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I've been practicing Shotokan Karate for about 6 months. Yesterday during practice my sensei had us practice free sparing with no protective gear, not even gloves, and I got punched in the mouth and got a bruised and swollen lip.

My question is whether I should talk to my sensei about wearing gloves during sparring? I'm a beginner student so I'm hesitant to tell him how to conduct practice. Are gloves always used in sparring? How typical is it to spar without gloves? How should I talk to him about this?

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As a beginner, I would say you should definitely be wearing gloves and more importantly the person you're sparring against should be wearing some form of protective gear, particularly at least a gum shield.

If you've never done any sparring before and you're a white belt, it shouldn't be expected that you would know how to control a technique. It is also quite possible that you are unfamiliar with blocking and so it is likely you will take a knock or two. If you were to face an opponent that is considerably better than you, they will probably be able to force you to make mistakes and you could get seriously hurt. Speaking from personal experience, I have been doing karate for nearly 10 years and was wearing pads whilst sparring an opponent in class and his kick managed to break my arm. Whilst this was an unlikely accident, not wearing any protective gear dramatically increases the chance of injury.

Depending on which association you train with it is generally mandatory to wear some form of sparring gear. I train in karate under the WKF and if you take part in competition kumite, you are instantly disqualified if you don't have a gum shield, hand mitts and shin & foot pads in both red and blue. Read here for the rules they provide on competition kumite: http://www.wkf.net/pdf/wkf-competition-rules-version9-2015-en.pdf. Particularly page 6, point 9.

I don't know of any martial art that would recommend using absolutely no protective gear at all. Even boxers wear hand wraps as it's very likely they will break their knuckles without them.

Rather than going to your sensei directly, it might be worth speaking to some of the higher grades in your class first (brown belt and above) and see what they think about wearing no protective gear. If you don't agree with them then go to your sensei. If you aren't happy with his answer, you can always try a different school. There is no point in training in a martial art if you are not happy.

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I think the key question here is "What are you comfortable with?" If you are not comfortable with sparring without protective gear then you should not do it, regardless of what is common in your dojo.

If you want more detail, then I think the next question is what kind of sparring you are talking about. When I was a kid, I practiced Tae Kwon Do and we routinely did no-contact sparring without protective gear. There was occasionally accidental contact. I don't recall anyone being injured beyond the odd bruise and you expect the occasional minor injury in just about sport. I never felt uncomfortable with that. Light and medium contact sparring required protective gear, but I was in the kids class. I have seen schools where light/touch sparring was done with adults without gloves.

Its also worth noting that most gloves do more to protect the striker's hands than they do to protect the person being hit, and can actually encourage the striker to hit harder since they have protection for their hands (and possibly wrists, depending on the style of gloves). If you are worried about protecting your face, you may want to look at headgear for yourself instead of or in addition to asking the other person to wear gloves.

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A "a bruised and swollen lip" doesn't sound that significant... may take a week or two to recover at most, right? If that's your first and worst injury after 6 months training, it sounds like the general safety level is quite high. The kinds of things to ask yourself:

  • How often and significantly do you see other students injured during training?

  • Have you noticed other students nervous when there's sparring, or dropping out from classes?

  • Do any people who're getting injured or sparring with an intensity clearly more at risk of injury seem to be paired with equally willing and skilled participants in harder training, rather than reluctant or weaker training partners?

  • Does the teacher lead into sparring in a way that doesn't get the participants too hyped up, e.g. perhaps by having an initial round of light sparring, or giving students specific skills to concentrate on during the practice?

  • Do the senior/stronger students generally encourage you even while challenging you during sparring?

  • Looking back on how you got hit, what's your understanding of how it happened?

  • Do you think the attacker was excessively, persistently aggressive, careless, or casually indifferent to hitting you?

  • Was your blocking or dodging flawed in a way they didn't anticipate and reasonably failed to compensate for?

  • Did the attacker seem concerned when you'd been hit?

  • Do you believe they'd be extra careful not to hit you again?

  • Do you believe you could defend against similar attacks more successfully next time? (Are there related skills you could drill with a training partner you trust so you're better prepared?)

My question is whether I should talk to my sensei about wearing gloves during sparring? I'm a beginner student so I'm hesitant to tell him how to conduct practice. Are gloves always used in sparring? How typical is it to spar without gloves? How should I talk to him about this?

If the frequency and seriousness of injuries is low, your instructor may well think having everyone wearing gloves all the time is an excessive measure. They may be unimpressed by the suggestion that gloves are necessary, but that doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't ask.

