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I am 16 years old, and I am interested in martial arts. The most popular schools in India teach Tae Kwon Do and Karate.

I wish to avoid something that may cause severe brain damage or concussion. I am fine with mild falls but not hard impact to the head. Are either of these more or less likely to involve hard impact to the head? What's my best option for training given my circumstances?

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I've done WTF taekwondo for about 8 years, including about 4 years of full contact sparring and national competition on a handful of occasions. I've never been knocked out. My friends who play basketball and soccer have both been knocked unconscious, multiple times in the space of a few years. Not to mention broken noses and teeth, which I have also completely avoided. –  jhsowter Sep 6 '12 at 2:05
    
I use the elbow to protect my head from kicks (be careful this can break the opponents ankles) and for punches I just dodge/block them. –  Reno Oct 7 '13 at 3:15
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6 Answers

IMO this question is essentially impossible to answer with the information given.

  1. What does being a mathematician have to do with that? Are we supposed to take that into account when deciding on "appropriate" arts? If so, how?
  2. Define "keeping fit". See potential conflict with #4.
  3. I'm not sure how this is related to anything.
  4. Define "violent art", and how you see this requirement with the "offense" part of #2. I don't put too many martial arts into the "non-violent" category; their very purpose is to be violent, with only a few exceptions, and fewer that incorporate all aspects of physical combat.

Based on essentially zero information, I'd say Aikido or Jiu Jitsu, although neither "allows the use of arms and legs alike" in the sense I think you mean it (kicks and strikes) to any great degree. In which case an adjunct striking art might be in order, perhaps Tae Kwon Do, as the sparring tends towards no head contact unless someone kicks you in the face.

If you can find a good school, something like Silat or Kali (Eskrima, Arnis, "Filipino stuff") might be suitable as they can be complex ("mathematical" in a sense), are quite complete, and don't generally spar full-force. Between them they incorporate a pretty wide range of techniques.

If you want to learn self-defense, IMO just learn self-defense; don't try to get to self-defense through martial arts if you don't want it to take a fair amount of time. Others will disagree with this, but I find them to be distinctly different things, although this varies wildly between schools. (For example, FMA tends towards being SD-applicable quicker than, say, Tai Ji Chuan, at least IMO.)

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@DaveNewton Please see this answer. A career boxer's tolerance for low levels of brain damage, whether limited temporary issues due to concussions or more severe due to ongoing competition, is different from a mathematician's. It isn't unique to math, but people have varying levels of tolerance for the issues raised by getting hit in the brain. –  Dave Liepmann Aug 19 '12 at 21:51
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Specific advice

Between karate and Tae Kwon Do, it very much matters what style of karate, and how each school trains.

You'll want to avoid a competitive school. Go to the schools nearby and ask them how they spar. If they train knock-down or full-contact sparring, you'll want to go somewhere else. The risk for concussion and brain damage is slight, but present.

A light-contact or no-contact school will keep you active and fit. You won't get very good at fighting without sparring hard (and accepting the risks involved), but you'll be able to train.

If you can find any wrestling or non-competitive judo schools, that would be a good option.

General advice

Steer clear of competitive boxing, judo, and kickboxing, as well as "Olympic-style" Tae Kwon Do and knock-down karate styles. Head injuries aren't common in those arts but the risk of concussion is definitely present. Boxing or kickboxing as a practice, with little sparring but lots of conditioning, bag work, and pad work, would be fine, as would judo, and those are solid ways to get fit and learn some basic hand-to-hand combat skills.

Wrestling, if offered at your school, would be a fine option. If the team is full of jerks, or the coach is big on severe weight cuts for competition, that would disqualify wrestling as an option.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a vigorous art that involves a minimum of contact likely to cause real injury, and might work well for you. A variety of light-contact karate and kung fu styles might work as well, but I doubt their usefulness in learning any real self-defense.

