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Sparring Helmets


There is an old saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This also applies to rules, “The fairness of a rule is in the eye of the beholder.” That which is a fair and necessary rule to one person may be considered an unfair and unnecessary restriction of behavior to another person. The rules as applicable to the wearing of head protection (helmets) are as varied as everything else in the martial arts.


Rules are like laws except that the sanctions are different for breaking a rule than they are for breaking a law. If you break a law, the government will punish you and you have no choice in the matter. If you break a rule, the entity, such as a martial art association, school, or instructor, that made the rule will punish you; however, you must agree to receive the punishment. For example, an association may fine you for breaking a rule, but you have the choice to either pay the fine and remain in the association or to ignore the fine and leave the association (unless there is some law that is also broken, such as a written contract).

Each martial art association or school its own rules; some of which may be mandated by federal, state, or local laws, or by some other entity, such as the owner of the building in which the martial art is practiced. As related to sparring, most of the rules pertain to making sure the parameters of the competition are clear to all participants, ensuring the competition is conducted fairly and consistently, and to helping protect the competition organizers from lawsuits. Therefore, many of the rules are concerned with protecting the competitors, even if they do not want to be protected. Just as the laws in some states require motorcycle riders to wear helmets whether they want to or not, you may be required to wear a head protector while sparring, even though both you and your opponent may want to spar without any head protection.

Academic research on helmet safety

Sparring injuries

In a 1999, a British study, “Injury Rates in Shotokan Karate” by G. R. Critchley, S. Mannion, and C. Meredith in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (1999; 33;174-177), the authors documented the injury rate in 1770 bouts at three British shotokan karate championships in 1996, 1997, and 1998. Strict rules allowed only “light” or “touch” contact and protective padding for the head, hands, and feet was prohibited. In the study, 160 injuries were recorded for an overall rate of injury of 0.09 per bout and 0.13 per competitor. 91 (57%) of the injuries were to the head. The average age of those injured was 22 years, with an average of nine years of experience in karate.

The study found that although there is evidence that hand protection protects the attacker from hand injuries and that headgear protects the defender from facial contusions, there is insufficient evidence that protective padding protects against brain injury in either the long or short-term. Instead, the study shoed and that protective padding can lead to an increase in the frequency and force of contact. The authors concluded that it was not necessary to recommend protective padding for the face or hands for shotokan karate tournaments. They concluded that a relatively low injury rate may be sustained by strict refereeing, a high standard of training of referees and competitors, and the strict enforcement of rules of contact. They also found that continuous medical surveillance by doctors with an understanding of karate is necessary.

Helmets and risk-taking

In a 2016, British study, “Wearing a bicycle helmet can increase risk-taking and sensation-seeking in adults” by Tim Gamble and Ian Walker of the Department of Psychology, University of Bath in the Psychological Science Journal of the Association for Psychological Science January 2016, the results suggest that unconscious activation of safety-related concepts primes globally increased risk propensity.

In the controlled study a helmet, as compared to a baseball cap, had an eye tracker mounted on it to assess risk-taking. Participants scored significantly higher on laboratory measures of both risk-taking and sensation-seeking when wearing the helmet. This happened despite the fact that the helmet offered little to no protection and was used purely as an eye tracker.

Humans adapt their risk-taking behavior based on perceptions of safety; this risk-compensation phenomenon is typified by people taking increased risks when using protective equipment. Other studies have looked at people who know they are using safety equipment and have specifically focused on changes in behaviors for which that equipment might reduce risk. This study demonstrated that risk-taking increases in people who are not explicitly aware they are wearing protective equipment; furthermore, this happens for behaviors that could not be made safer by that equipment.

Helmet safety

Martial artists differ in their views of the usefulness of head protection. Some think it protects the competitors from injury, while others think it increases the risk of injury. For example, in no-contact or light-contact sparring without head protection, attackers must use precise control to insure they do not strike their opponents heads with too much force, and defenders know they must protect their heads. Since both competitors are aware that an accidental injury may occur, both of them are more alert to the possibility and they are extra careful in their actions; thus, excessive contact is rare, and when it does occur, it usually only results in causes a minor injury.

