Recently I was asked why our kids do not spar like in other martial arts classes and if we could start including it in our class. My answer is always the same, NO! Kids should not spar and anyone who makes kids spar, allowing for blows to the head, is either stuck in the past or does not care about the health and well-being of their kids.

Aside from the obvious facts that kid’s bodies have yet to develop fully, that their coordination is not consistent, and that their ability to control their power is questionable, recent years have produced numerous studies outlining the dangers of repeated head trauma that can stem from sparring.

The concept of Punch Drunk is nothing new and though past research has been done on the subject it isn’t until recently that it is actually being taken seriously. Previously, people simply thought it was just a normal part of the fight game, in those times the fight game would have been boxing.

It only takes a quick glance at interviews of boxers in their later years, like Mohammad Ali and other greats, to see that there is clearly a problem. Many are now affected by mental health problems, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, linked to the sport. The tale is always the same, repeated serious or mild head traumas, like concussions from repeated unchecked blows, can cause long lasting effects. Is this acceptable? Not really, and just now science is breaking down the facts when it comes to head trauma.

Here’s the quick break down: a blow that causes a concussion is not that bad, however if a person undergoes a concussion and isn’t given enough time to properly heal, serious compounding issues arise. Unfortunately, the problem is that most people don’t even realize they were concussed in the first place.

More recent times have seen the criticism of American Football.

In a study by Alan Schwartz commissioned by the NFL in September 2009 he reported that:

“Alzheimer’s disease or similar memory related diseases appear to have been diagnosed in the league’s former players vastly more often than in the national population — including a rate of 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30 through 49.”

Another side effect that repeated head trauma can cause is reduced levels of testosterone, growth hormone, and various other important natural chemicals required to function properly.

There has also been a lot of controversy in the MMA world on fighters taking human growth hormone. But no one ever asks why so many fighters take it. Yes, one could say they take it to perform better. However the truth is probably closer to them needing to take it in order to return to normal functioning levels, both physically and mentally. Why? Because of the old school training methods or gyms that do not take head trauma seriously, causing serious brain damage in the fighters and requiring growth hormones to return to these normal levels.

How important is Human Growth Hormone?

Numerous studies have shown that human growth hormone affects the nervous system in many more ways than previously thought. A published article by Neruoendocrinol 2000 Oct:21 (4): 330-48 Nyberg F Department of Pharmaceutical Biosciences, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden says:

“GH replacement therapy was found to improve the psychological capabilities in adult GH deficient (GHD) patients. Furthermore, beneficial effects of the hormone on certain functions, including memory, mental alertness, motivation, and working capacity, have been reported. Likewise, GH treatment of GHD children has been observed to produce significant improvement in many behavioral problems seen in these individuals. Studies also indicated that GH therapy affects the cerebrospinal fluid levels of various hormones and neurotransmitters. Further support that the CNS is a target for GH emerges from observations indicating that the hormone may cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB) and from studies confirming the presence of GH receptors in the brain.”

Think about it, this hormone is extremely important for a person to feel good both mentally and physically. If a child begins to receive head traumas and is too young to understand the dangers of being hit in the head after being concussed, then the lifelong trauma could be devastating. It could not only stunt their growth but also slow their mental processing, and cause depression among numerous other life altering issues.

A question you may have then is, why on earth should adults be sparring if it can be so dangerous? The answer is a simple one; we now know the dangers of head trauma unlike the past where it was just the way of things. Sparring is a very important part of learning Krav Maga. I have said it before but I will say it again, punch a black belt in the face and he is a brown belt, punch him again and he is a blue belt etc…

We all work the same way, trauma to us is the same as trauma to a would-be assailant. However we need to learn to react to being hit so that we can appropriately defend ourselves.

You can learn all the techniques you want but if you fail to apply them then they are useless. Sparring is the only way to overcome the natural reaction to panic and freeze under stress. On the other hand, if you get attacked in the street and you have conditioned yourself to react, rather than panicking, your body will react without thinking.

However this is not to say sparring should not be regulated. For example our Krav Maga sparring rules are as such:

  1. You must have a mouth guard and appropriate face protection (for Krav Maga that means head gear with a face mask).
  2. You are only to spar at 30% unless told otherwise.
  3. If you get hit hard you are done sparring for the day.
  4. If you think you have a concussion or have a concussion you cannot spar for a minimum of 6 weeks or as your doctor has advised you.

We want to train our students as best as we can but their health and safety is paramount. This is why in our schools kids do not spar and this is why our adult sparring, though may appear chaotic, has rules and our students are expected to follow them.

I suggest that if your school allows children to spar they should reconsider and if you have full contact sparring that you should look at the safety precautions in place to keep your students and fighters healthy and training as long as their mind and body allow.

By Jonathan Fader

Edited by: Vanessa Mora