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Depends on the gong fu school; both of mine are pretty traditional in terms of what they teach, but my normal "SD is not MA" disclaimer applies just the same :/ Some wrestling teams will still let you on the team w/o comp prep, but they're all different.. –  Dave Newton Aug 18 '12 at 22:39
    
Style of TKD would also matter. WTF has full contact kicks to the head, ITF is semi-contact to everything, and I'm sure there are other TKD federations as well as unfederated styles that have their own unique characteristics. –  Robin Ashe Aug 22 '12 at 5:46
    
Although WTF Taekwondo (referred to in the answer as "Olympic-style") is full contact, head guards are worn. The current rules state that a headshot counts where any part of the foot below the shin makes contact with the head guard. –  pm_2 Aug 23 '12 at 13:44
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@pm_2 True, but if full-contact is allowed, people are going to go full-contact sometimes. It helps me score more points if my opponent is dazed after getting his bell rung. –  Dave Liepmann Aug 23 '12 at 14:46
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This is sort of a lost cause, as I doubt Sabyaschi will want to come back given his cold welcome, but let's take a look. I'm going to ignore the latest iteration and actually go with the original question.

Given the assumption that there are multiple TKD and multiple Karate schools available, with differences among each, here's what you're looking at for differences:

From a distance, if you squint, you won't be able to tell TKD apart from Karate, unless you see someone wearing shoes, in which case it's definitely TKD.

There are two major TKD federations - ITF and WTF. WTF is used in the Olympics, and is what most people think of when they hear or say TKD. The rules of WTF TKD prohibit punches to the head, only allowing punches to the body, but allow kicks to the head and body. Punches are also not scored as highly as kicks, so as a result of the rules, WTF TKD is known for its kicks. It is full contact, and the dipped foam headgear they use is worse than useless, so there is a high risk of concussion.

ITF is 'semi-contact' which is rather hard to define, but in general, you're not supposed to knock anyone out. Since it's semi-contact, the reasoning for disallowing head punches in WTF (risk of opening a cut) doesn't apply, and ITF TKD is much more balanced with kicks and punches than WTF TKD. In fact, I'd go as far as saying ITF TKD is more alike with JKA Shotokan than it is different.

There are other TKD styles, but ITF and WTF are so dominant that I've rarely come across a school that isn't one of those two.

With Karate there's more variation, but loosely they could be broken up into Knockdown, No/Light Contact and Non-Competetive.

The most prevalent example of Knockdown Karate is Kyokushin. It features no protective gear (except for cups), allows kicks, knees, punches and elbows to the body. Only kicks to the head are allowed - knees, elbows and punches have a high risk of opening cuts. Fighting is largely a matter of attrition. You'll either drop out or develop a body that's very tough in being able to take hits. You'll also end up with bruises on a regular basis. There's a risk of concussions from being KOed with a headkick, like WTF TKD, but I'd say it's actually slightly less. Because there's no body armour (WTF body armour is actually pretty good, unlike the headgear), there's also a decent chance of being dropped by strikes to the liver or xiphoid process. Leg kicks are also allowed, and are a popular way of taking someone out of the fight. You'll certainly be at risk of being hurt, but the chance of concussion goes down.

For No/Light Contact Karate styles, you'll see it being mostly like ITF TKD. Because you're not attacking with real force, punches to the head are allowed. There's relatively little risk of concussion, or any serious damage in one of these styles, unless they're fond of punching Makiwara to toughen the fist.

Non Competetive Karate styles might have some form of sparring in class, but the emphasis will more likely be on forms, and despite the name, you might also practice with some weapons. You're not too likely to get hurt or acquire a concussion, but at the same time you're also not all that likely to learn how to fight.

If you're interested in learning how to fight well, Kyokushin is your best bet - just make a habit of protecting your head in competition, and also decline any invitations to compete until you feel you're really ready.

If you're interested in the cultural aspects of martial arts, a non-competetive style is probably your best bet. Either TKD or Karate would do, but again, I haven't seen any non-competitive TKD. If on the odd chance that there's a Taekkyon school where you are. Check it out, it's quite different from either TKD or Karate, and I'd say it has more in common with Capoeira than TKD, protestations of some TKD exponents to the contrary.

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I think that style is less relevant than Sensei. I don't practice either TKD or karate, but I believe that the most important factor in determining whether you'll take the kind of blows you want to avoid is the instructor (and the senior students).

Watch a few classes. In particular watch juniors sparring and look for evidence that they're being observed by seniors, and that the seniors are monitoring safety and intervening with useful advice. (I'm aware that this isn't purely scientific; if the senior never intervenes, it may be because the juniors are never unsafe. Edits welcome). I'd watch juniors because the only study I've read about martial arts injuries indicated that injuries (and presumably safety violations) are most common in juniors and very seniors. (I don't have the cite available, and I can't remember enough to google it except that it was done by a Japanese Sensei.)

