The armor above was used in a different context, but its purpose was the same – to protect the person wearing the equipment, to the extent possible, from injury. Failure to wear appropriate equipment would have been a terrible mistake during feudal Japanese battles, just as failure to wear appropriate sparring equipment is a terrible judgement error when practicing modern sparring skills. We insist that students always wear appropriate safety equipment when engaging in any form of sparring.
Students who engage in Kumite or full contact sparring are required to wear certain specific protective equipment. The reasons are simple, without this equipment the risks of injuries go up substantially. We do not allow any exceptions to these equipment requirements.
When sparring it is especially important to remove any jewelry or other accessories that might injure a training partner or that might become caught in the gear worn by yourself or your training partner. Even a glancing blow to a body-piercing can cause extensive damage. Watches, rings, or ornamental jewelry can cause significant injuries when impacted or when they impact others. We make exceptions for wedding rings when gloves are worn, but otherwise we require that all decorative or other body adornments be removed before sparring.
Required Sparring Safety Equipment
All students who spar with another person must utilize the following required safety equipment while sparring.
- Suitable Headgear (varies by the type of sparring)
- Gloves (varies by the type of sparring)
- Groin Protection (women should consider it also)
- Shin Guards
- Foot protection
- Hand wraps (full contact sparring)
The headgear used in Kumite and full contact sparring are often quite different. Kumite headgear is generally designed to be lightweight allowing for greater mobility and reduced heat retention. Full contact headgear is designed to offer more robust protection for the type of direct strikes you are likely to encounter in this form of sparring. Students may opt to use full contact headgear when participating in Kumite. Kumite headgear may never be used in full contact sparring.
The headgear used in Kumite is usually made of dense foam and covers the head (including the back of the head), portions of the face, ears, and sometimes the chin. While contact to the head is not allowed in Kumite, this does not mean an errant strike will not land there. The headgear in Kumite is intended to provide limited protection against a potential accidental strike while allowing rapid movement.
Some Kumite headgear provide a full face shield, while most do not. If a face shield is provided it will often be either a clear plastic shield or a heavy metal or wire mesh of some type. This can provide some added protection, the shields also add weight and in some cases retain more heat. Kumite headgear with and without a face shield are acceptable.
We suggest you invest in some sound and robust Kumite headgear and avoid purchasing the least expensive equipment available. We are talking about protecting your mental faculties here. We are also trying to reduce the likelihood you will suffer life-threatening injuries. We think it’s nice to be able to recognize your family members when you go home.
Full Contact Headgear
Full contact headgear should provide a metal face guard or robust facial contoured padding so that strikes cannot make contact with the face – particularly the nose, mouth, and eyes. Full head, ear, face, and chin protection should be provided by the headgear as well (obviously you will still want to be able to see and breath). This headgear must be fully padded, robust and sturdy, therefore the typical headgear used in Kumite may not be used in full contact sparring.
Before you purchase full contact headgear we suggest you consult with your Head Instructor to ensure the equipment you are considering is suitable. Some Kumite headgear may appear to be sufficiently robust to provide full contact sparring protection – but this is seldom the case. Your head instructor should be able to provide you with guidance on the proper equipment to acquire. You will definitely want sound and robust protection – nothing else should be even considered.
Like many other pieces of safety equipment the gloves worn in Kumite and full contact sparring are often different. This is in part because the purpose of the gloves is different. While you can wear full contact gloves when participating in Kumite, you will find them very limiting. You may not wear Kumite gloves when participating in full contact sparring as the risk to your hands and your opponent are too great.
Gloves worn for Kumite generally provide protection over your knuckles, hand, and some or all of your fingers. In most cases these gloves permit you to use your fingers and thumb for grasping and pulling. The thumb is therefore usually mobile and can readily be moved to different positions.
Commonly these gloves have an elastic strap that secures the gloves at the wrist using a hook and loop strip. Care must be used when putting on the gloves to ensure the end of this strap does not protrude such that it might scratch an eye of yourself, a training partner, or an opponent.
