Many criteria should be evaluated when choosing a martial art in which to train. One such criterion is the type of contact the art uses when students train or spar in class and/or in competition.
Sparring involves two martial artists who face each other in friendly combat to test their fighting skills against each other under certain rules and limitations. Some martial art styles or individual schools do not use sparring as a part of their curriculum, but most do. Before a sparring match, the level of contact to be used must be clearly established and agreed upon by the participants and the level of contact must enforced by an impartial observer. If this is not done, one or both of the opponents will get angry or injured due to not being prepared for the level of contact used or because a rule was not obeyed.
Three levels of contact are used by martial art schools that use sparring as part of their curriculum:
Potential martial art students have different levels of contact that they will be comfortable using while sparring. This comfort level may change after a few months or years of training, but the initial level must be within their comfort range or they will stop training after a short time. Therefore, when choosing a martial art, one should be sure to evaluate the level of contact used by the art and the school.
The level of contact used in sparring may be classified by using the following criteria:
- The level of power used when delivering attacks. Ranges of power include:
- Full-speed and power, with no-contact or with light contact or with full contact.
- Reduced speed and power, with no-contact or with light contact or with full contact.
- Whether or not attacks are allowed to touch the opponent, and,
- If touching is permitted, level of force permitted when attacks touch the opponent, such as using a light force as with light-contact sparring or using a heavy force as with full-contact sparring.
Levels of contact may be evaluated by using the following criteria:
- Risk of injury
- Level of expertise required
- Usefulness in self-defense
- Who may participate?
No-contact does not necessarily mean there is no physical contact; there will always be some physical contact while training in a martial art. No-contact means that, when performing hand and foot attacks, the striking surface of the weapon (body part) used is controlled so that it does not make contact with the opponent. To score in a no-contact sparring competition, the striking surface of an attack must come very close to the target without touching, be fully extended, be executed with full-power, and the form of the technique must be nearly perfect.
The physical contact in no-contact sparring may be compared to arm wrestling. There is physical contact in arm wrestling, but, while extreme effort and power is used to win, there is no intention to strike the person or cause harm to the opponent.
Risk of injury. No-contact does not mean that accidents will not happen and that contact will be inadvertently made, it just means that the intention of an attack was to make no contact. Martial arts are physical, especially the hard styles, such as Taekwondo, so there will be contact, sometimes with enough force to cause pain or minor injury, but, with no-contact sparring, the risk of injury is greatly reduced. Since no-contact, techniques are focused two or three inches short of the depth of penetration required for injury, the risk of injury is very low.
Level of expertise required. No-contact sparring techniques must be perfectly performed and precisely executed while also using maximum power. In no-contact sparring, the means is more important than the result; how the technique is executed and focused is more important than the technique hitting the target. Since attacks must be close enough to score but not make contact while exhibiting proper form and power, judging no-contact sparring is very subjective, so judges must be very experienced to score attacks fairly.
An untrained thug may participate in, and even win, a full-contact match. However, the same thug would probably not even score in a no-contact match. The thug would probably be quickly disqualified for excessive contact no matter how intently the thug tried to control his or her attacks.
Usefulness in self-defense. Some martial artists, especially full-contact fighters, frown upon no-contact sparring as being useless child’s play. However, no-contact sparring requires an extreme level of mental and physical control that may only be accomplished after many years of intense training.
To make contact with an attacker, a no-contact fighter only needs to decrease the fighting range a few inches; everything else stays the same. No-contact fighters train using full-contact attacks against heavy bags to train their bodies to make full-contact attacks, so they are able to deliver effective full-contact attacks. The problem with no-contact sparring, and it is a big problem, is that no-contact fighters do not train to receive full-contact attacks. Therefore, in a self-defense situation, they have not been trained to mentally or physically deal with full-power attacks delivered with the intention to injury or kill. No-contact fighters may say that they would be able to deal with full-power hits, but until they experience the affects of a full-power blow thrown in anger, they are only speculating. A no-contact fighter has a better chance of surviving a self-defense confrontation than an untrained person would, but survival is far from assured.
Who may participat. Practically anyone may participate in no-contact sparring. No matter your occupation, the chances are low that you will receive an injury that will interfere with you ability to do your job. No-contact fighters may participle at any age, from young children to aged adults. No-contact sparring allows students to receive all the benefit of the martial arts, with little to no risk of injury.
