Probably the single most important piece of equipment that helped make Taekwondo popular around the world was the foam equipment implemented in the early 1970's. Before them, accidental contact while sparring often resulted in some type of injury. The equipment has now allowed everyone to spar in relative safety.
Safety equipment is any padded, stuffed, or solid sportswear that protects a person from incurring injury and it also protects the person from inflicting injury. The degree of physical contact desired or the fighting style determines the amount and type of protective wear used. Master Jhoon Rhee, considered the father of American Taekwondo, is the man most people credit with introducing safety equipment (Safe-T-Punch/Kick) to martial arts tournaments in the 1970's. Although its use is now worldwide, there is still controversy about its use.
Types of Protection
- Head protector. A padded helmet to protect the head from strikes. The helmet protects the boney parts of the head but not the face, although some helmets do offer protection for the cheekbones.
- Face protector. A metal or plastic cage that protects the face. Many be freestanding or used in conjunction with a head protector.
- Safety glasses. Prescription or plain sports glasses or empty sports frames that protect the eyes from damage.
- Mouthpiece. A rubber device that is placed over the upper or upper and lower teeth. It protects the teeth and holds the jaw in a locked position, enabling it to withstand blows.
- Chest protector. A hard or semi hard device to protect the fighter's front torso from injury.
- Groin cup. A hard plastic cup that protects the groin from attacks.
- Elbow protectors. Pads that cover the elbow to protect it during from strikes and while striking.
- Hand Bandages. Long, cotton straps that are wrapped around the fighter's wrists and knuckles, compressing them in a tight union so the hand becomes a solid striking unit. They also help prevent wrist sprains and knuckle dislocations.
- Forearm protectors. Pads that cover the forearms to protect them during from strikes and while striking.
- Hand protectors. Pads or gloves that cover the hands (either partial or complete) to protect them during while striking and protect the opponent from strikes.
- Knee protectors. Pads that cover the knees to protect them during from strikes and while striking.
- Shin protectors. Pads that cover the shins to protect them during from strikes and while striking.
- Foot protectors. Footpads that protect the upper foot but leave the sole of the foot uncovered for better floor grip. Protects the feet during striking and protects the opponent from strikes.
There were hand protectors available before the foam ones, but they were relatively expensive and awkward to use. Some were just variations of boxing gloves.
Even in boxing, the wearing of gloves while sparring is a fairly modern convention. Prior to 1866, when the Marquis of Queensbury Rules made the wearing of gloves mandatory, boxers fought bare-knuckled. Gloves, or “mufflers” as they were called, were used only in training not in an actual match.
One might think that bare-knuckled fighting would be brutal to the hands.
Today, a common injury among young boxers is called the “boxer’s fracture,” in which the outer two knuckles, and sometimes the outer metacarpals of the hand are broken from the impact of an unprotected punch. Even boxing greats like Mike Tyson have broken their fists in this way when engaging in street fights. The danger, however, is significantly reduced through the biomechanics of throwing a bare-fisted punch. Punching in old style boxing was based primarily upon linear action, which emulated the thrust of a sword. When a blow was thrown, a vertical fist was used, rather than today’s horizontal fist that is used in Taekwondo as well as boxing. Some martial art styles used the vertical punch as their primary punching method.
A vertical fist is thrown with the back of the hand facing away from the body, whereas a horizontal fist is thrown with the back of the hand facing upward. This is important due to the skeletal alignment of the arm when throwing a punch. With a vertical fist, the entire arm is extended in one line from the shoulder through to the fist. The elbow is tucked beneath the arm as opposed to jutting out, and the wrist is kept completely straight. This changes the angle at which the fist connects, and maximizes the striking surface by using the whole fist and not just a few knuckles. Even when throwing a “rounding blow,” an ancestor of today’s hook, the vertical fist was used, either normally or inverted (in which the hook is thrown with the thumb facing down, elevating the elbow).
Punching with a vertical fist does two things: there fewer places for the arm to lose energy (as in a bent elbow or wrist) and there is more protection for the arm. The result is that that more kinetic energy is realized as force, and is distributed evenly across the fist. This protects the hand more than if the force was concentrated in one area, while still providing a powerful blow.
However, the benefits of punching with a vertical fist are neutralized when wearing gloves. Since the hand is protected, linear blows may be replaced by more circular blows, such as the “corkscrew” jab and the hook. These blows can be thrown with more power because they have the increased energy of momentum behind them. Since fighters do not need to worry much about breaking their fists, they can afford to punch with increased power.