Ask questions about safety. Martial artists, like dancers, are nearly always injured in some way (scuffs, scrapes, bruises, etc.). I'd look for a school that admits minor injuries, but is very clear an open about any major injuries. In particular, if any major injuries have happened, what adjustments have been made to teaching to prevent that injury from happening again?

If this is a significant concern for, ask how they'll handle it. I wouldn't go near any school that is not willing to make a reasonable accommodation for student health issues.

I'm getting too deep in the weeds here. The point is that teachers vary in the emphasis they place on safety, and the variation in teachers is (I assert without evidence) more significant than the variations in style.

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+1 Nice overview of how to watch classes for a safety issue while evaluating a school. –  Dave Liepmann Aug 23 '12 at 13:15
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I can't really answer for Karate, as I've not done very much of it. I have, however, spent quite a long time studying both ITF and WTF Taekwondo. A lot of people have posted answers indicating that with WTF, there's a high risk of someone getting concussion, brain damage or whatever. I would actually say that, given the current WTF Olympic rules, studying this is less likely to result in a head injury.

WTF Taekwondo has many failings, for example, you probably wouldn't want to use any of the strategies it teaches in a street fight. But it is more of a sport that a martial art - meaning that what you train for is to score points, and not to injure people. Headshots are worth more points that body shots, however, the rules state that the foot simply has to "touch the head guard".

I've studied WTF for around 10 years and have seen one or two injuries, but never to the head. It is possible to kick someone in the head so hard that you knock them out, but it's too risky, when you score the same points for a tap.

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The risk of concussion isn't "high". I said: "Head injuries aren't common in those arts but the risk of concussion is definitely present." For instance, I love judo, judo is safe, but judo has a slight risk of concussion so is not the right choice for someone who wants to train without risk of concussion. That person should be very wary of training an art focused on kicking people in the head, but a light-contact WTF TKD school could a good choice. –  Dave Liepmann Aug 23 '12 at 14:19
    
Is the low injury rate you're seeing only in sparring or also in competition? I don't even practice TKD and I've seen more than 2 headkick KOs in the past 10 years (competition obviously). I'd also suggest that it's just as risky not to finish with a knockout when the opponent could come back and KO you later or rack up more points. –  Robin Ashe Aug 23 '12 at 14:19
    
You don't need to do full contact sparring in WTF taekwondo. –  jhsowter Sep 6 '12 at 2:02
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I have been in TKD and Martial arts for over 40 years. I have a master rank in TKD. I also have a traumatic brain injury.

This happens very seldom but the head gear in any sport does not protect you from concussion as the violent movement of the head causes the injury. I learned a long time ago to move my head away from a punch or kick. This minimizes the impact if you get hit. I do this automatically especially in sparing or fighting. I got hurt in one step sparring where you punch and then stand still while the other person does a move. We were wearing head gear and the other black belt, the husband of the studio owner, for some reason decided to do full power hook kicks to my head while I was standing perfectly still after punching the air.

I just stood there and was practically knocked off my feet 5 times. I thought the head gear protected me, but concussion is the head snapping and the brain slamming into the skull. So I did something stupid and will pay for it the rest of my life. The blood seeped into my inner ear which caused inflammation and scaring which destroyed the nerves in the balance system on my left side. 3 days later everything spun, and for 6 weeks while my brain learned to compensate. I have headaches and bouts with vertigo that will never go away.

I continue training but I learned to say NO at the right times. I still fight in tournaments on occasion though i am getting old. You can get the same injury walking across the street and slipping on a banana peel, riding a bike, or skateboarding, surfing, driving your car, etc.. You've got to live and accept a certain amount of risk in life, but be smart about it and protect yourself. I should have protected my self and stopped him after the fist kick. I doubt he has any idea what he did. I have had to learn forgiveness.

For me TKD and other martial arts are not about beating up people, self defense, or winning sparing. It is about the Chi and learning what is important in life. Helping others succeed in things in things they thought they never could do. I am also a black belt in several other styles. Believe it or not, if you want to dramatically increase your speed in TKD or Karate, take tai chi. These arts came from meditation originally. It is the melding of mind, spirit, and body that gives you the speed and power and control. That is the secret the masters of old taught and we have forgot.

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