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Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture
Thoughts on Headbutting

This quote is from Morinobu Itoman’s 1934 book “The Study of Karate Techniques” (as translated by Mario McKenna):

“The forehead is used to strike when the opponent is close to you, or when he has grabbed your arm or sleeve. It can be used to strike the opponent’s face, including the nose, mouth and ears, or the neck or chest. Of course it is preferable to use your hands and feet for attacking and defending. However, if you are unable to use them, the head can be used with powerful results.”

He then goes on to say that the top of the head, the side of the head, and the back for the head can be used in the same way.

The headbutt is referred to in other texts too of course (karate and judo), and we explicitly see it in kata such as Kururunfa. However, it would be fair to say the headbutt is not practised as much as other striking techniques. There are probably two main reason for this:

1, People considering it “violent” and “uncouth”.

2, The fact it is banned in most combat sports i.e. boxing, karate, mainstream mma, etc. (which undoubtedly contributes to point 1).

Despite the fact it is far less effective than a punch, the UK Sentencing Guidelines for Assault (“Assault Definitive Guideline 2011”) list it as an “Aggravating factor indicating higher culpability”:

“Use of weapon or weapon equivalent (for example, shod foot, headbutting, use of acid, use of animal)”

Of course, this is looking at people convicted of assault (people who have acted illegally) and not people who have employed self-defence (who have acted legally and therefore would not be guilty of assault). However, it does show that the legal system in the UK sees headbutting as belonging in the same category as setting a dog on someone, using a weapon, or throwing acid at them! This is obviously ridiculous because a headbutt is way more innocuous than those things; both in terms of potential for physical injury and psychological trauma.

It would seem to me, that whoever has written these guidelines has a very “Queensbury rules” view of violence and has hence put the headbutt in way more serious company than it really deserves i.e. it is considered an “unsporting” and “violent method” that would only be employed by truly dangerous people (who need locked up for longer). Again, this takes us back to points 1 and 2 above.

So one thing we do need to consider with headbutts is that they are deemed “violent” by the general public and the legal system. While this is invariably down to false ideas and assumptions about the method, it’s still something that needs considered when factoring in the likely view of judges, jurors, law enforcement and witnesses if we use the headbutt in self-defence. The law on self-defence should not see this being an issue if you truly have acted “honestly and instinctively” in the face of a what you honestly believed to be a threat. We must also remember that UK law states it is unreasonable to expect people to “judge to a nicety the level of force used”. However, laws – no matter how perfect on paper – are put into effect by we fallible humans and hence there is the possibility that the cultural view of the headbutt could predispose people to think in a detrimental way about you and your actions.

Away from the cultural view of the headbutt, the inescapable fact is that it is a far weaker technique that a punch. However, the headbutt does have uses in self-defence when it is not possible to strike or create space in any other way.

In our dojo we allow the headbutt in sparring. This not only so we can use it when needed, but so we are aware of the potential for the enemy to use it too. They are very hard to control, so we just move the head to within 4 or 5 inches of the target to indicate the potential for it to land. We also make use of it in pad-drills (as shown in the two videos below) and competence with the headbutt is a grading requirement.

 

So what are your thoughts on the headbutting? It definitely a prescribed part of the karate tool kit, but do you make use of it in training? If not, why not? Do you have any thoughts on the cultural perceptions of the headbutt? Is sport the origin of these perceptions? How does the law view headbutts in other parts of the world? If you do train headbutts, in what way do you train them?

All the best,

Iain

Chikara Andrew
Chikara Andrew's picture

I think that the perception and classification of headbutts is down to how they are used from the agressors point of view, as opposed to their potential use as a self defence tool.

From the agressors perspective the headbutt can be deployed without warning once an attacker is already inside the defences of the victim. The agressor has already closed the range during the verbal phase and heads are only inches appart. The headbut here is brutally effective and the victim has little to no chance of avoiding the strike.

Not that the concept of a fair fight should come into an assualt situation but I can see how should be viewed and an underhand or overtly aggressive tactic. Yes we do train for this by discussing distance and control during the verbal phase to avoid allowing an aggressor to get that close.

