Tuesday began with a half an hour live video discussion with Brian Inwards from Australia. Brian kindly bid and won our discussion in an auction set up by Eric Parsons’ “Karate 4 Life Life Foundation”. Our discussion revolved around the use of headgear for pressure testing. Our discussion took us into the relevance of scenario-based training, various forms of sparring and the history of bareknuckle fighting.
Recent changes in Olympic Boxing have led to headguards being removed from the last Games. This stems from research showing that the headguard might increase the risk of brain injury. Brian wanted to hear my views on the use of this equipment in training. After all, many amateur Boxing – especially those that teach children – employ headguards along with heavily padded boxing gloves and there are many other combat sports who maintain wearing headguards is safer.
My overall opinion is that headguards should be used for certain specific forms of training. From as far back as I can recall headguards have been controversial. When I began martial arts it was my understanding that headguard would protect one from cuts, but that was about all. I remember hearing one Boxing coach saying that an added danger with a headguard was that a fighter made himself vulnerable the moment he tried to readjust his headguard in mid-competition. After the death of one of his opponents, late 18th century pugilist Jack Broughton pioneered the use of mufflers or boxing gloves. These would become the norm in boxing gyms and often promoted to the middle-classes and gentry as a means to reduce broken noses, black eyes and the like, but they were not made compulsory in professional competition until over a hundred years later. Many have contested to this day that gloves have actually increased the rate of brain injury along with the rules that prohibit active grappling. This has since been picked up by the Mixed Martial Arts subculture who contends that a sport, such as Boxing, that a) has the sole objective of knocking an opponent out and b) has fighters split up only to resume trying to knock each other out when they clinch is far more dangerous than one allows submissions and extensive grappling.
I began in an art, Sakiado, which was a rough breakaway from ITF Taekwon-do. The only sparring we did was of the continuous variety with a move to progress into full contact American-style Kickboxing. Despite competing in the early ’90s, our sparring gear was reminiscent of the previous decade and no one wore headguards. When I switched to TAGB Taekwon-Do, which was far closer to ITF style Taekwon-Do, we had far stricter sparring kit, including headguards, and point-stop sparring – something that was completely alien to me – was the norm until you reached the middle colour belts. There was far greater emphasis on control along with far greater traditional and quasi-traditional trappings. The thin headguards in question did not really serve any purpose other than to give the illusion of extra safety. I sporadically and unofficially trained with Western Boxers where headguards were the norm and I cannot say that these thicker headguards more suited for full-contact were a comfort to me. I just felt my head was a far easier target to access. Picking up on something Brian said, the headguard also became a more attractive target and encouraged fighters to throw more punches to the head.
When I eventually changed to full-contact fighting in earnest I trained in a system that called itself American Kickboxing but was far closer to European rules and even had elements of Muay Thai. My dark years training and teaching this art are a subject for another day, but despite my boss/chief instructor’s best efforts to sell headguards to students, the vast majority of my sparring was done without a headguard and wearing boxing gloves. After a hiatus training in traditional and performance-based Chinese martial arts alongside Japanese Ju Jutsu, I returned to striking arts when I took up Muay Thai with vigour. My coach did not have anyone wear headguards. We generally sparred using European Muay Thai rules (no elbows or knees to the head). When teaching self-defence programmes from time to time he also used a red suit, something that I never saw but often heard about at the time. Since officially cross-training in Western Boxing and working a lot in MMA, I haven’t worn a headguard. Before the Olympic rule-change I had noticed that several gyms had already dispensed with them during sparring. I also didn’t wear them throughout my experiences training with Matty Evans, Geoff Thompson, Mo Teague and entire host of Reality-Based Self-Defence pioneers in their pressure-testing.
My re-introduction to headguards came from my exposure to Reality-Based Self-Defence programmes inspired by Model Mugging. These programmes build students up to face an instructor wearing a tailored padded suit that makes them look like a 1950s space alien. Their headguards are as safe as one can get along with neck stabilisation to prevent concussions and extreme layers of padding you can pretty much hit someone full contact without injuring them. In fact, the entire the suit turns the wearer into a walking heavy bag. This comes at a high cost. The suit makes movement extremely cumbersome reducing the wearer into stumbling, lumbering purveyor of aggressive obscenities whose main function appears to be running at a student and easily getting knocked over. Later, when teaching teachers of one of the many variants of this self-defence programme, I was to discover that the suit-wearer or bullet-man must never win during a so-called pressure-test. This is in alignment with the programme’s totally positive approach to training, which undermines any actual testing of an individual’s capabilities in a violent situation. I also learnt that the programme also promoted a type of telegraphed striking that appears to be a clear result of hitting passive focus mitts and fighting the bullet-man. However, I digress.
The aforementioned Redman suit training and its variations provides the wearer with far more movement but at the cost of less safety. From what I have seen, this equipment is adopted by pretty much everyone and isn’t aligned with one particular programme or other. The wearer doesn’t fall all over the place but is still far from being a realistic and resistant enemy when in action. The headguard section is not much more than the types I am about describe in other forms of self-defence training.
Full-face headguards are really the only type of headguard protection that I use in any of my coaching. These are usually of the grill variety. Everyone is made aware that these pieces of equipment will not save the wearer from concussion and, in line with the current research, might even increase the risk. They are used for specific training. In self-defence I use them for very short asymmetrical pressure-tests. Usually the wearer is restricted to grappling techniques and can vary from being a stalking predator who only has to hold onto his target for five seconds to beginning the test in a full on hold of some description against a training partner who is permitted to use anti-grappling and striking techniques. Head-butts and elbow strikes are usually permitted for specific close-range fighting, and I find that eye gouges can also be simulated in a functional way by hooking thumbs or fingers around the grill. The headguards are also used for a pre-emptive strike pressure-test. When sparring Muay Thai or specific MMA, we use the headguards to allow for controlled elbows and knees to the head.
That pretty much covers my views on the wearing of headguards. I also spoke to Brian about how I had learnt to boil so much down to principles and not be guided by techniques. My self-defence primary tactics, for example, had moved back from head-hunting to hitting at the defender’s head level to striking whatever is available at that level. My thanks again to Brian for bidding for me and to Eric Parsons for continuing to come up with great ways to use the further education of martial arts to fund a great cause.