This post is discussing the importance of contact training in martial arts, particularly in view of their effectiveness in self defence situations.
A few months back I welcomed a new student in my club: he stated to be nearly at Dan level in his club back home. He practiced a style of Korean martial art, derived from Tae Know Do and purely orientated to self defence. While he felt confident training with anybody he showed immediately to be struggling when people at intermediate level started attacking him with proper combinations of punches and kicks. His techniques and fitness preparation is good and his main limitation is the lack of practice with aggressive attackers swinging punches at him. Without speculating on his abilities or however diminishing them I feel that if faced by somebody with really bad intentions his style and preparation might have let him down.
I met and heard many people that sell their style as self defence and justify the lack of contact in their training stating that “our techniques are too dangerous to be applied for real”: fact is if you never practice a technique for real it will not work when you have to use it.
Do you know any boxer? Have you ever heard of a boxer being beaten up in the street? Boxing is considered pretty basic and very physical by most purists of martial arts and the repertoire of techniques it offers is limited to 4 punches. At the same time each techniques is pushed to its perfection and strong attention is paid to fitness and preparation; a boxer will hit hard and precisely to the point, finishing off a fight in a very short time. Boxing is by definition a contact sport, full contact, and there isn’t such a thing as a soft boxing fight.
The main purpose of contact training, whatever limitations are imposed by the rules observed, is to have a fight that resembles a realistic situation, not dissimilar to what you would find on the street. A self defence situation would surely have no rules, being everything but fair; if you have experience in sparring with a realistic level of contact it likely you are going to get out of there pretty well.
One of the most important aspects of fighting is in the mind; your mind will respond to a very basic stimulus, fight or flight, which goes back to when our ancestors were encountering fierce animals. Faced with a danger the subconscious has to take a split second decision: shall I run (best form of self defence) or stay and fight? In any case adrenaline will be released and you will be more alerted, either with improved running performance or ready for the fight. Heart beat will increase and however fit you might be you might feel short of breath after an effort that usually would not affect you at all.
Contact training, however performed in a controlled environment helps reducing the stress induced by adrenaline rush. If you are sparring regularly and therefore are often faced with individuals that have the only intention to punch you, kick you or whatever else, your mind will be get used to it and respond in a more rational and controlled way.