Muay Thai – Kickboxing – Children’s Classes – GRIT

Head Contact – Blunt Training Advice – Series Article

A Blunt Training Words Series. Head contact and concussion.

Head Contact Must be an integral part of training. Concussion is real. You will get hit in the head, Learn more about concussion and follow a professional training plan to manage risk in training.  Plus, other risks are now prevalent including insurance claims. Read this article to learn more about what to do and how to stay safe in training and business.

This article covers head contact training, concussion, the risks of training with head contact and the greater risks of training without it. It also touches on the developing view of concussion in sport and how that may affect Muay Thai from a competition, participation but also insurance perspective. It compares the misconception of safety with ‘non-contact’ (or any martial art that teaches you to have your hands down for head protection) marital arts v’s reality. Trainers must consider making training ‘safer’; to keep participation numbers up while balancing real training required for competition.

If you do Muay Thai, you WILL get hit in the head, the body, the legs and be taken down. You will get soft tissue injuries, trauma to the body and every sparring session, people will be trying to hit you in the head. You cannot avoid it if you want to do it. If you try to avoid it, you will never be prepared for someone trying to hit you in the head in self defence or competition. If you train without head contact, you are at greater risk of injury from head contact, as you will not have the skills to defend yourself. You cannot simulate it without experiencing it.

We train head contact because that is the reality of what a fight requires. Angry people try to hit you in the head, hard. In competition, a KO is a win, the intention is to hurt your opponent and the best way to do this is to attack the head and go for hard clean shots.  Being hit in the head is dangerous. Concussion is bad for you and the more research that is done all shows how you really need to limit the number of times you get hit in the head, even lightly.

To learn how to defend your head, you must train with people trying to hit your head – simple. You must, however, do everything you can in that training to not take head shots, especially clean powerful ones in training. You never want to take them in a fight either, but you are in there to do that, so your opponent will be trying to do it to you.

We train head contact to learn how to defend yourself, so you don’t get hit in the head. We train hard punching and power kicking, knees elbows, take downs and full contact training because if you need to fight to defend yourself, you will be attacked full on and you need to be ready for how that feels emotionally as much as physically.  Everyone that fights knows that when you only body spar, everything is easier, and it is often very counterproductive to learning to fight. The head contact risk is the greatest anxiety caused and the greatest risk of injury or loss.  So sparring, drills and pad work must all be done with head contact, with sport specific focus or it is useless.

Muay Thai is fighting, and you don’t ‘play’ Muay Thai. You can play at training, but you must be sport specific and via the use of drills and pad work, experience the risk, threat, and fear of head attacks with intention to be prepared for competition. You cannot do this without risk. If you do, then your competition will be much riskier. Training without head contact makes training safer but fighting much more dangerous. Pads, drills and sparring, from controlled to heavy, must be included in a planned and balanced training program. If head contact occurs, defensive skills must be improved and it should be a very step-up, step back, gradual approach, planned and spread out to ensure development occurs and equals the risk and demands for the level of competition.

If you do any form of fight training with your hands down in your guard, your training is putting you at risk for real fighting/competition and based on unrealistic concepts and misconceptions about your ability to block when needed. It will only progress downhill from there and you will never have practical and real skills against someone trying to hit you in the head with intention. Your first habit forming training will stay with you and show itself under pressure. Choose reality first, not belts, uniforms, or child-minding options. It is not safe to do non-contact training with no head contact – it is the reverse. For a parent, the marketed ‘safer noncontact’ option is irresponsible and misinformed.

The best Muay Thai and Boxing clubs train safely and integrate head contact gradually in accordance with skill development. We do it all the time and are the last ones who want to get concussion or give our customers concussion. Any martial art club that does ‘no head’ contact for safety is more dangerous, as it is unrealistic, and you are being coned. No head contact and no contact training will never prepare you for reality and will make it more dangerous than if you never trained as it builds unrealistic expectations and delusions of ability and outcome.

Well coached Muay Thai is developed as people can show they can cope with the increased intensity of attack. We train controlled contact but always with contact. We don’t shy away from head contact as anything without head contact is rubbish and completely unrealistic because violence is directed at the head on all serious occasions and in competition the KO is the big dramatic win. You need to spend as much time as you can learning how to defend your head and protect yourself against people trying to hit you with intent, if you want to be able to defend yourself.

If you don’t train with head contact, you are completely bullshitting yourself that you can defend yourself. You are not learning to fight, and you are not prepared, you are exposed and will be found wanting.