A false sense of security

When head protection is worn, the competitors have a false sense of security and they tend to concentrate more on scoring than on controlling their attacks and blocking; they think that the head protectors protect their heads from injury. Thus, while head protectors help protect against minor injuries, they sometimes encourage behaviors that may lead to more serious injury.

Cumulative injuries

The effects of head blows are cumulative. When wearing head protection, competitors tend to ignore the numerous minor (and major) blows to head, but over time, the effects of the blows mount up and may lead to serious injury later. Many boxers, after years of fighting with heavily padded gloves (sometimes also with head protectors), develop serious problems later in life; this is where the term “punch drunk” originated. Since the gloves help protect against minor injuries that may offend spectators and discourage fighters, the fights tend to last longer and draw more spectators and “money.” Boxers receive countless blows to head for 45 minutes or more during fights. If a fighter is dazed and goes down, he is given a few seconds to recover and continue fighting. Since the direct effects of powerful blows are minimized, the brains of boxers may withstand many devastating blows without any immediate and obvious signs of injury.

On the other hand, full-contact martial arts fighters, such as the cage fighters of ultimate fighting, do not use head protectors and only use lightly padded gloves to protect their hands, not the faces of the opponents. Minor injuries are numerous, but any powerful blow has an immediate and obvious effect and the fight is stopped, there are no eight-counts. Fights are relatively short, so fighters do not receive many power blows.

Helmets can injure

I was stationed on a United States aircraft carrier while it was in a shipyard for a major overhaul. While aboard a ship in a shipyard, everyone is required to wear a safety helmet. During an overhaul, thousands of hard rubber pipes are temporarily run through passageways and attached to the overhead. In many places, this reduces the amount of headroom you have while walking down a passageway, especially when stepping through a hatchway; so, many times, you hit your helmet on one of the pipes. Without a helmet on, as you were walking and your head hit a pipe, your head would receive a thump, but it would slip off the hard rubber as you moved forward. You may have some short-term pain, but it trained you to be careful. With a helmet on, you would not receive the thump, but the hard rubber on the pipe would grip the plastic on the helmet and snap and pull your head backward as you moved forward. As a result of wearing the helmet, you had no bumps on your forehead, but your neck hurt and was sometimes was injured. The cumulative effect of the blows sometime led to neck problems later in life.

When you spar wearing hand protection and no head protection, a light punch to a sweaty forehead will slide off with no injury. However, if you were wearing head protection, the glove would grip the soft plastic of the head protection and snap the head sideways or backward. This happened to me a few years ago, a competition that required hand and head protection. A punch hit my forehead and snapped my head backward, which resulted in a concussion and a partially detached retina. After this, the punch (and probably other head snaps over the years) led to neck aches and a later diagnosis of degenerative disk disease in my neck, which as seriously curtailing my sparring and other activities.


In the United States, we have more lawyers per capita than any other country so the lawyers must struggle to find clients. To make a living, civil law attorneys cannot wait for clients to call them, they must contact possible clients and convince them to sue. Thus, we have become one of the litigious countries in the world. This means that every martial art association, school, and instructor must do everything conceivable, and sometimes inconceivable, to protect themselves against lawsuits. For example, they use release agreements that inform you that if you spar with another person, you could possibly be hit, and could possibly be injured. They may even be required to tell you that the sparring equipment is made of vinyl, just in case you may be allergic to vinyl.

The rules for sparring in an association or school are what that association or school says they are. These rules should be published, taught, emphasized, and posted so everyone is aware of them. The rules should be enforced strictly, fairly, and consistently so that everyone (competitors, parents, and officials) knows what to expect and what to do. If you are unfamiliar with the rules where you train, ask for a copy of the rules; some major associations have the rules posted on their websites.

With all laws and rules, you either obey them or pay the consequences. After obeying them, if you do not agree with them, you may either take action to have them changed or you may go somewhere where the laws and rules are more agreeable to you.

Head protection may protect against certain types of injuries, but they may acerbate other types of injuries. Depending on the rules where you train, the choice is up to you as to whether you wear head protection when sparring.

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