Light-contact sparring is the most popular type of sparring. Its critics, and even supporters, often referred to it as playing tag. Light-contact sparring is identical to no-contact sparring except that attacks are focused so they just touch the target. Ideally, this touch will be similar to tapping a person on the shoulder to get his or her attention. The person will be aware of the touch but will not feel any pain or any threat from the touch.
Light-contact sparring is similar to playing baseball, Baseball players tag the runners with the ball; they do not try to hit or harm the runners. However, this does not make baseball injury free, heavy contact does accidentally occur and it may lead to injury, but deaths are extremely rare.
Risk of injury. Although only light-contact is permitted, there is more risk of injury in light-contact sparring than in no-contact sparring. Techniques are focused two or three inches closer to the point on the opponent's body where injury may occur so, the chance of injury is increased.
Level of expertise required. As with no-contact sparring, light-contact sparring techniques are perfectly performed and precisely executed while using maximum power. However, while the means is important in light-contact sparring, the result has priority over the means. The touch is more important than how it was delivered.
Light-contact sparring does not require the level of control required by no-contact sparring since there is a lot of leeway in what constitutes a simple touch and excessive contact. In no-contact sparring, if you do not touch the opponent, you may score and neither the opponent nor the judges may claim you used excessive contact; however, the tolerance range between the scoring distance and touching is narrow. In light-contact sparring, the difference between light-contact and excessive contact is not as clearly defined; it is very subjective. Whether or not a touch is judged as a score or as excessive contact depends on the sound the impact makes, the reaction of the person being hit and of the hitter, the visible results of the hit, the target and technique used, the emotional state of the hitter, and the option of the judges as to what is excessive.
Since light-contact offers feedback to the opponent that he or she has been scored upon and offer feedback to the attacker so he or she knows the attack was successful, scoring in light contact sparring is less subjective than with no-contact sparring, where experienced judging are required to defines the nuances of what constitutes a scoring techniques. In light-contact sparring, since contact is required, it is easier for even inexperienced judges to score the competition.
Usefulness in self-defense. As related to usefulness, light-contact sparring is similar to no-contact sparring. While light-contact sparring, there is a slight increase in the chances of being hit too hard, but the hits are not that hard and are too infrequent to be of any benefit in preparing a fighter for receiving full-contact attacks.
Who may participate. As with no-contact sparring, practically anyone may participate in light-contact sparring. The risk of injury, though slightly increased, is so low as not to be a problem for most people.
Full-contact sparring is where the big dogs play. Full-contact sparring is not for everyone. One must understand the risks involved in full-contact sparring and be willing to accept the risks.
Full-contact sparring may range from making full-contact while wearing protective equipment with the intention of scoring points, to making full-contact while wearing little to no protective equipment with the intention of injuring the opponent to the point he or she is unable to continue. Olympic style Taekwondo uses full-contact sparring with contact only allowed to specific to specific targets while wearing hand, foot, head, and body protectors. Mixed Martial Arts style full-contact sparring uses only light hand protection and only prohibits inherently dangerous techniques.
Full-contact sparring is similar to playing American football. Football players put on protective equipment and then bang into each other full-power. Minor injuries are numerous and serious injuries are few, but deaths are possible.
Risk of injury. Although the risk of injury is higher in full-contact sparring than in the other two types of sparring, the injuries are relatively minor and the matches are stopped before serious injury may occur. Knockouts usually only cause temporary brain damage, however, if someone who spars full-contact for years, the risk of permanent brain damage increases.
Level of expertise required. Full-contact sparring require a high level of skill and mental and physical fitness to deliver effective attacks, but it also takes a high level of mental and physical fitness to receive the attacks. In full-contact sparring, the result is far more important than the means. As long as the technique is legal, there is no concern for its form, only for its result. Therefore, precision at performing techniques is not required, so it is not practiced. If an attack works, that is all that matters.
Usefulness in self-defense. As related to self-defense, full-contact sparring is about as close to the real thing as possible to achieve safely. Practitioners are used to hitting with full-power and being hit with full-power.
Who may participate. Full-contact sparring is generally limited to adult participation, but some martial arts and states permit teenagers to spar full-contact with parent’s permission. The body takes a beating from full-contact sparring; therefore, there are not many full-contact fighters over forty years of age. As seen in boxing, years of having your head pounded may have no, little, or a profound effect on the health of the brain. One thing everyone will agree upon, years of having your head pounded does not have any beneficial effect on your mental health.