Skilled regular people should learn to spar as close to competition as possible, to protect their head at the real pace of the sport and reality. They should develop their non head contact skills as often as possible for use in practicing power, speed, and contact. Always develop head defence skills in a progressive and safe way limiting head contact but never shying away from the need to be good at protecting the head. Even better, is not getting hit, dodging is better than blocking but not always possible. Evasion takes longer to be good at and requires more composure, reaction and training.

For self defence, we train people to defend themselves against violent people, thugs, and bullies. We do not coach people who are bullies or thugs. We work to prepare and even the score so good people can fight back when needed. If you do not train tough, with tough people you cannot be prepared for reality. You can be a nice person and tough, but you have to be a realistic about the threat.  We train nice normal people who have a heart and want to be stronger people. They are tough, but toughness is often misunderstood and based on appearance not character. How you deal with tough situations. How brave you can be, can be trained, and that is what we need to do through coaching head protection.

Concussion is real.

Concussion is real and the recognition of it as a problem in sport has increased dramatically over the last few years. Every major sporting code takes it very seriously. The Australian Sports Commission (ASC) has guidelines for sport and the care for athletes. These guidelines have been refined over the last few years and are now much better understood and distributed down to every level of sport. It is also recognized that concussion is not simple, clear, or easily diagnosed, as many concussions are minor and clear themselves in a short period with rest.

The ASC makes it clear that you can get concussion from body and head contact, from direct and indirect contact, falling and many aspects like diet and hydration can affect the severity of the concussion. Which will differ between every person and every incident.  The stark difference between Muay Thai (and boxing) and most other sports is that we compete with the intention of hitting people in the head and are aware it causes the most damage to our opponents. Other sports do, however, have greater speeds, higher levels of unexpected contact, high speed balls and sticks and many factors that can make a fast, violent unexpected contact far more dangerous than an intended hit to the head.

Watching Muay Thai, it is obvious that head contact and intent to damage is integral. This is what sets us apart from sports that have another medium for scoring. This gives us the opportunity to prepare for the threats to our head. The velocity of a strike to the head does not often equal the force of a human sprinting full power, from the side at full speed, into another person. The power and damage caused can also be related to the expectation of the hit, as anything you don’t expect will hurt more. Facing the strike head on, fighting back and being physically and mentally prepared for real expectations will help protect a combatant.

In Muay Thai, a solid take down can cause whiplash or concussion from slamming into the floor. This is the area of scoring and referring that requires more attention to determine a better way of protecting and evaluating athletes after a takedown as serious concussion can come from more than just what we used to seeing.

Based on the ASC guidelines, it would be hard for any Muay Thai bout to even go past round 1. It would be impractical to review every hard body and head contact, to stop the fight every head shot, and it would also be very boring to have the ref intervene all the time. Having numerous time outs, Dr inspections and no flow to the fight would ruin the excitement but we must have more concussion training for trainers and officials to look for symptoms in the fight and all be a little bit less primitive about wanting to see a fighter KO’d. The times of watching someone wobble and still get beaten on to see if they come back are not in line with mainstream sport views of concussion, which is now very preemptive and preventative.

Concussion awareness also increases the prevalence of self diagnoses and searching for symptoms to meet how you feel. If someone is thinking they got concussed, they are more likely to get it. When I started training, the headache was not concussion. You didn’t have concussion unless you were knocked out, then sick, dizzy, vomiting, and delirious, with symptoms often lasting many days. This thinking must change. Concussion can be mild, and many mild concussions can add up to more serious problems.   Concussions can also be serious once and never come back again, you can also get many mild concussions and never get any symptoms or lasting effects. There is no one size fits everyone’s approach, evidence, or agreement in the medical profession.

So, the only way to manage concussion based on the latest research and medical advice is to be safer, more vigilant, more aware of your student’s ability, movement, and moods. Have a concussion policy, talk about it openly, educate students and parents. You would be an idiot to ignore the latest medical advice and policies of the ASC as you will lose your argument in court, with insurance and exposing yourself to unfounded claims against you. The ASC basically says:

  • When in doubt – sit them out.
  • Don’t let anyone with any report or symptom of concussion return to training with a medical clearance.
  • Educate yourself about concussion symptoms and educate your students.
  • Minimize drills that have a repeated head contact risk.
  • Review all your training methods to identify concussion risks and look for alternatives.
  • Manage your athlete’s overtime and be aware of changes.

