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Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture
Helping hesitant students get used to contact

Meaning just light to moderate contact, the kind that leaves you with bruises and soreness, maybe the occasional bloody nose, but no knockouts or anything of that sort.

What are some tips and tricks here? How do you get students hesitant about contact to engage more fully? What are some of your ground rules for maintaining student safety while upping intensity?

Can't put any advice into action right now of course, but I'd love to hear opinions.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi All,

I would see getting used to contact as by-product of progressive live training. It is possible to get someone to stand still while some one else punches them, but I’d not go that route because:

1) We don’t want people standing still and getting hit.

2) The fact the hit is fully anticipated at a specific moment means the all-important “shock” element is missing.

3) There’s a thin line between that and bullying. Even if it is not meant as bullying, it can be perceived that way.  

The science is pretty clear on this these days. All solid hits to the head are bad. There’s not a “threshold”, as once thought, that we can stay under to avoid potential health damage. I’d therefore avoid deliberate heavy contact. However, we all know there is a continuum and sparring almost invariably means some unintended knocks. Progressive sparring / live practise will see people develop confidence and experience to the point where the odd knock is taken in stride.

Zach Zinn wrote:
What are some of your ground rules for maintaining student safety while upping intensity?

I find too many “teach” sparring in a very binary way i.e. you’re not sparring or it’s all-in. They are not truly teaching in that instance but forcing an experience on the student; an experience that teaches them they can’t fight, it’s confusing and unpleasant. When we build sparring up gradually with variable elements and intensity, they develop confidence and competence. This removes the fear of being hit, and the ability to take it in its stride when it happens.

All drills that encourage people to push through discomfort – irrespective of what causes that discomfort – have a role to play too. If people can keep throwing punches when they are truly exhausted its normally because they find the will and the aggression to keep going. The same attributes come into play following impact.

All the best,


Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Iain Abernethy wrote:
I would see getting used to contact as by-product of progressive live training. It is possible to get someone to stand still while some one else punches them, but I’d not go that route because ... [snip]

Thanks Iain. I think this is pretty much what I've been doing so far, but I do run into the problem sometimes of a student who has so little previous experience with any kind of contact that I am not sure how to begin them. Probably time for me to bust out your KBS dvd again.

I'm actually working with my wife right now who restarted Karate after a long hiatus (thanks Corona Virus!). She's an enthusiastic student, but is not used to contact of this sort ( like she unlearned it on the hiatus) and I'm trying to figure out a golden mean of her both getting exposed to an appropriate level of discomfort, but not so much discomfort that it's counterproductive or a bad experience for her.

Ideally (if class were going on) I'd be having her work with someone other than me, because that is a whole new layer to the contact question, and sometimes I think she's more vocal with me about things than she'd be with someone she's not married to :)

I feel somewhat validated that avoiding hard head contact is a good idea. I'm not familiar with the science on it specifically but decided in my late 30's that "light to moderate" was probably the appropriate level for typical live work. The only times I've gone beyond that in years have been where armor is involved and it was safe to do so.

That brings up something interesting I've been thinking about, and I'd like to see if you or others can relate:

I've found that with "self defense" sparring the contact level overall needs to be lowered from what I would count as "moderate" ranged Karate sparring significantly, in a sense. In the ranged sparring I used to do you would think that you were sparring "hard" because the techniques you used to enter, say a front kick or roundhouse followed by a back fist/reverse combo were done hard...before you were actually in range of actually landing them. Once you had an actual clash (which is practically over before it begins in ranged sparring anyway) the level would suddenly drop and you would "pull" your stuff out of safety. So bascially, hard techniques are thrown, but the hardest techniques in this form of sparring in my experiences tended to be ones that do not land. So, the more common injuries where things like jammed fingers and toes, rather than bloody noses. I remember actual injury too, but it was usually when people agreed to go harder.

This creates an interesting dynamic with teaching close range sparring to people whose previous experience is ranged Karate sparring, because they have never really done much close range work, they don't realize the habits they had from the ranged sparring (such as initial non-connecting techniques being thrown hard), and don't yet understand that some of the stuff they were doing at range is -much- more effective when they are close to hit from the beginning, and so for a typical session, the contact level needs to drop a bit.

The analogy I'm trying to use (or will when we return to classes) is a dial that "goes to 11" (just for a Spinal Tap reference), but that has very fine adjustment, so every number on the dial has five or so ticks. I feel like the appropriate contact level for close range sparring in the dojo is probably from around 2 to 5 on such a dial, but with (hopefully) an ability to finely "tune" with your partner as needed.

Does this make sense?

AllyWhytock's picture


I created a new thread without reading this first but it partially covers overcoming beginners' inhibitions.


Kindest Regards,