From a self defence perspective the headbut is more of a "last or only resort". The headbut has the potential to cause similar discomfort and disoriation to you as to your attacker but it can win you vital seconds and opportunity to escape from a hold. 

JWT
JWT's picture

Interesting debate Iain.  

I'm not a fan and I don't really train them much.  

I do teach defences against a head butt - and these are either done with both partners moving slowly after a violent fast push/pull grab (because to go fast, even when trying to pull impact - means that both people are directly using force against the head in opposing directions so the potential for injury is high - we stopped doing this after a suspected concussion) or full speed with a rounded thai pad taking the place of the head driving forwards with some power and weight. In that sense I defend against the more common violent attacks that use the head and I also indicate vulnerability to head on head strikes (such as lateral head strikes) in other positions.  

Despite that I don't advocate it as a tactic. It's an effective thing to be hit by, so why don't I use it more?  

It's not for any sense of Queensbury rules or fair play. It's not for any legal reason either, for I know that if I were to use it I could provide an explanation for the use of force and choice of tactics that would be viewed as reasonable. It's not even because I've never found myself in a compromised position where I've not had a hand, knee, forearm that I could not use to better effect.  It's for medical reasons that I shun it. I don't like taking bangs to the (top/back/side of the) head and I don't want my students to take many bangs to the head either.  

Impact strikes to the head may cause a sharp pain, but that is not so much a worry as a feeling of disorientation and nausea that often comes with them for many people - whether they are butter or buttee. With the power of some of the head butts we have trained and used in the past, a full power defence would be likely to result in concussion or whiplash injuries even if we pulled the counter enough to lessen the risk of a KO. We are being 'hit' more and more with medical evidence that head impact, whether in boxing, in rugby, in american football or in football is not good for us. I believe that if I want my students to be good at certain tactics then they need to practice them - it is rather like the eye gouge argument: don't expect to be able to do it reliably unless you practice it, and if you can't practice it don't expect to do it. I don't feel that I can practice head butts in a manner that will make it both an effective (though low percentage) tool and not be likely to cause them potentially life changing injuries in the long term. I'm not prepared to take the risk of damaging my students' brains for the sake of a strategy that I have never needed in reality or simulation. If things ever got so bad that I or they might have to use it, I'd rather chance it to their limited exposure than more practice.  

All the best  

John

Wastelander
Wastelander's picture

We do include headbutts in our bunkai/self defense training, to a degree, but pretty much only as far as saying; "at this point, you can headbutt them this way" and telling students to just keep it in mind, or make a small head motion, staying far enough away to not make contact. There was one teenage student of ours who tended to use headbutts when grabbed in sparring, and did so with contact, despite us telling him not to make contact. That lack of control led to him splitting his head open while splitting someone else's nose open and breaking it, so we have since moved even further away from headbutts in training. Head wounds bleed a lot, bloodborne pathogens are a concern, and concussions are a concern. If you're truly in fear for your life and safety, then it's absolutely a viable option, but there is more risk than reward in training them, in my opinion.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Thanks for the replies gents! As interesting and informative as always.

Wastelander wrote:
We do include headbutts in our bunkai/self defense training, to a degree, but pretty much only as far as saying; "at this point, you can headbutt them this way" and telling students to just keep it in mind, or make a small head motion, staying far enough away to not make contact.

We always make the motion, but aside from that it’s pretty much the same for us. They are very difficult to control so we have a “no contact rule” (not even light touch) for them in training and sparring. We build all our sparring up gradually and in a structured way in order to develop the physical and emotional control to train safely. If anyone was not able to train safely, they would be stopped from sparring. That’s never happened yet. The safety precautions in place remove the valid concerns about head injury and blood because there is no contact between people.

The only time we make contact with headbutts is on the pads. Of course, we never do things like, “50 full power headbutts as fast as you can … go!” because people would knock themselves silly. Single strikes (almost always as part of combinations), when the striker controls the level of contact, where they know how to deliver the strike properly, and the holder knows how to hold the pads properly (hold them so they give a little and don’t push them forward!), works well for us when it comes to the balance between practicality and safety. I therefore think it is possible to train them in a safe and effective way.