Protect your athletes from themselves. Sometimes people are just not good enough to compete at all or beyond a certain point. Sometimes athletes continue past a point in their competition where they are declining in ability, getting hurt too often and you can see changes in their reactions, ability, and mood. Trainers must be brave and honest and tell their students when it is time to stop, time to have breaks from training and that they are done. I have had to do this a few times and it can go either way. The athlete agrees and thanks you for caring and moving on with their life, away from competition or the athlete hates you. They think you don’t support them anymore, that they have more in them, they blame you. Which way they go is also often about their outside training support group and their fans. Never let this weaken your responsibility. I have had long term fighters, close friends and sensational students, hate me over night, forever, because I told them to stop fighting, when their own family encourages them to do what they want. It is sad but a question of your ethics. Doing the right thing is hard but it must be done.

More concussion awareness will also attract slime and people looking for insurance payouts so be vigilant. Be aware that scum bag ambulance chancing lawyers will go after any club they think they can get some cash from if someone reports to them that they got concussion. Please stop thinking your indemnity forms alone will protect you. You need a training program, policies, procedures and demonstrated training methods like sparring rules and a concussion policy to better protect you. Ensuring your instructors (and you) and qualified is a big one. Qualified by the terms an insurance company will accept – NOT by what you think you are. Contact me if you don’t understand the difference here!

Concussion is not clear or easy to diagnose which makes it harder to definitively manage and more of a risk for bullshit claims and insurance. Anyone can say they have concussion symptoms as they are often not obvious. Symptoms can vary considerably, and the force of a blow does not always equate to the significance of symptoms. It can be very difficult to diagnose, and a Dr must listen to the patients’ symptoms, which can vary considerably between patients. It is a fact that there are people out there who make claims for the sole purpose of money, lawyers that support these actions and people who will learn what symptoms they need to have, exaggerate their symptoms, then look for blame. There are people who feed of the potential of concussion being the reason they are a failure and look to concussion as their excuse for all the woes of their life, without any effort to improve their lives and the underlying issues that cause their symptoms. They instead blame concussion in search of blame and money. As a trainer – protect yourself for these people through professional training programs, policies and your own education and awareness.

How does toughness play into it? You can toughen up your body and your soul through Muay Thai training and it is certainly apparent that the tougher you are, the more resilient you are , the less likely you are to be affected by many medical conditions. You can not make your head tougher through head contact though. You can improve your skills at evasion and defence, but you cannot toughen your skull, it is what it is. It is not a muscle or a shin. Although I believe that toughness will go along way towards not getting concussion, you can also be too tough in a fight and increase the chances of getting further damage, if you do not look after yourself or have a trainer or good referee that will protect you, when you can’t protect yourself. You must have the will not to quit but fighters must be protected from themselves when they are rocked, off balance and not protecting themselves. No one should flippantly take head shots and not adjust their style.

How much does attitude play into concussion? If you think you will get concussion, you probably will. If you are tentative, frightened and have bad days because your hair is out of place, you will probably be more likely to get concussion than a professional fighter with experience. If you are this type of person, probably just avoid contact. Organisations need to protect people from concussion however that responsibility lies with the individual first.

Concussion is a serious problem and risk in any sport. The risks are increased if you compete and then exasperated if you do not become competent at head protection. Everyone that does Muay Thai will get hit in the head, but this does not mean everyone that gets hit in the head, gets concussion. Mild concussion can occur with head contact in sparring or competition and on most occasions, there are no long-term effects or issues. A focus on concussion and more concussion education is needed, however please remember that most people participating do not get concussion in routine training or competitions. When someone does get concussed, we all need to know more about what to do and how to manage it.

Having been in the Martial Art industry for over 35 years I can confidently say that the instances of concussion beyond an afternoon headache are rare. My own experience of professional competition and 25 years of weekly hard sparring, with numerous head shots, has resulted in only a few minor concussions with no ongoing or long-term symptoms. Not to downplay the risks but also not to forget reality and stay aware that most people will not get concussion and most people will not have long term issues if they look after their head and follow a professional training program. Especially if everyone is more aware of managing and treating concussion whilst focusing seriously on head protection in training and fighting.


You will get hit in the head so have realistic expectations. Focus on your head protection and never be flippant in light training because your habits and reactions will be formed there. Never be too tough to rest your head and speak up if you don’t feel well. You can not make your head tougher, and toughness can increase the risk of injury to your brain so be smart and trust the people around you that care for you. Always see a Dr if you feel unwell for any reason. Learn as much as you can about concussion to be better informed. Wear head gear in sparring all the time and spar in 16 oz gloves. Limit hard sparring and do it only under controlled circumstances. If you are a trainer, the safety of the athletes comes first and ensure you have policies and procedures to manage concussion. Only let people spar when they can defend themselves and look after others as well.

Anthony Manning


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