toughness, and that from the very beginning students should be exposed to the unforgiving grind of “hard style” training.
I agree that training should be realistic and tough (or at least progressively so), and that in full contact training, there will always be the risk of injury. However, I also think that disregarding safety rules during training is as foolish and unrealistic as not training at all, yet expecting to excel in a particular discipline. For a student, one injury can put an end to all martial arts practice for a very long time if not for a lifetime.
Martial arts, protective gear exists for a reason. It allows the martial artist to spar effectively while reducing the risks of injury and the resulting hindrance of long term recuperation. Below are what I consider to be basic yet important pieces of protective gear for both novices and seasoned practitioners of full contact martial arts.
MOUTHGAURDS FOR MARTIAL ARTS TRAINING
Mouthguards are mandatory pieces of equipment in most full contact and semi contact sports. In my opinion mouth guards for martial arts training are as essential as hiking shoes for hiking or a climbing harnesses for rock climbing.
Every fight puts a fighters face at risk, and it only takes one wild hay maker from an opponent to permanently affect how one smiles and talks. Having oral surgery is not as pleasant as preventing it altogether, and in cases where it becomes a need, there may be a question of affordability, depending on the healthcare system as well as the financial status of the person in need.
Two most common mouthgaurds are:
Stock mouth guards: Generic, standard sized mouthgaurds which cannot be adjusted and as a result they may or may not fit comfortably around the teeth.
Boil and bite mouthgaurds: Boil and bite mouthgaurds can be softened with hot water, placed in the mouth, and are molded around the wearers teeth.
Apart from these two options there is also the custom-made mouthgaurd which is created from a dentist’s impression of the teeth. These mouthgaurds tend to be the most well-made of the three and because of this they are usually the most costly option.
GROIN PROTECTION CUP
Classmate: Do you have kids?
Classmate: Do you want kids?
Me looking at him suspiciously: I dunno, why you ask?
Classmate hitting me in the groin: Better get yourself a cup, buddy!
Initially I would often underestimate the importance of a groin protection cup, and somehow, I would be reminded of how necessary it is to wear one in order to avoid the shock, abdominal pain and cold sweat which would usually come all at once as a result of testicular trauma.
Even while wearing a cup, there is no guarantee of full protection from a direct strike to the groin. A common mishap associated with the protective cup occurs when it does not fit the wearer properly, A strike or heavy pressure to the groin area, may cause the hard plastic side of the cup to pinch either the flesh or actual testicle of the wearer.
Despite the possibility of this excruciating experience, wearing a protective cup when sparring is a safer and smarter way to go. There are different models of protective cups, all work to shield the groin from injury. An athlete should choose one which fits comfortably while at the same time stays strapped tight enough so that pinching is avoided.
There are also female protective cups which are shaped differently in order to protect the female groin muscle. Honestly, I don’t know much about them at the moment save for the fact that some wearers find them useful while others find them uncomfortable and useless.
MARTIAL ARTS CHEST GUARD
The purpose of the chest guard is to protect the chest, solar plexus, rib cage, and all the vital organs held within the area of the human torso. There are many types of chest guards. Some are heavy and bulky and therefore will offer protection from powerful strikes, yet restrict mobility. In contrast, some are light and more pliable, yet they may lack the ability to absorb as much shock as the thicker, heavier chest guards.
Like some of the other protective equipment, and martial arts equipment in general, variations of the chest guard are used by a number of styles of martial arts as well as other contact sports.
MARTIAL ARTS SPARRING HEADGEAR
There is an increasing awareness of the long term effects of receiving repeated concussions in martial arts and contact sports in general. Athletes who have repeatedly received head trauma have exhibited everything from mild memory impairment to accelerated Alzheimers disease.
While there are athletes who have suffered repeated concussive injuries and seemed to have escaped a dilibitating fate, the fact remains that effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in full contact sports such as boxing and mixed martial arts are continuously being scrutinized by a number of medical associations.
The purpose of martial arts sparring headgear is to protect the skull from potentially heavy blows which may cause long term damage. Headgear designs vary. Some, such as amateur boxing helmets may be padded by a high density fabric and cover parts of the face such as the cheekbones and chin, while others such as headgear used in Karate and kickboxing may not be as heavily padded yet in some cases provide a face shield made of clear,hard plastic.
It should be noted that martial arts sparring headgear will limit the impact of strikes to the head but are not guaranteed protection from cuts bruises and knockouts. Even when equipped with protective gear, due attention and care must be given in order to reduce the possibility of injuries with long term effects.
The human body is not a sack of sand or a heavy bag, and it is not designed to take continuous punishment without eventual negative consequences.
I met a teacher of Chinese martial arts who at the time was in his 80s, he confided that in his youth, he practiced Judo on bare concrete and now regretted engaging in what he now describes as “such mindless, reckless and foolish behavior”. At one time his body seemed to be able to tolerate constant falls and breakfalls on the hard, damp concrete surface, but with time, this took its toll on his back, hips, shoulders, and other joints. Now he gets treated with acupuncture and physiotherapy regularly in order to move around comfortably.
Many argue that there have been martial artists in the past who put their bodies through torturous training only to become extremely well conditioned fighters as a result. While this is true, it should be pointed out that many of these martial artists lived in entirely different cultures and during entirely different eras. In some cases, a person could give up everything and dedicate his/her life to studying an art. This was a different way of life from which most of us in the modern era are used to. Apart from this there is also evidence that many of these practitioners had superlative knowledge of traditional healing arts.
Professional martial artists of today go through some of the most intense and physically demanding training, possibly moreso than athletes of other disciplines. Yet despite the grueling training, emphasis is always placed on safety, proper nutrition and allowing the body to recover when necessary.
In my opinion, being a mentally and physically healthy person who casually practices martial arts is better than being a single-minded practitioner with excessive zeal who through training recklessly, both suddenly and gradually damages bones, joints, tissue, nerves and tendons, and in the end only succeeds in harming his/her body beyond repair, all in the name of becoming a skilled martial artist.