RECEIVING CONTACT – A RATIONALE
Receiving contact in training is useful for the following reasons:
Physical conditioning is actually only a minor aspect of being hit. It may be obvious that the tougher you are, the more resistant you may be to receiving impact to some areas of the body, but the actual act of being hit does not really strengthen the body in this respect. There is an element of physical conditioning that occurs in training with regard perhaps to changes to skin thickness on striking surfaces and, as many Karateka who have used Makiwara will attest, a slight increase in knuckle size; but I would regard these developments as conditioning from making impact, not receiving impact.
Our bodies are strengthened, toughened if you will, through the combination of physical exertion, rest and appropriate diet. Well structured exercise and diet ensure that we have a stronger skeleton, combined with powerful muscles, tendons and ligaments, all supported appropriately by healthy organs and a good vascular system that can cope with the stresses of extreme heart and lung activity in the event of a combative situation. Being hit does not improve our physical conditioning, rather it tests it. It shows us how much we can take, and where we can sometimes afford to take knocks and where we absolutely cannot. If receiving hits is not physical conditioning per se but actually physical testing, its actual purpose is psychological conditioning.
Psychological conditioning is the key basis for engaging in any form of training where you actually experience being hit. In fact one of the key aspects of what people perceive as physical conditioning, pain tolerance, is actually psychological conditioning. The pain of being hit does not disappear, instead the mind becomes accustomed to it as little more than a signal that something is wrong. If you hold a person in a wrist lock or a finger lock for too long, they become accustomed to the pain and find they recover a degree of movement – which is why such techniques are generally best applied with faint pulses so that while the technique is never ‘off’’, the mind never has a chance to get fully accustomed to the pain. The more often we are hit, experience the pain, and realize that we can in fact carry on, the less attention the mind pays to the actual pain of receiving the strike. Now this obviously is extremely important for anyone who is training to be in a fight, whether they are preparing themselves for self defence or for a competitive fight, because the majority of this process of pain acceptance and stimulus rejection is subconscious. Our natural response to pain is to shy away. Think of when you first (or last) made the mistake of putting your hand on something hot and found that amazingly your hand had flinched off it without any thought. The pain tolerance that comes from the experience of being hit will not stop a natural unconscious flinch away from the impact, but what it will do is allow a person to continue to act rather than stop to consider or assess the pain because the mind is no longer rating the warning signal so highly because of the experience that it can continue and that the damage is not severe. Without such contact the likelihood that a person will freeze when their defences fail and they get hit is increased. The ability to carry on despite being caught and having your balance and rhythm distorted (in addition to feeling pain and possibly being winded) is an essential attribute of a successful fighter, and an ability that is best developed by careful and gradual exposure to receiving contact in a dynamic situation.
At the same time as the mind develops this ability to process yet set aside stimuli, another equally important mental process is being developed by experiencing contact. The process I have described above concerns the mental processing of the tactile stimuli of being hit, but fighting also touches on other senses such as sight, hearing, and potentially even taste and smell (the latter perhaps more so in real life than in competition). These senses assail the conscious mind more often because (with the exception of the latter two) they are the means through which we communicate, and fighting actually does involve a tremendous amount of communication through sights such as facial expressions and incoming attacks, and sounds such as threatening shouts, grunts, heavy breathing and screams.
Unless introduced to sparring at slow speed, many people in static no contact sparring have difficulty staying still when a counter strike is coming towards them, even if they know it will stop before hitting them. This desire to move out of the way is no bad thing, but sometimes the confidence that you are not going to be hit can pave the way to a dangerous over-confidence in the ability to evade an attack that is really intended to strike home. When the training regime involves contact, there is no uncertainty as to whether the strike ‘would have hit’. You learn to accept when you have been hit, how it became possible, how it made you move, and what you can do to change that outcome,
Receiving contact also teaches a very valuable lesson about the techniques that we use. Experiencing the force of a well executed strike through padding a trainee can truly appreciate how much pain and damage it can cause when no protective steps are taken. Such knowledge may have a positive influence on a student’s appreciation that outside of training, martial arts techniques are less for show or minor squabbles, but only for situations of real need. Contact in training can therefore be a movement to responsibility.
Some people use body armour, other people use heavy gloves. If you are making contact what you use (or do not use) for protection will determine the length of time you can take impact, the level of impact and the location of impact – as well as who trains with you.
Unsupervised and untrained use of padding and body armour can result in the very injuries that their use is designed to prevent. The head and the spine are particularly vulnerable to dangerous injury and the latter should never be struck in training. The golden rule to reduce injury is, as always, start training slowly, strike lightly in a static fashion before increasing contact, and when first transferring to mobile targets, again start slowly with a progressive force continuum. Always ascertain how much contact you and your partner are prepared to take in static training before moving to dynamic training.
In the videos on my youtube channel you can see people from a huge range of martial arts styles making contact with varying intensity in my scenario training. Before they do this they have examined the armour, read safety briefings, and exchanged strikes in pairs to get a feel of what they can do safely. It’s easy to forget that while the simulated fights only last a few seconds, the participants can be in armour for hours and can take lots of solid hits throughout a day’s training.
I would advise anyone undertaking contact training where both parties are making contact to always have a non-participating safety observer present to stop the training at any time.
Have fun and train safely.