In addition, gloves, due to their size, act as small shields around the hands that may be used to block incoming blows. With the hands held close to the body, it is easy to tuck and cover. Gloves also make getting through with linear punches more difficult, which works to the defender’s advantage when blocking shots to the stomach or sides with the elbows, forearms, and biceps.
Before hand protectors, the guards of martial arts fighters were more extended than today. Since the fighters could not rely on the extra protection gloves provide, they needed to block many blows farther away from their bodies. Combatants needed time to react and block since they had little protection close in. Therefore, the fighting range was considerably longer than today, being fought just outside the range where each opponent could hit the other without moving.
Disadvantages of Safety Equipment
- False security. A fighter may feel more daring and become a more reckless while wearing safety equipment because he or she feels well protected, causing bad habits such as reckless charging, low guarding, sluggish punching, and wide stances. Plus, technique control, so necessary in traditional martial arts, is never attained.
- Control. Now less importance is placed on control. Before the equipment, each punch or kick was executed with precise control. Accidents happened, but serious injury was still rare.
- Slower reaction time. However light, the pads add weight that slows movements to some extent. The extra weight required more energy to move them which affects endurance. The equipment lessens the fighter's fear of injury. With less fear, there is less anxiety and thus less adrenaline, which is needed to give the person a fighting edge.
- Limited techniques. Some types of hand protectors limit a fighter's hand techniques, such as the loss of grabbing, thrusting, poking, and chopping techniques. Elbow, knee, and chest guards create friction and do not allow an easy, natural flow. Head guards may decrease peripheral vision.
- Unrealistic situations. Sparring with protective equipment does not create a realistic fighting situation; it develops gym fighting more than street fighting. Fighting in the controlled environment of a gym with full equipment makes fighting more of a game than actual combat. Fighters get used to fighting with protective gear and hesitate to fight without it.
- Extra baggage. Protective gear is considered unnecessary by some practitioners because the originators of the martial arts became masters without it.
- Improper techniques. Protective gear can lead to improper execution of techniques. Form is often forgotten, and quality is lost. Fighters become so preoccupied with landing any type of blow that they forget everything they have learned. Instead or controlled fighter's, they become showmen.
- Whiplash. Many times, sparring rules prohibit face contact but do permit contact to the helmet. With the helmet covering the hard bones of the skull, and foam pads protecting the fragile bones of the hands and feet, the protection is mostly for the hands and feet. The skull itself would not receive much damage from a hand or foot strike. While some of the shock from a head strike is absorbed by the foam, this is negated by the foam becoming a primary target. Since the face is not a legal target, the foam protecting the forehead becomes a primary target. A strike to the forehead snaps the neck backward more than a strike to any other part of the head. This makes the wearer susceptible to a whiplash injury to the neck. Even if one strike does no apparent damage, the accumulative effect of many strikes over a period of time may cause an injury.
- Neck twist. Another problem with protective equipment is friction. If a bare fist hits with a glancing blow to the head, it bounce off the skull with minimal damage. If both the head and fist are protected by safety equipment, when the fist hits with a glancing blow, the foam on both the head and fist will flex, increasing the area of the strike. While this may decrease the force of the blow, the friction between the head and fist protectors will cause them to grip each other and quickly snap the head around, which increases the chance of injury to the neck.
Advantages of Safety Equipment
- Protection. Americans want to do dangerous things, but without the risk. If a commercial martial arts school is to succeed, it must offer what the public wants. It can maintain its roots, but it must adapt.
- Realistic fighting situations. Realistic fighting situations can only be simulated without serious injury through the use of protective equipment. Safety equipment helps martial artists come as close to real fighting as possible. It allows them to test techniques, improve skills, sharpen reflexes, and condition themselves to take blows. Being able to withstand a blow is just as important as being able to land one.
- Builds endurance. While excessive weight will fatigue and slow a fighter, proper training eliminates these problems. With enough training, an individual can build the endurance and strength to move almost effortlessly. The weight of the protective gear will become negligible. When equipment is removed, reflexes, speed, and general fighting performance will increase.
- Promotes practice. When risk of injury is lessoned, students can train on more days and for longer periods of time.
- Allows almost full power. Even wearing protective equipment, fighters will not take unnecessary chances. If in doubt, ask boxers who train with protective headgear, groin cups, bandages, and gloves.
- Pain is real to protected fighters. Equipment creates a barrier strong enough to absorb much of a blow, but it will not cancel its full effect. All the variables present with unprotected fighters are still present with those whProtective Equipmento are protected. However, protected fighters can unleash full power and know that their partner is relatively safe.
Ruzicki, T. (2003). From Bare-Knuckles to Modern Boxing. How Gloves have changed the Art of Pugilism.