Is it safer to wear a head guard when sparring or not?

A common question and sometimes point of contention with sparring equipment is whether a headguard is a help or a hindrance.

The main purpose of a headguard is of course safety. However, it's widely regarded that they are more effective in preventing superficial face injuries such as cuts, rather than brain trauma.

It has been argued that head guards do not make the wearer any less liable to concussion or prevent any serious trauma taking to the head. Amateur boxing for example, have changed their rules, so competitors no longer use headgear in matchups.

An AIBA study has supported this, and showed that headgear even increased the likelihood of head trauma, because its presence made fighters more likely to engage without thinking about the consequences of repeated head trauma.

That being said, helmets are still extremely popular in Boxing whilst sparring and in many martial arts such as Karate, Taekwondo and Kickboxing. There remains many benefits for wearing head protection when engaging in competition or training.

Reasons FOR wearing a headguard:

- Confidence; a punch or a kick will not feel as hard through a padded helmet, this gives a fighter more confidence to move forward without fear of injury

- Prevention of facial cuts of bruises; in a world where most participants have jobs outside of the sport to attend, keeping blackeyes to a minimum might be very important

- Ear protection; perforated eardrums and other injuries can occur through blows to the ear, most headguards provide padding which will help to prevent this

- Colliding heads; a problem during sparring can be an accidental clash of heads which can have nasty results. Wearing headguards largely removes this problem

- Requirements; many martial arts competitions require the use of a protective helmet, therefore you'd face disqualification if you didn't have one

Five good reasons to wear head protection, so what about the reasons why not?

Reasons AGAINST wearing a headguard:

- Impaired vision; large cheek protectors, forehead bars and padding can all affect your vision and decrease your ability to see certain incoming shots

- Helmet moving; strikes taken by the helmet can move and shift it, not only can this block your sight, it's annoying and renders you useless for a second whilst quickly re-adjusting

- False confidence; punches or kicks do not feel as hard when wearing a helmet, this can lead to people feeling safe absorbing heavy strikes regularly

- Bigger target; larger head guards and even slimline versions make your head a bigger, and therefore easier to hit target

- Harder shots; both partners may begin throwing harder techniques due to the fact they are wearing head protection, resulting in unnecessary brawling

So head guards are potentially not always a good idea. What's most important is having the right type of training partner, supervision, coaching and maintaining the correct levels of contact.

Reliable training partners should not be regularly sparring with full force to inflict injury, regardless of wearing a head guard or not. Ensure you have a coach with the ability to enforce and manage safe levels of contact when sparring.

Clearly there are benefits and pitfalls when it comes to wearing headguards. You should take each situation by it's own merits to try and decide whether it's beneficial or not to wear protection on your head at that time. If you are unsure, always consult with your coach.

You could also implement sparring sessions where strikes are 50% power or less. Alternatively, why not try making all strikes to the head light ones. Although there will always be times in training and competition where hard strikes are exchanged, you can ensure that it does not happen too often.