The construction of these gloves makes it possible to strike with various Ken Tsuki, Haito Uchi, Shuto Uchi, and most other full-hand strikes. In some gloves the fingers are fully encased within the glove. In others the uncovered fingers or finger tips protrude beyond the end of the glove. Both designs allow you to grasp an opponent’s arm, leg, or shoulder with ease, though the open finger glove design offers some additional flexibility in your grasping ability. The trade off, of course, is a potential increased risk of injury to your fingers – particularly strains and sprains that can occur when your finger is struck or jammed. The style you select is a personal choice. Your Head Instructor or sparring instructor will be able to provide additional insights that may help you select the best gloves for your purposes.
Full Contact Gloves
For Kumite the gloves typically have a padding over the knuckles but the fingers are often not fully covered. This allows padding for punches, but leaves the fingers available for grabbing and manipulating a training partner. For full contact sparring, regular full sized sixteen ounce boxing gloves are required. Gloves should tie and it should be possible to keep the laces concealed so they do not come lose to become a flailing weapon. Hook and loop closures (laces) should be avoided to reduce the risk of scratches and abrasions to you and your training partners. Hand wraps should normally be used when engaged in full contact sparring, though they may be omitted for some training exercises.
These gloves are designed to primarily support Ken Tsuki type strikes but can be used for strikes such as Uraken Tsuki. The thumb is usually held immobile and the fingers are fully encased in thick padding. The gloves can be used to entrap an arm or leg, but they are not particularly useful for grabbing or otherwise manipulating an opponent. It is not impossible to use the gloves for manipulation, but that is not a primary consideration in the design of these gloves. The primary purpose of the gloves is to reduce the chances of injury to your hand and your opponent’s body during full contact striking.
Hand wraps (sometimes called hand bandages) are long cloth strips that are used to protect the hand and wrist during contact. These wraps begin at the thumb and wrap around the wrist and various parts of the hand to help keep the wrist straight and to protect bony surfaces from impact forces. Hand wraps are applied first and then your sparring gloves are worn over the wraps. This two layer protection is important to help reduce the likelihood of injury when contacting training partners, opponents, heavy bags, or other training equipment. We require that hand wraps be worn whenever hard impact is likely, even if you are only striking a bag. The wraps reduce the risk of injury to the wrist and the bones of the hand which can occur even when striking what might be thought of as a soft surface.
Additional Required Sparring Equipment
A full hard groin cup should be worn by males who practice any form of sparring. This should be standard equipment for any male student attending any class, whether or not the class will involve sparring. The cup must be able to withstand a full contact blow, especially from a strike such as Mae Geri or Yoko Geri. This is not a location of the body where you will want to experience a shattered or broken protective device. Female participants should seriously consider utilizing any of the many pads available that provide appropriate groin protection.
A well-fitting mouthpiece is essential. Some mouthpieces fit to the upper teeth, and some are designed to fit both the upper and lower teeth. Most people wear the former because the one fitting both teeth requires the mouth to be closed more fully (which is actually a really good thing), which can restrict breathing. Either type is acceptable, provided the mouthpiece has been custom fitted to your mouth. Most mouthpieces come with instructions for how to do this, and most dentists will be happy to provide you with a custom fitted mouth guard. Please note that if you have had any form of major dental work done then you should acquire and properly fit a new mouthpiece that will conform to your altered dental profile.
Shin guards are designed to protect the front of your lower leg from impact damage. The bones and nerves in the shin are very near the surface and can be easily injured, especially if the shins of two people impact one another at full force. The shin guard is designed to protect against such eventualities. The shin guard also helps protect your training partner by lessening the impact of your leg strikes. Some shin guards also provide protection for the top of the foot.
For Kumite the shin guards are often made of foam and may be attached using hook and loop fasteners that wrap behind the calf. For full contact sparring a more dense foam or a hard-shell exterior is often used. The hard-shell exterior helps protect you, but does little to protect your training partner. For this reason you should consult with your Head Instructor or sparring instructor before acquiring hard shell shin protection. Your Dojo may not allow hard shell protection as it raises the risk of injury to your training partners.
