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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Light Contact Means Light Contact

This week I'm stepping away from my usual fare of talking about travel, teaching, and learning, to touch on the topic of levels of contact.

As a color belt, I attended a school that taught both light contact and full contact sparring. The rule sets were completely separate, and while most people preferred to specialize, I just loved sparring and didn't much care what the rules were, as long as I had someone willing to spar me.  I had trouble with that at one point when one of my seniors got kicked in the face by a wild horse and told everyone that the resulting injury was from sparring me.  Which is a lot funnier now than it was then.

I guess that's a compliment?  Thanks to jdj150 for making the image
available for reuse.

I think there's a silent perception among a lot of martial artists that if you ask someone to lighten up their level of contact against you, you'll be seen as a wimp.  People may very well think that about me, but I'm not too proud to say they can think what they want.  I'm an unapologetic stickler for keeping contact light when those are the agreed upon rules. Hitting hard has a time and a place.  Save it for full contact matches.

Foot-induced nap time is also fun.

For me this attitude had its roots in competition.  I loved to compete, but the adult female color belt divisions were not deep.  I'd be envious of the men's divisions that had sizable brackets, when I had to count myself lucky if I got two fights for my entry fee.  My instructor was adamant that I couldn't fight in the men's division, even though sometimes that meant I got sent home with a trophy just for being the only person in my division to show up to the tournament.  I desperately wanted there to be more women competing in sparring.  When I did have opponents, sometimes I had a significant size or experience advantage.  I started to take pride in my very light, accurate taps that were enough to score the point but carried no risk of driving one of my few female opponents from competition.

I remember one tournament in particular.  I was a head taller and two ranks up on my opponent, who had never been to a tournament before.  She was scared to death of me, and said so.  I assured her that she would not get hurt in a light contact match.  I defeated her soundly while keeping my word--light taps only.  I was happy to see her again at another tournament a few months later.  Sure, I could have hit a lot harder and gotten away with it, but if I made it such an unpleasant experience for her, would I have seen her again?  Probably not.  There'd be one less person on the competition circuit and maybe even one less martial arts enthusiast.  Regardless of the score, I wouldn't call that a win.

Sometimes you're on the side that has nothing to prove.

Beyond the desire to make sure I never drove a competitor away from competition, there was a very practical reason for the very light contact.  In competition, I'm not trying to defend myself in a life-and-death situation.  I'm trying to score a point.  Using the minimum level of contact necessary to score that point means that I'll never get penalized for excessive contact.  Sure, I might get away with hitting harder.  I might even get away with hitting a lot harder.  But why bother leaving it up to the judges' discretion?  Those light taps were an efficient way to win.

But the biggest reason I became such a stickler for light contact came about a year later. I was again at a tournament, this time fighting a friend from the same school as myself.  The match was stopped for the tournament organizer to make some announcements, and I was completely turned away from my friend.  When I looked back, she was curled up in a ball on the floor and unresponsive.  That was the end of that match.

It was days later when I finally learned what had happened.  During the match, I kicked her in the head with my regular very light tap.  It would not have affected a healthy person in the slightest, but unbeknownst to her or anyone else, she had cancer.  The doctors told her that if she had been kicked any harder, it probably would have killed her.

As you might imagine, I felt awful that I had hospitalized my friend.  She told me not to carry any guilt.  She said that if not for that head kick, the cancer might have continued silently killing her for a long time before any medical tests were done.  As it was, they caught the cancer late in Stage 1.  If it had progressed to Stage 2 before they caught it, her chances of survival would have been much lower.

She's alive and well today.


  1. Yikes. That would be a terrifying experience. But you might have saved her life with that love-tap :D

    1. Definitely terrifying. And yeah, I might have. You know, a lot of people hope that their martial arts training will save a life someday, but probably none of them ever think they'll do it by kicking their friend in the head.