Training high impact martial arts while maintaining low injury rate

Image courtesy and Copyright Duncan Grisby 2010

Martial arts are mostly designed and conceived as fighting systems.  Fighting is about hurting other people so it is about delivering intense blows to another person; anybody training realistically risks hurting or getting hurt during sessions.  Some styles like Judo were in fact conceived to reduce the risk of injuries by removing the most dangerous techniques from its ancestor: Ju Jitsu.  Other styles limit the teaching and practicing of dangerous techniques to advanced students or simply avoid full contact training or sparring.  Realistically speaking training with a certain level of contact and impact is necessary for anyone competing at full but also light contact level.

Training “full on” and maintaining a safe training environment creates a dilemma that troubles many martial arts clubs and some of them take one position in the spectrum of the impact vs. safety curve: some on the safe and sometimes unrealistic, particularly for those who want to use martial arts for self defence while others take it to an extreme and have a very high number of injuries some times serious ones.  Kickboxing and many other styles that are practiced wearing pads offer the advantage of covering some of the “weapons” like fists and feet so that they ensure a safer training practice.  In my experience of over 3 decades of training Kickboxing and other martial arts I definitely seen many incidents but, considering that we spend several hours per week kicking and punching each other, often at full power, the number of serious damages is negligible.  In the over 13 years I have been running CARISMA, my club in Cambridge, I can remember very few (3-4) broken noses, a few broken or cracked ribs (less then 10), a couple of swollen feet.  We obviously have the occasional, once per month or less, black eye and regular bruises, mostly on the arms when people receive attacks and block with their guard.  All in all I am sure we are safer than most football or rugby club.

Some Kickboxing clubs spend most of their times hitting focusing mitts and Thai pads; that a great way of practicing power while minimising the risk of injuries.  Personally I am a strong believer in one-2-one training combining attack and defence techniques and combinations that emulate the sparring environment.  I find that pad work is mostly conditioning body and mind to simply face a passive opponent that invites you to hit a target.  The pair training also helps improving defence reflexes together with blocking and parrying skills.

In my experience a proven formula to ensure a safe full contact training environment is to teach people to actively block the attacks they are subject to by using active blocks and parries rather than passively accepting blows on their guard.  This last strategy is taught as the last resource that people should use when in extreme difficulty.  When teaching blocks to beginners we always start from the technique with bare hands to show the exact mechanical movement involved and how to minimize the impact on one’s body while deflecting as much and possible the forces rather than absorbing them onto his/her own body.  Then, when gloves are worn, they add extra safety to the whole situation and further minimise the risk of bruises and scratches.  Many thousand repetitions later all movements become instinctive and automatic and they can work even at full speed and power.  Sparring obviously increases the risk of incidents and injuries but, once more, if students have very clear ideas about precise blocking the whole process becomes as safe as it can be although never 100% incident free.

One-off Self Defence lesson

MarkerPenHaving been training martial arts for over 3 decades I struggle to consider the concept of a one-off self defence lesson for an untrained student but last week I tried delivering one.

It all started when my friend Vicky asked for help after being attacked by an ex colleague, a large and tall guy with some serious mental issues.  After several episodes of increasingly violent verbal abuse on the street he finally decided to swing a punch at her.  Vicky was fast enough to dodge the attack and nothing else happened but she was obviously very shaken and scared when it happened.

When she asked for my help I was obviously prepared to offer my knowledge and expertise but I immediately clarified how martial arts need to be learnt and assimilated over a long period of time so the right kind of reaction becomes automatic and natural.  Apart from technique and reflexes martial art also offer two key factors:

  • the mental training to rationalise a dangerous situation in order to react in a calmer and more effective way
  • the necessary fitness and physical conditioning to fight back

I though I could try compressing a few basic concepts aimed at helping Vicky to increase her level of personal safety and security, all in one hour session.  Vicky is in her early forties, physically fit by spending regular time in the gym but she never practiced any martial art or fighting sport; she is medium built, about 1.70m tall and she often wearing shoes with high hills.

We started the lesson as a set of conversations where we discussed scenarios and possibilities.  I often teach that the best physical self defence could be considered when you can run away; wearing high hills reduces this possibility by a fair amount.  I suggested having a conscious awareness, when walking, of the type of floor she is walking on to understand how slippery it would be if a fast movement, sprint or other action was required.  The very best self defence is to avoid the danger altogether so we started enlisting how to improve personal security when travelling, when at home and when out both for work or socialising.  Increasing awareness about the environment and where a potential attacker could be hiding will reduce the chance of an attack to the absolute minimum.  Without becoming obsesses we should mentally rehears situations when an attacker could be behind a corner or in a dark alley or in a park behind a tree; this will gradually educate the mind to consider and evaluate various what/if scenarios.

For practicality I suggested to consider having handbags with a long strap so they can hang from a shoulder and both hands could be available at all times for both attacking and defending. Some people suggest having an acoustic alarm, a pepper spray and/or a small object that can be used as a weapon when things get difficult.  A pen could be a good weapon; I have nothing against it but it can easily break (unless you use a metal one) and, if used to hit the wrong place it could potentially kill an attacker… a bit too extreme.  For me a big and thick permanent marker (or whiteboard pen), used in a hammer fist punch, could be a great weapon reducing the risk described above.  In general the law states that each self defence action should use reasonable force… a very grey area indeed. I warned my one-off student that any action she takes against an attacker could have legal repercussions for her if she injures the other person.

Vicky and I then started playing a bit physical; we first worked of the very attack she was recently victim of.  Most street attackers, when untrained in martial arts, will attack by swinging punches in a very broad and circular motion.  For the untrained person that is what feels as the most powerful attack.  I am always pleased to have this theory confirmed when, once in a while, I witness a street fight, usually late at night, among drunken.  The swinging punch could be dangerous if it hits you in the face but, luckily, it is very easy to block or even to dodge as Vicky already demonstrated.  For the swinging punch I suggested using blocks similar to Pak Sau from wing chun.  By turning the centre of gravity and walking slightly toward the punch we can actually neutralise even a very strong punch delivered by a much heavier opponent (as it is usually the case when a woman is fighting a man).  It took just a few minutes for Vicky to pick up the technique and apply it well and with the right timing.  It took a bit longer for her to relax when she saw me attacking her with increasing power, despite the attacks were controlled and would not hurt her even if she completed miss the block.

We then tried to familiarise with the concept that an attacked could sneak out of a corner and grab her with the intention of pulling her toward a concealed place or in his car; we worked on a couple of defences from wrist/forearm grabs.  We also briefly worked on a strangling position from behind.  To simply explore on attacking technique I showed how a hammer punch delivered in a descending motion toward the head, face or collarbones could be more effective and devastating than a jab or a cross that would require months or years of training and conditioning.  I here realised how for Vicky it was painful to hit the palm of my hand with medium strength so presumably delivering a really hard blow it would be excruciating.

I completed the session by suggesting to have a friend to practice these techniques and rehears them until they become second nature; I invited her to come back to me with questions as all the concepts clear and fresh in her mind at the end of the session would quickly start fading and become blurry and less obvious as time passes by.

Being used to teach to students which are with me for the medium or long period I always like to approach each concept gradually and ensure that the student can assimilate it well.  Here I had to really squeeze lots of concepts in a very short time.  I noticed how strange it could be for a person not used to martial arts training the simple concept of being grabbed, held, punched and other violent situations that are somewhat familiar and everyday practice for people that are training martial arts regularly.