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Safety fosters danger in sparring


In 1976, economist Sam Peltzman wrote about a phenomenon that is now called the Peltzman Effect, which hypothesized that people tend to react to a safety regulation by increasing other risky behavior, thus offsetting some or all the benefits of the regulation. For example, building highways straighter, wider, better-marked, and with more guardrails and rumble strips have made them safer to drive on, but they have created complacent drivers who now drive with a cell phone in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, steering the vehicle with a knee while occasionally glancing at the road ahead. When safety innovations make an automobile safer and easier to drive, drivers respond by driving faster and more aggressively. Conversely, when drivers are forced to be more attentive, they tend to drive more safely.

Drivers, who rely upon the technology in vehicles to handle driving challenges, tend to lose, or never attain, the driving skills required to handle their vehicles when the technology fails or when emergency situations occur that exceed the ability of the technology to handle. Thus, on icy roads, you tend to see more four-wheel-drive vehicles stuck or overturned than you do ordinary two-wheel-drive vehicles. The drivers of the four-wheel-drive vehicles feel invincible and do not know how to handle their vehicles once they have exceeded the vehicles’ abilities. Traffic circles, which demand a driver’s full attention, are both safer and better at handling large volumes of traffic than traditional four-way intersections with traffic lights. Traffic circles force drivers to be more alert and communicate with hand signals and eye contact rather than just relaxing and letting the traffic signals to do all the work. In 1967, when Sweden switched from driving on the left to driving on the right, instead of accident rates increasing, they dropped noticeably.

Familiarity breeds slackness and regular challenges encourage mindfulness and attention. The same holds true for pedestrians who are more cautious when not in crosswalks than within them because they do not expect cars to stop for them.

As this applies to martial arts

In athletics, research has shown that protection sometimes leads to more risk-taking; skiers who wear helmets ski faster than those who do not. When wearing safety equipment that is supposed to offer protection against injury, instead of using caution and being careful, athletes tend to take more chances than they would if not wearing the safety equipment.

The same applies to martial artists when they wear safety equipment while sparring. Before the safety equipment, martial artists trained to achieve precise control of their techniques and they learned to focus the power of the techniques to a finite point in space, such as focusing a punch to complete its motion at a point one-inch in front of the opponent’s nose. Accidents did occur, but they did not occur very often; and, martial artists who had too many “accidents” would be chastised or even told to leave.

Since the advent of sparring safety equipment, many martial arts, taekwondo included, do not stress control and focus as much as they did before the safety equipment. In some martial arts, the practitioners never learn the concept of control and focus; instead, they rely upon the safety equipment to protect themselves.

Before the safety equipment, when you got hit by a stray punch—it hurt—and you learned to protect yourself, so it did not happen again. You also learned what it was like to get hit and how to deal with its effects. Now, with the safety equipment, students tend to ignore the strikes or they pretend they did not happen. In their mind, since the strikes did not hurt, they must not have been effective as their own strikes; thus, they are still the best fighters.

Sparring safety equipment has created complacent, unskilled martial artists who think they are real fighters. Their techniques are not as clean and crisp as they were before the advent of the safety equipment; their blocks are weak or non-existent, and their methods of kicking and punching have changed to adapt to, and to take advantage of, the beneficial or detrimental effects of sparring while wearing the equipment. When using the safety equipment, there is little visible damage from strikes that use excessive force and since there is less concern about using excessive force, there are more strikes that use excessive force. After years of sparring this way, medical complications due to cumulative trauma may become a problem.


  • Reynolds, Glen. (2009). Safety Through Danger. Popular Mechanics, April 2009.
  • Vanderbilt, Tom. Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us).

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