JWT wrote:
It's for medical reasons that I shun it. I don't like taking bangs to the (top/back/side of the) head and I don't want my students to take many bangs to the head either.

Does that extend to when you don the armour too John? Striking, irrespective of the tool used, is always controlled so there is never any head contact?

JWT wrote:
With the power of some of the head butts we have trained and used in the past, a full power defence would be likely to result in concussion or whiplash injuries even if we pulled the counter enough to lessen the risk of a KO.

We practice the strike on the pads, but we don’t do full power counters to full power headbutts because I agree that those combined forces would be very problematic. Power is reserved for the pads and we never use full power headbutts in partner work; and that applies to both executing and defending.

All the best,

Iain

JWT
JWT's picture

Hi Iain

Iain Abernethy wrote:

We always make the motion, but aside from that it’s pretty much the same for us. They are very difficult to control so we have a “no contact rule” (not even light touch) for them in training and sparring. We build all our sparring up gradually and in a structured way in order to develop the physical and emotional control to train safely. If anyone was not able to train safely, they would be stopped from sparring. That’s never happened yet. The safety precautions in place remove the valid concerns about head injury and blood because there is no contact between people.

The only time we make contact with headbutts is on the pads. Of course, we never do things like, “50 full power headbutts as fast as you can … go!” because people would knock themselves silly. Single strikes (almost always as part of combinations), when the striker controls the level of contact, where they know how to deliver the strike properly, and the holder knows how to hold the pads properly (hold them so they give a little and don’t push them forward!), works well for us when it comes to the balance between practicality and safety. I therefore think it is possible to train them in a safe and effective way. 

It's a difficult balance isn't it. On the one hand you want students to be aware of them , both to help them avoid being hit by them and to raise awareness of the opportunties for the tactic where appropriate, while on the other hand minimising and managing risk of injury. 

Iain Abernethy wrote:
Does that extend to when you don the armour too John? Striking, irrespective of the tool used, is always controlled so there is never any head contact?

Yes and no. :) I've become stricter year on year with how I manage risk of head injury in my scenario training. Compared to a number of good competitive training models, scenario training does raise the issue of head contact because the head is the target of choice in a significant proportion of violent crime that involves injury (and as memory serves in one publication that I have cited in my books head injuries made up 70% of all Emergency Departnment recorded injuries relating to alcohol related violent crime in England and Wales). This means that the vast majority of initial assaults will be aimed at the head, and given the size, power, aggression and enthusiasm of a number of participants this has to be carefully managed.

Those familiar with my scenario training will be aware that in the majority of courses the participants wear leather and plastic cage helmets (a recent exception being a course this summer that I ran in Calgary for a Jeet Kune Do group where I made the decision that no headgear and gumshields was a safer option given the equipment then available).


The headgear will not protect the brain from injury. It is there prely to reduce the danger of lip splitting (which happened once in a High Gear Helmet), broken noses, cuts and abrasions. It also serves a valuable psychological function both in making the wearer very aware that people will be trying to hit them and in empowerment for some individuals (I do get a wide range of personality types, ages and sexes in the training).


What I do these days is run several levels of contact acclimatisation.  Every training day starts as you might expect with all participants giving me a medical form and sharing information on any injuries with the other participants. We then run through a safety briefing that has multiple reminders about the dangers of head contact, the purpose of the head gear, and the need to pull contact. Following this we have a head excluded armour and contact acclimatisation where every participant gets to hit every other participant and get a feel for each other's power, what the armour does and does not mute (and so how you are protected and how you need to move post hit in order to provide realism in the scenario rather than turning it into a Marvel movie audition), and what each person is prepared to tolerate (both physically and psychologically). This is now followed by a 'bad guy' audition where in rotation each person has to shove a partner and (in hesdgear and mma gloves) swing at their head full speed (to create the visual illusion of a strike and thus prepping for realism in scenarios), applying the brakes just before impact so that the force transmitted is no more than a light push. This is done several times to prep people's control and recognition of what the hit in head gear will feel like (and if they fail to notice it in a scenario it is picked up in the video debrief). After that we go into one on one slow/medium/fast acclimatisations before going into the main multiple person training phase.

