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.

Quality of preparation and personal safety in Boxing

Last night I watched an amateur boxing fight just outside Cambridge and I was surprised and disappointed by the low quality of the technique in the majority of the fighters.  This post is not about me being disrespectful toward those young men that had enough courage to wear their gloves and enter the ring but more as a criticism toward coaches that dare sending inexperienced fighters to fight in a potentially very dangerous sport.

Boxing is a full contact fighting sport: this means that regardless the safety measures imposed by referee and judges each strike is meant to be thrown and hit at maximum power.  Considering that the preferred target for most strikes is the face and the side of the head it is obvious that damages and injuries are likely and frequent.

In more than one occasion, during last night’s 11 bouts fighters were bleeding, the referee was counting because they were loosing it and in two cases it was a clear knock out.  In fact since the beginning of one of the fights it was pretty obvious that the two guys had no idea about how technique should be and, apart from wearing gloves and shorts, they were pretty much fighting like in any street brawl on a Saturday night.  The referee even stopped the fight at some point in the second round to indicate that swinging punching like a bar fighter was not the way to go: just about 5 seconds after I made a comment about the fact that if one of those uncontrolled punched connected it would have been a KO when it just happened, bang.  The boxer fell on his side, unconscious and did not move at all for several seconds: referee and medical officer intervened and helped him recovering.  When he regained consciousness he was looking around with the typical expression of who doesn’t know where he is.

Perhaps I am from a dated, maybe even out of date, school and I value my students’ safety above anything.  Perhaps it is the fact that, in our case, when kicks are also used damages can be even worse: in any case I am pretty sure that I would have not put most of those fighters in a ring given their actual level of experience.  Fighting is not about being tough and fighting like a man: it’s about reaching the right level of preparation and quality of technique and having enough experience to avoid being slaughtered.