You may utilize a Kumite shin guard when engaged in full contact sparring. You may also use most full contact shin guards during Kumite, but you may not use a hard shell shin guard during Kumite sparring.
The small bones and connective tissues in the feet can be easily damaged by an elbow block or a slightly misaligned kick. Foot padding is essential to reduce the possibility for such injuries. For Kumite the most common padding is a boot made of the same material used for Kumite headgear and shin guards. The boot leaves the bottom of the foot uncovered to provide good contact with the floor (some will dispute that after having worn these boots for some time, but that is their intent), but provides protection for the ankle, heel, top, and sides of the foot. The protection is required to limit the risk of injury to both yourself and anyone you may strike with a kick.
For full contact fighting the same foot protection may be used but often a more robust foot pad is needed. Martial arts shoes with ample padding are often used in place of the foam boots often used in Kumite, and many shin guards have a flap that extends downward to cover the top of the foot or shoe.
Students practicing full contact sparring may elect to utilize a sparring shoe that is only worn in the Dojo or at other martial arts events. If shoes are worn then the shin guard must provide additional top of foot protection via a flap that extends over the top of the shoe.
Students practicing Kumite or those who elect not to wear a sparring shoe during full contact sparring must wear a Kumite boot. In this case a shin guard that overlaps the top of the boot is highly recommended, but not essential.
Optional Sparring Safety Equipment
There are many additional types of safety equipment that can be used by those participating in sparring activities. These are optional, but many should be seriously considered by participants.
A chest protector is highly recommended. They can be bulky, cause copious perspiration, and make some movements more difficult, but they will also help protect your shoulders, ribs, breasts, sternum, and abdomen from percussive strikes. Bruised, dislocated, and broken ribs are absolutely no fun. And let’s not forget that most of your vital organs are located within the area covered by a chest protector. Be smart, wear one.
Chest protectors come in a wide array of styles. Avoid the hard shell protectors but otherwise consider a chest protector that offers more than adequate padding to protect the ribs, abdomen, collar bone and back. With a little research and some consultation with your Head Instructor or sparring instructor you should be able to find an excellent chest protector that offers excellent protection, minimum weight, and ample heat disbursement.
Some pads have strings that tie in the back while others use hook and loop systems or simply slip on over the head. It is a lot easier and faster to slip a chest protector on than it is to have someone help you tie up the strings in the back. But any method that will keep the protector securely in place without becoming an entanglement hazard is fine.
Forearm and elbow guards can help reduce the effects of impacts to these areas. Some people like to wear them, others feel they are an impediment to movement. Unless your Dojo has mandated the use of some of this equipment, then wearing this equipment is entirely a personal choice. There is not, and should never be, any peer pressure for you to avoid wearing any piece of safety equipment that you feel is warranted for your protection. We want you to feel safe while sparring.
You should very seriously consider eye protection. Goggles are preferred over something like safety glasses. Goggles provide fuller protection and usually have a strap that will hold them more securely in place. The problem with goggles is that they can easily fog up during vigorous activity. For this reason we recommend anti-fogging goggles. You can find numerous suitable goggles by doing an Internet search for “sports goggles.”
As a comfort issue you may wish to select goggles that do not rest directly atop the bridge of the nose. These can pinch over time and a strike to the front of the goggles may not feel good on the bridge of your nose. Your Head Instructor or sparring instructor may have suggestions for specific goggles that work well for sparring. We do not make specific recommendations here because designs and products change frequently so any recommendations we provide are likely to quickly become dated.
You may also wish to consider how useful the goggles you are considering may be for grappling activities. Your Head Instructor may be able to make recommendations for goggles that work well for both sparring and future grappling activities.
If you have a medical or physical condition that requires the use of special protective or prosthetic equipment, check with your Head Instructor or sparring instructor to ensure the equipment is safe and sufficiently robust to be used in a sparring environment. We do not want your special equipment or any sparring participants, yourself included, to be damaged.
The purpose of all sparring equipment is to reduce the chances that you or a training partner is injured during sparring activities. We take student safety quite seriously and require that all students observe our mandatory safety equipment requirements. If you plan to spar in a Tensoku Ryu Dojo, then gear up!