So contact is made to the head, and it is made at high speed, but the brakes are applied just before impact so the force is like a light push - certainly less than hitting the brakes suddenly in a car. It's a compromise that is working quite well. Naturally we do have occasional  instances where people make mistakes and go a tad beyond that, but I feel we have got to a good training realism/training safety compromise. The last suspected concusion we had came not from a head strike but from an accidental impact with (naturally) the one unpadded bit of wall at theedge of the training area - something that has  resulted in a review of the environment set up.

For anyone who doesn't know what Iain and I are referring to - this is the type of training:

All the best,

John

Kevin73
Kevin73's picture

Being from "across the pond", we see different types of assalt scenarios.  My first thought when reading that statute was coming from the "soccer hooligan" type assault that having talked with others from Great Britian is more common than in America due to the popularity of soccer and using your head to "butt" the ball.

Here is the US, the sports equivalent is pulling the shirt over the head and punching from ice hockey.

Please note, I am NOT saying that these attacks are only found in these place because of the sport or that they don't exist before the sport, just an increased frequency that untrained people tend to mimic the violence that they see.  

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

It makes sense to me that the prevailing sporting culture would have an influence to some degree. Rugby is very popular here (widely played in schools too) and hence many people have lots of experience of making violent contact with another human in the form of a tackle. It would be unsurprising if that manifested when people fight.  

As already discussed, the sporting culture has also had an influence in making the headbutt seem “uncouth” and “violent” due to the fact it is cheating in boxing, etc.

I think kicking also suffered from this in the past (an “unmanly” method to use), but not so much now due to a greater awareness of martial arts and their integration into the mainstream. John Wayne never kicked anyone … but even clean cut heroes like Captain America are OK with it these days.

All the best,

Iain

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

JWT wrote:
It's a difficult balance isn't it. On the one hand you want students to be aware of them , both to help them avoid being hit by them and to raise awareness of the opportunties for the tactic where appropriate, while on the other hand minimising and managing risk of injury.

Absolutely and it is interesting to see how different people and groups navigate this and try to strike that balance.

JWT wrote:
Yes and no. :) I've become stricter year on year with how I manage risk of head injury in my scenario training. Compared to a number of good competitive training models, scenario training does raise the issue of head contact because the head is the target of choice in a significant proportion of violent crime … SNIP

A very thorough reply and explanation John! Thank you.

All the best,

Iain

sarflondonboydo...
sarflondonboydonewell's picture

An interesting threat, my growing up apprenticeship in South London means over the years I saw headbutts used many times ranging from the flying headbutt literally, to the two handed lapel grab, the friendly hand around the back of the neck to pull them in. the two man distraction one talked to him the other headbutted him. I was lucky myself having just started to learn to box keeping the chin tucked into the shoulder and head slightly down the bloke headbutted me ontop of my head to this day I can remember the dull thud then instantly uppercut him. Ever since them days I have had a very very healthy respect for it, it is not to be underestimated and fighters who are good at it are very fast. Traditional Japanese ju jitsu systems who techniques were /are based around full armour use the headbutt simulating the Helmet. In my view one should sort of never look to headbutt but see it as a techniquee of opportunity, a clash of head as one closes to grapple. Interestingly enough in terms of violent assault;headbutts are not as common as one presupposes.

JWT
JWT's picture

sarflondonboydonewell wrote:
the two man distraction one talked to him the other headbutted him.

Not sure if you ever noticed on the occasions where we've met up, but I have a nice little scar across the bridge of my nose from being on the receiving end of a flying head butt executed in that scenario in Scotland almost 20 years ago. :)

karate10
karate10's picture

We also train headbutting in the dojo from time to time because theres moments that you won't be able to use your hands and that is when you have to use your head. For example, for Pinan Yondan, towards the end of the kata, rather than using your knee, you can substitue for the headbutting as a variation.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

karate10 wrote:
For example, for Pinan Yondan, towards the end of the kata, rather than using your knee, you can substitute for the headbutting as a variation.

