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Combat Training & Head Trauma by Mark Hatmaker

Here in the States one would have to be cloistered in a monastery or nunnery to not be aware that football season is commencing, and with that commencement the debate regarding head trauma continues. We are not here to discuss head trauma as it pertains to football injuries but we would be a bit less than dim-witted if we did not address cumulative head trauma in regard to combat sports or martial arts training.

Without a doubt playing the sport of football will likely result in a bracing hit or two in practice or during a game but the same can be said (if not more so) for serious martial sports/arts training. If we accept that cumulative damage can lead to some less than savory physical problems for football players we must also be aware of the fact that full-contact strikers are probably susceptible to similar if not the same future prognosis. If we accept the proposition that cumulative damage is a likelihood then it might be wise to determine ways to mitigate that damage while still training with integrity.

Now, some arts/sports ban head-contact completely both in training and competition; if the aim in training one of these “zero contact to the head” sports/arts is nothing more than bettering that art/sport itself and you expect no transfers to self-defense or other forms of competition, well, you already have the problem licked. It’s the rest of us with head-contact-is-a-given-aims that need to ponder this problem.

Some may go the Johny Hendricks route and skip all head-contact during training and only suffer head-blows (hopefully few) in competition. To some, this may seem unwise, but his at one time holding of the UFC Welterweight Belt and ability to dish out and receive punishment would seem to stand testament that this strategy has a great deal of validity.

But… we must keep in mind that Hendricks has been playing at an elite level for some time, and he did not always adhere to a “stay away from the skull” mandate. At some point in your training dealing with head blows has got to be addressed or else the novelty of it will change your world when that fist/foot/shin/elbow/knee makes contact with cranium. I think we’re all wise to the fact that Hendricks has been hit in the head during training (probably numerous times) in the past, he is merely now at a point where he (probably wisely) chooses to forgo it.

So, if we want to preserve cognitive function in our later years and still reap the lessons of live head-contact what is to be done? It would be nice if there were a striking correlate to the grappling arts that allows athletes to roll hard without the potential for neurological damage. For the answer let’s turn to La Boxe Francaise.

La boxe francaise is the modern formulation of a few rough and tumble French martial arts (Savate and Chausson in particular). Think of la boxe francaise as the cleaned-up equivalent of English Boxing post-Queensbury rules. La boxe francaise uses a standard boxing vocabulary plus an extensive kick-boxing vocabulary with low-line shots ruled on-limits. Rather than go into the fascinating history of this martial art we want to look at a three-tiered sparring approach used within the system that I think others can adapt to head-off neurological damage.

La boxe francaise uses three tiers of contact in their training bouts: 

  1. Assaut
  2. Pre-Combat
  3. Combat

Assaut — Think of this as the no-contact period. Combatants still work with one another but it is more along the lines of using one another to gauge footwork, to visualize targets, and to work on technical precision.


Pre-Combat — Here, we move to gear (shin-pads and head-gear included). There is contact but it is of a limited variety, a premium is still placed on technical precision in all aspects.


Combat — It is not until the last stage where the head-gear and shin-pads are lost that we see full power come into play.

It seems to me that we could go a long way towards cognitive preservation by adopting some form of this 3-tiered structure which allows for both aliveness and safety as each drill/combat scenario moves up the experience chain. Trainers and athletes can adjust for contact levels and surfaces (skull or no-skull) as per competition needs, but within the above framework we can still hang on to a bit of the aliveness needed to keep the game true. That is, as long as we all acknowledge that we’ve got to move on from the Assaut stage to at least the Pre-Combat stage.

Because no matter how much we’d like to play and train safely, combat is a contact sport and folks have got to hit and be hit somewhere down the line.

Click here for more self defense instruction from Mark Hatmaker.

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20 thoughts on “Combat Training & Head Trauma by Mark Hatmaker”

  1. Rugby Football is worse: You can end up breaking your neck. I’m sure I read in Jack Dempsey’s book that it’s relatively safe to take hits around your forehead, because the bone here is stronger than the other guy’s hand. I read of a Court Case where an assailant tried to sue his victim, claiming the guy damaged his fist by hitting it with his head. He wasn’t taken seriously.

  2. This is a great section. Keep the information coming. I may be ok, but I’m still able to make somebody’s day bad. Thanks Roy J.

  3. Thanks for the tips in protecting our head and brain in contact and combat situations. Your article is well written and informative.
    Thank you!

