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Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

4 Reasons to Avoid Full-Contact Sparring

Before anyone starts spitting venom in my direction, let me state for the record that full-contact sparring can be a good thing. There’s no substitute if you truly want to learn how to fight or to competently defend yourself if a situation goes very, very wrong. But good thing or not, most people should avoid it.

General Choi thought that any contact in sparring would be too dangerous. But that was before the days of padded safety gear. Now most Ch’ang Hon Taekwon-Do organizations limit sparring to light- or semi-contact. And for good reason. It’s still dangerous. And most of us don’t need the practical fighting skills badly enough to justify the risks that come with full-contact sparring.

If you know the risks and still want to spar with full contact, go bananas. You’ll be learning a valuable skill. But here are four things to think about before you do.

#4. Black eyes and fat lips

Who is the biggest demographic for Taekwon-Do? Children. Hopefully no one in their right mind would advocate full-contact sparring for young kids. So we’ll skip that one.

So what about the adults? In my experience, most adult students do Taekwon-Do as recreation. That’s not to say they don’t take it seriously, but they aren’t there to learn to be the deadliest warrior. They can’t afford to show up to work in the morning looking like Edward Norton from Fight Club. These people enjoy learning the martial arts, but fighting isn’t their life. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as they understand that light-contact sparring will limit their fighting skills.

Another thing to consider is that a lot of people (both kids and adults) are afraid of sparring. They don’t like to get hit because it hurts. Now, we could say that they just have to toughen up, but if we can reduce the level of contact, it turns sparring into a game. The more fun it is, the more they will want to take part. And if they enjoy sparring, the level of contact can be increased later, if they ever want to do that.

If you want to spar hard and you’re willing and able to look (and feel) a little busted up, then go for it. In a weird way, it can feel good to push yourself through a tough, full-contact battle. But understand that the more you do this, the more of an effect it can have. Years of hard fights can take a huge toll on your body.

#3. Light-contact sparring teaches most of the same skills

It goes without saying that light-contact and full-contact sparring are not the same thing. But many of the mechanics are the same. There are just a few major differences: how hard you throw your punches and kicks, where you stop a punch or kick, how you block or absorb your opponent’s shots and how fast you get tired. Some of the strategy is also different. Almost everything else is the same.

So light-contact sparring can teach you most of the skills you need to know to go full-contact. And it often emphasizes things like speed and technique over power. So it can help you develop some skills that you might not otherwise think about.

If you want to play a martial sport and have fun without the risks that come with full-contact sparring, light-contact is a great option.

I can tell you from experience, though, that things change when you start to go harder. Many of the skills you learned will carry over, but you’ll have to deal with some new problems. It’s hard to concentrate and not get angry when you get hit hard in the head. When you get the wind knocked out of you, it’s a struggle to do anything but curl into a ball on the ground. You’ll have to choose when to throw with full power and when to conserve your energy, because you’ll get tired so much quicker.

You have to learn how to handle these things, and it’s not easy. It’s a mental issue just as much as (or even more than) it’s a physical one. There’s no way to learn it but to spar hard.

I also mentioned that your strategy changes. Like Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” In light-contact sparring, you might be willing to eat a punch or two if you know you will end up scoring even more points on your opponent. You know it won’t really hurt, so what’s the risk? That’s not the case in full-contact sparring. Eating a hard punch sucks. It might even mean getting knocked out.

#2. Insurance

This one relates to every other point in this article. If you’ve never run a martial arts club, you may not have thought about insurance. But most governing organizations require their member clubs to have it in case an accident happens. That’s a good thing. It helps keep the clubs and the students safe. But the thing is, to keep things safe most insurance companies say that you have to limit sparring to light contact.

Let’s say I allow a couple of students to do a little full-contact sparring and someone gets seriously hurt. My insurance company won’t agree to cover anything because I wasn’t following their rules. This should be a real concern for instructors because it has the potential to ruin their clubs and even their lives.