You sure can … and perhaps ironically, I teach that sequence as a headbutting defence :-)

All the best,

Iain

sarflondonboydo...
sarflondonboydonewell's picture

I didt want to ask; a scare across the bridge of the nose is the sign of a injury from a head butt just like a 'broken nose' of boxers is due to the nose being broken so many times by punches. Funny when one reads about topices such as this the memory comes back very vivid!

karate10
karate10's picture

I agree sir and honestly, Its one of those things that we don't want to ever experience, but always remember one thing: Expect the un expected and keep trainning so we can be safe in the end.

Gerald.

Leszek.B
Leszek.B's picture

Thanks Iain, I was not aware of headbutt classification.

In our club we do training with headgear (stand up, take downs and ground) and I noticed that headbutts are very common, specially in close range when both arms are trapped.

Kind regards

Les

JWT
JWT's picture

Iain Abernethy wrote:

karate10 wrote:
For example, for Pinan Yondan, towards the end of the kata, rather than using your knee, you can substitute for the headbutting as a variation.

You sure can … and perhaps ironically, I teach that sequence as a headbutting defence :-)

All the best,

Iain

Me too! I showed this defence in both the Volume 3 of the Pinan Flow System and the much earlier (out of print) Heian Flow System. :)

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

JWT wrote:
Me too! I showed this defence in both the Volume 3 of the Pinan Flow System and the much earlier (out of print) Heian Flow System. :)

Great minds think alike! In the version of the kata I do, there is a double soto-uke (uchi-uke in Shotokan terminology) while dropping into short cat stance. There then follows a pull down knee-strike, before the right-arm rises as the left-hand comes to the right hip. I teach this is as a cover before dropping back, striking down on the griping forearms, striking up, and then cranking the neck. The following turn to 45-degrees will take the enemy over.

For the Shotokan variation of the form, I see a similar thing happening. The reach put thumbs in eyes and stops the head coming forward. There is then a knee, and the shuto-uke can twist the neck and take the enemy over. Both are on the DVDs, but I’ve not shared that on YouTube. Essentially, both kata show differing ways of achieving the same objectives i.e. differing manifestations of common principles.

All the best,

Iain

JWT
JWT's picture

Iain Abernethy wrote:

Great minds think alike!

Indeed!

Variances between kata are either the result of deliberate changes (for combative or athletic development/aesthetic reasons) or mistaken changes (due to poor recall). As such I don't subscribe to any style's version of a kata being 'wrong' if practitioners have (or can develop) a good application for the variation that they choose to do. It's also why I enjoy looking at other systems and in my own training mixing in their approaches and sometimes blending while doing a kata for myself.   

John

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

JWT wrote:
Variances between kata are either the result of deliberate changes (for combative or athletic development/aesthetic reasons) or mistaken changes (due to poor recall). As such I don't subscribe to any style's version of a kata being 'wrong' if practitioners have (or can develop) a good application for the variation that they choose to do. It's also why I enjoy looking at other systems and in my own training mixing in their approaches and sometimes blending while doing a kata for myself.

Totally agree and well put!

All the best,

Iain

AllyWhytock
AllyWhytock's picture

Hi, I've included two drills in my syllabus that contain head butts - one from Iain (your transition drill) and one from Patrick McCarthy (Koryu Uchinadi Kihon Futari-geiko - Heishu-waza). We also use the start of Tekki Nidan as a scenario for a control grab of a double lapel grab followed by a dodge to the side to avoid the head. It is quite common here (Blairgowrie). It is routinely used outside chippy/take-away shops when one has a drink in one hand and food in the other. Frugal waste not want not I suppose. It also became popular in the 1980s when the fictional TV character Yosser Hughes first appeared. We don't practice them with vigour as even without impact your brain stil gets rattled - a bit like head banging syndrome.

Kindest Regards,

Ally