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A Series of Compromises:
Before discussing the merits of non-contact martial art, it is important to realize its limitations and advantages in relation to contact martial art, both with and without padding, and take steps to ensure they are overcome in the training environment. Any combat training method must balance a need for realistic application with the safety and longevity of its practitioners.
Non-contact martial art lacks realism; full-contact martial art requires extensive padding or the acceptance of a 100% injury rate:
Human beings can take an unbelievable amount of punishment while in real combat and live to tell about it, and even still fight after sustaining fatal injuries. The non-contact theory that a single blow - no matter how powerful and perfectly delivered - will somehow stop a committed attacker is optimistic at best. This is the case with all weapon systems - including firearms - and should be addressed in training.
In most non-contact training scenarios, the action is stopped immediately after a strike penetrates the opponent's defenses and appears to have been capable of causing injury to the opponent. But in a real self-defense situation, this cannot be assumed. The attacker's ability to withstand injury depends on many factors: Mental state, amount of “padding” such as muscle or fat, use of drugs or alcohol, clothing and that individual's training and experience in withstanding blows.
In unprotected full-contact training there is a certain increased realism, in that physically stopping or injuring the opponent is the goal, but it is simply not practical on a regular basis, due to the 100% guarantee of serious injury.
The compromise in full-contact training is to require protective gear to striking and /or target areas. This creates another unrealistic training scenario:
In contact martial art where some sort of protective padding is used, the actual striking surface of the body's weapons are generally covered, such is in a boxing glove or foot protector. This being the case, the user is not restricted by the body's most effective weapons, such as the ball of the foot in a roundhouse kick or the first two knuckles of the closed fist. Without realizing it, the student will quickly abandon these weapons in favor of whatever surface is covered by the padding. In the case of the roundhouse kick, the instep becomes the preferred weapon and any part of the fist that happens to make contact with the opponent is acceptable.
Furthermore, anyone who has fought wearing full protective gear knows that any type worn compromises technique, particularly headgear. This is not necessarily a huge drawback, since a martial artist should be able to fight in any condition, in any clothing.
While both full-contact and unprotected non-contact martial art have their advantages and disadvantages, there does exist a third option exercised by many martial art schools: Supposed non-contact fighting, with the use of padding. In my experience, this is the worst possible option for a martial art school. All the disadvantages of padding are present, yet none of the advantages are found. No real impact is require to score a point, and due to the protective padding no firm weapon is required. Judges cannot distinguish an open handed strike from a proper fist when it is covered by padding. It literally becomes a game of tag, and has zero self-defense relevance.
Universal, Lifelong Practice:
In non-contact martial art, the ability to train students of all ages, size and ability is not compromised for fear of injury. A large student can easily train with a smaller training partner, and still be challenged.
In many non-contact martial art classes, entire families participate together. This is rarely the case in a full-contact school.
Arguably, a student that adopts non-contact Taekwon-Do as a lifetime study will eventually attain a better level of self-awareness and martial prowess than a full contact martial artist, who will surely be subject to a great many injuries.
The student that practices consistently over a lifetime will always “win” over one that is injured for months each year.
Realistic Weapons and Scoring areas:
In strict non-contact fighting, realistic weapons can be utilized, and the use of realistic weapons is mandatory.
For example, in the case of the backfist or knifehand strike, students must maintain a tight, focused weapon. This is easily observed by a scoring judge and a point delivered with a loose hand is disallowed. The same is true with the foot. A technique that finds a scoring area without a tight, focused weapon, such as the ball of the foot with a roundhouse kick will be disallowed.
A martial artist wearing a gloved hand or covered foot is not as concerned with the tightness of the weapon used, and more concerned with merely finding the scoring area with enough momentum to cause an effect in the opponent. This may or may not be the best solution in a self-defense situation.
In non-contact fighting, without any type of protective gear, students quickly learn to respect technique and their opponents. While unintentional, hard training students eventually accrue enough incidental and accidental contact they learn to withstand blows and the arms and legs become accustomed to the contact made during combat.
Admittedly, this takes much longer than in unprotected full-contact martial art, when the student gets a very rude awakening. But, the end result is the same. This type of hardening is also accomplished during partner prearranged attack and defense drills (3-Step Sparring), hard forms training and board breaking practice.
Wearing shin, body, head, or hand and foot protectors – in full or non-contact fighting – negates this important martial element and practice becomes a pillow fight, and participants lose respect for the techniques they practice. The only time this type of padding should be used is if a student has a medical condition that requires special attention or protection.
The responsibility of making non-contact martial art combat-relevant lies on the instructor and student. The differences between tournament fighting and a lethal confrontation should be addressed, and training should emphasize forms, fighting and breaking practice equally. Without a balance of these three elements, non-contact training will lose all combat relevance. The strength developed during hard forms and breaking practice, along with the mental toughness and body hardening that comes from these activities are an important part of non-contact fighting practice.
In non-contact tournament fighting divisions, competitiveness can overcome all desire to practice realistic self-defense movements and can have a very negative training effect.
Martial artistswho train for self-defense, and who regularly practice focused, practical technique and technique combinations, sometimes revert to using impotent, unrealistic techniques and impractical combinations in order to simply score points, becoming mere sport competitors that have no regard to self-defense applications.
An example of this is the often-seen multiple kicking and “hopping” on one leg that has no tactical application. This completely contradicts with the slight crouch seen in all other forms of combat training, and nearly all combination movements found in Taekwon-Do hyungs, which are delivered from balanced, well-centered positions, and mirror's the natural human “startle response” to a huge surge in adrenaline due to fear and threat of injury.
Since no real impact is required to score a point, an impotent technique, delivered off-balance and without any focused drive is on equal footing with a balanced, timed and focused blow.
The responsibility to correct this lies with judges and referees, who should ensure that if a point is awarded for a technique, it is a focused, balanced technique that could have caused serious injury if allowed to contact fully.
Points should be disallowed if they are unfocused and not delivered with obvious balance and power. This would undoubtedly lead to endless debates between judges about every point scored in a match, and contests of this type would simply not exist, or would be too time-consuming to be practical. To prevent this, extensive forms and striking practice must take place, with an emphasis on a realistic combat mindset.