Now, I expect there are insurance companies out there who cover clubs that do full-contact sparring. The fact that MMA, boxing  and Muay Thai gyms exist supports that thought. I would guess those insurance premiums are more expensive, though.

Regardless, the fact is the insurance a club has determines what kind of sparring they can do. It doesn’t matter what the instructors and students want to do.

#1. Concussions

Here’s the big one. Fighting is inherently dangerous. And one of the big dangers of getting hit in the head is a concussion. We’re finding out more and more every day about just how bad they are.

I’ve had a concussion from sparring. Luckily, mine wasn’t too bad, as far as concussions go. But it still wasn’t fun. I know of someone who had to stop Taekwon-Do training altogether because a scan revealed he’d had around 20, give or take. And none of them had been previously diagnosed. They’d just been collecting over the years and nothing was done about them. He just trained through them instead of getting the rest he needed to let them heal. A friend of mine has had three or four serious concussions now—not from martial arts. She used to play a lot of sports, but now has to limit her physical activity. She also can’t do anything where her head gets jostled around and sometimes has a hard time looking at computer screens for too long.

Concussions are scary stuff.

On that note, the Netherlands recently banned kicks to the head for anyone under the age of 17.

The people who train in Taekwon-Do are not professional athletes. As with any sport, a few people are top-level competitors, but most of us just do it for fun. We aren’t paid to put our bodies through hell. We can’t even make it to the the Olympics in our style of TKD. Because of the divisions among the Ch’ang Hon TKD organizations, even the world championships don’t have the level of competition they once did.

What I’m saying is if this is a recreational activity for the vast majority of people, why put them at risk of a concussion? There are still plenty of benefits to light-contact sparring. And many of the skills carry over to full-contact.

Why put yourself (or anyone else) at risk of brain damage for the sake of being tough?

Now, if you’re an adult, and you understand and accept the risks, then go for it. There are definitely benefits to full-contact sparring. But don’t accept the argument that martial arts are about fighting, so light-contact-only sparring has no place in the martial arts. It’s about understanding what your training is about. If you’re in it for recreation and know that your training will never make you a fighting machine, that’s OK. Keep doing what you’re doing. But if you want to really learn how to fight, heavy contact is a part of that and you will have to accept the risks.

And one reason to practice full-contact: self-defence

Remember I said that limiting the contact can turn sparring into a game? If you’re a fan of full-contact, you may say that making sparring a game is the whole problem. But it’s only a problem if people believe that they’re becoming real fighters by playing a glorified game of tag.

Know this: light sparring will not turn you into a badass ninja death fighter. It won’t fully prepare you to defend yourself against an attacker. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Sport sparring is not the same as fighting or self-defence.
  2. Unless you’ve been in a full-contact match, you can’t prepare yourself for what it feels like.

There are lots of reasons why sport sparring, fighting and self-defence are all different from one another. The situations will be different. The distances will be different. The techniques you use will be different. You can’t train for one and expect to be a master in the others. It doesn’t work like that.

But if you’re used to full-contact sparring, the level of contact in a self-defence situation will not be such a shock if you ever find yourself there. Your body and mind will be prepared for that part of the equation. If you don’t know how to take a hard shot to the ribs or the face, it seriously can come as a shock and it can stop you cold.

There really is no substitute for full-contact training if your goal is to learn self-defence. Not only will you learn how to take and give a shot, but you’ll also learn just how exhausting it is. Kicking with 30 to 40 percent of your power is much less tiring than kicking with 80 to 100 percent of your power. Even taking a full-power hit wears you down.

This is not to say that light-contact sparring can’t teach you some skills. Almost any Taekwon-Do technique can be used for self-defence if you know when and how to use it. And if you train specifically for self-defence, using light-contact is better than no training at all. Even professional fighters do a lot of light-contact sparring to get their technique and timing down. But they have to train with full contact as well so they know what to expect in the ring.