On the other hand, if injuries are common, you may be better off finding another dojo.

Personally, I'd say the threshold for protective gear in children's classes should be dramatically lower - kids don't have the concentration to practice as safely, and are more easily injured.

An alternative is asking if you can wear a mouth guard - that's a less intrusive option, and doesn't require any involvement from your training partners. If it's really important to you, you could even say your dentist has recommended it because a tooth is loose, or something like that - then if the instructor forbids it you really should find another dojo as there's no excuse for asking a student to ignore medical advice (unless known to be fake O_o).

That said, part of learning a martial art is gaining some perspective on injuries - being prepared to accept some risk and realising the kinds of injuries that're completely healed within even a few-month timeframe can come and go many times over decades of training.

I trained for a couple decades in half a dozen styles before joining kyokushin, and it's my first time wearing gloves and shin guards, but countering the safety aspects of that there's considerably more contact. I've broken a few bones (all but once by kicking elbows or the heavy bag) and had some bruising that took weeks to recover, but nothing I regret: it's all just history now, and I value the experience of training, and progress, far more.

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As has been said, both methods are useful with the proper precautions. I often spar without any sort of pads (although I ALWAYS wear a cup and mouth-guard) when fighting low belt levels. I have found that the speed involved at that stage is so slow that I can be gentle and still allow them to get in some strikes.

When it comes to more advanced sparring, I never spar against someone I'm not very familiar without safety equipment (usually just gloves) because I have fought some people who are unfamiliar with the concept of not hurting their partner.

There are several black belts I work out with regularly, and we generally do not use gloves unless we have agreed to make it a little bit of a faster, rougher match (we usually spar around 2/3 speed to be safe).

In my style there is a lot of palms and grabbing, so most gloves inhibit the full use of some techniques, but for other styles (such as TKD), there is almost nothing of this sort and gloves do not inhibit the style at all.

In summary, it all depends on the style, and circumstance. If you are not comfortable with something, let your sensei know and be open to his response about whether it is necessary.

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As a student, it should be your job to ask questions, but NOT to "tell [the instructor] how to conduct practice". If you have questions about why things are done a particular way, ask respectfully. For example, you should not go to your instructor and say, "We should spar with gloves." You should ask, "Why don't we spar with protective gear?" The first way implies that you know better than your instructor, in which case why are you studying with them?

This pattern of asking questions applies generally. If you don't understand something, ask politely. That's what good students do.

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Yes, it is okay to spar without gloves as long as it is done with control. In my (Taekwondo) school, we use "one-for-one" sparring, without safety equipment and with a large gap between opponents, to emphasise speed and to encourage students to try techniques they might not try in contact sparring.

The hard part is ensuring that less-experienced students maintain sufficient distance between each other (and for senior grades to remember that they are setting an example for the rest of the class!).

I would check with your instructor about what different types of sparring he/she uses and how they should be conducted.

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As a warm up or technical drill, absolutely! We start most boxing classes with a couple rounds of no gloves "sparring". It's 99% about movement, since you're making little, if any, contact.

For real sparring, no. Wear the gloves. If you're doing full MMA sparring ( strikes, submissions, and grappling allowed) wear your 6-8oz training gloves. The 4oz gloves are OK, but the padding is usually pretty hard, so you can get unwanted cuts.

In your case, I would refuse to do this contact sparring without gloves. There's nothing to gain from not wearing gloves, and everything (cuts, broken hands, etc.) to lose.

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Sparring safely involves almost just mimicking actual moves with little or no force behind them. Getting punched in the mouth and bruised is highly unlikely unless it was an extremely rare instance where you accidentally moved into his punch combining the force of his (supposedly barely forceful) punch with you having being blindsided or something to that effect. In other words unless you were actually like spinning around and accidentally hit his fist with your face I'd say your partner is a complete moron and should definitely not be sparring. This is from the perspective of family oriented martial arts training. If you are in something else akin to a fight club or something then its up to you if your comfortable with it, in which case you should accidentally give your sparring partner something to remember you by next time. Sounds to me like your sparring partner either doesn't know what he's doing or knows what he's doing and is allowed to get away with whatever he likes.

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    It is not true in general that sparring safely involves "just mimicing actual moves with little or no force behind them." The degree of contact expected from sparring varies considerably from martial art to martial art, school to school, and instructor to instructor, and can range from pretending/pantomiming, all the way to full contact. – Larry Sep 26 '15 at 0:25

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