  4. Top idea for training, I knew Hendricks has talent, now aware of why. Those of us who respect the arts understand pain & possibly enjoy that internal tingle that reminds you that your alive. However, I recently encountered an ambush of multiple attackers, which left me feeling perplexed. I’m 45 yrs young they were teens & twenty-ish. Long story short, I willingly took a quanity of blows to the back of my head, as the clown could’nt punch through a paper bag, evaluating my next action whilst turtled up, inverting knee joints and elevating myself whilst arm locking another, the encounter felt like 5 min, in reality possibly only 2 minutes had elapsed. Due to their ages I played with them at first, Mistake no 1, never again, drop em & deal with the aftermath later. Mistake no 2, allowing the multiple blows to continue as the blows were slight & insignificant singularly, as a grouping, one after the other, the resultant impact is my chess game has suffered, this measurable loss confirmed a brain injury, assisted by my belief of I can take a knock. Never again, I did live to fight another day but now I fight to live, ps, they ran like Forrest Gump because I never showed them any fear or reluctance to engage, their power as a group evaporated into the night before they had fled the scene…….!

  5. Good info n much to learn, process for future, n stay informed . I like to think ahead of a variety of situations that can occur n how to respond n decide in advance so I have some body memory rather than just sheer instinct only which goes a long way also. Thanks for sharing.

  6. “The best way to block a punch is to not be there.” – Bruce Lee
    That being said, I have a standing rule when training; if I get hit it is my fault because I failed to block. To block soft and hit hard is the true goal! Besides, no rational person likes to get hit in the face or head??? Is anyone familiar with the term Jiu Kumite? I have trained for decades without any protective gear other than my blocking system and have incurred very few significant head shots, mainly because training should be done in a respectful manner. Anything else is combat, and there is only ONE rule in combat!

  7. This article is mixing apples and oranges. There is a difference between “self defense” and “sport”. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is real, and it can occur over time in any activity where the head is repeatedly struck by low or high levels of force. The research demonstrates that there is a cumulative effect on the brain, with the part of the brain called the amygdala being particularly affected. This part of the brain is responsible for our emotions, so the violent behavior and suicides common with CTE victims is to be expected. I make these comments from my perspective as an athletic trainer with 40 yrs experience. I have witnessed too many lives deleteriously changed from their head injuries in football, soccer, baseball, wrestling, and ice hockey. As far as self defense goes, I have twice had to defend myself against viscious attacts while walking home from work. Both times I disarmed the perpetrator and neutralized the threat so I could get away unharmed. I did this with the self defense training I learned from the Girls Club, Model Mugging, and Sig Academy. Techniques learned without any head contact. The vast majority of people just wanting to be prepared to defend themselves do not have to risk CTE by unnecessarily using their head as a battering ram. If you want to engage in a “sport” where the head is struck, then you should do so with the full understanding of the consequences.

  8. Thank you so much for your advice in this article. Love the three tier form of training and agree that most people should move through the first to the second tier at some point in their training as well as know what a blow to the head feels like at some point to know how rattled it could make them and how to shake it off and keep going.

  9. good advice. also came across some special body armour for training that has recently come into use training elite swat and soldiers that is designed to allow full contact training without injury….. short of actual kill strokes such as neck breaks of course. however for those that cant afford that gear (about AUD$5000 a full suit) what is being talked about here is the next best thing. contact needs to be made in training and you need to learn what a full power hit to whatever part of the body feels like so when it happens in a real situation it does not (even for a moment) unhinge you and you can keep going in hard as is needed in a life or death situation.

  10. Thanks for your expertise. This has been the historic dilemma of combat training… how real do you get? You don’t want to get killed or crippled practicing how not to get killed or crippled. On the other hand, you don’t want your self-defense training to become mere folk-dance. Finding the happy medium is essential.

  11. Thank you Mark for sharing your knowledge.I’m an older woman and know the importance of protection from attacker’s. You have been very informative.☺️

  12. Just to practice punch. ..my left knuckle bone still hurt when I touch my bone knuckle.I don’t know if the situation needs me to punch whether I cqn use it or not anymore my left hand punch

  13. Thanx ! All is true and I pity the fool who f*cks with me,or my family. My entire life has been around foolish and unimpeded violence. I’ve had my rear kicked (Very well mind you) but ive also won more than lost, but i know the difference! So i know when to walk or run away, everything from fist fights to guns i know how to keep my wits about myself. I truly believe and appreciate you guy’s, many thing’s you teach is the right way thanx !

  14. In any contact sport there are going to be injuries that may not show up for years. I raced motorcycles for years and am I ever paying for it now.