The Use and Maintenance of Safety Equipment

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By Scot A. Conway, Esq.

Martial arts are innately dangerous, and over the years many students have been hurt learning the arts. Punching makiwara boards or hard heavy bags with bare knuckles had bloodied many hands, and the damage done to the bones and nervous system has made some types of work difficult for old-school martial artists. Working with sharp weapons has cut many of us, and training without proper sparring gear has gotten noses broken, legs fractures and, in more cases than any of us would like, debilitating head injuries. Even simple but incorrect stretching methods have have resulted in serious injuries in the past. Ballistic stretching, universally condemned today, has led to an industry-wide epidemic of torn knee ligaments among veteran black belts who started their training back in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Modern martial arts training is not like that. A litigious society, ready to sue even for the seemingly stupidest reasons, should motivate us to make things much safer than they once were. Not only are modern teaching methods better for business (with an apology to traditionalists who feel the art should never be about business), they are safer (same apology to those who feel “safe” and “martial arts” ought to be a contradiction in terms). Safer means “less risk to the student,” and less risk to the student means less legal risk to the instructors and owners of schools.

With so many training aids and an incredible array of safety equipment, a Court of Law might find it unforgivable if you don’t use them. Imagine the presentation to a jury of safety pad after safety pad, of safe heavy bags, gloves and kicking shields presented to them, and catalogs from two or three major martial arts suppliers handed out to each juror. Imagine the blistering accusation of recklessly endangering students by refusing to use any of them.

What defense could your attorney make? “It’s martial arts. It’s tradition.” What do you think a jury of ordinary citizens will think about tradition when faced with a former student seriously injured or permanently disabled, because tradition was more important than safety?

Use of Training Aids and Safety Equipment

Most martial arts studios have some training aids and safety equipment. These must be used, and used properly, to minimize risk. The responsibility falls to the instructor to make certain that the students are properly trained in the use of equipment. The instructor should also make certain that students are appropriately matched when practicing sparring and even self-defense techniques.

Do the students know how to hold the body shields? A frequent problem is students holding the shields away from their bodies, then the impact drives their arm and shield into them. Another problem is holding it at improper angles for certain moves, such as roundhouse kicks, and getting kicked in the hand or arm.)

Do the students know how to hold focus mitts? Shoulder injuries are common if focus mitts are held to the side, and if a student holds one in front of his face, he/she may get hit by his/her own hand.

Is the skill of the students equal to the drill? Practicing roundhouse kicks on a small shield may lead to kicks to the knees or other body parts not protected if the students don’t have the necessary skill.

Is the piece of equipment the proper training aid for the drill? Using a small shield for a drill that should have a large shield may result in serious injuries.

Are the student pairs or groups suitable? If a child is hurt holding a shield being kicked by an adult, you may be liable because of the danger in which you placed the child. If mismatched pairs are unavoidable, the child should practice power techniques while the adult practices control.

Has anyone been hurt in the drill before? If someone gets hurt in a drill, the drill should not be used again until the instructor staff has carefully evaluated the drill to see if there are innate dangers in the drill, and those dangers should be eliminated before the drill is used again.

Safety Measures for Unsafe Lessons

When the class is practicing any kind of training drill, proper safety equipment should be used to minimize the risk of injury. Anything done that is potentially hazardous should be clearly related to the skill being taught or practiced, and students should have the right to excuse themselves. Whenever possible, however, some measures should be taken to make unsafe lessons as safe as possible.

Some martial arts practices do not lend themselves to excessive safety, such as breaking. However, even in that endeavor, rather than having students pound concrete on the first day they learn breaking, have them practice on easy rebreakable boards, or let them put substantial padding on the bricks (a folded up towel, for instance) so they cannot hurt themselves while they learn how to break. Then steadily reduce their padding until they are breaking the way you would like them to break.

Also, never permit students to attempt breaking feats beyond their level of skill. A white belt, for an exaggerated example, should not be trying to break boards with an advanced kicking technique. Likewise, the degree of difficulty created by the number and composition of the material to be broken should always be closely monitored. Do not allow unqualified students — no matter how big and strong they are — to attempt to break too many boards or dense objects like bricks, cinder blocks and ice. And permitting any student to break objects with his/her head could be a shortcut to disaster, legally and otherwise.

Once, at a tournament, a competitor nearly knocked himself unconscious by smashing his head into a pile of bricks that didn’t break. If such advanced breaks will be attempted, then instructors had best know what they are doing and be prepared for the consequences.

On other lessons, start safely and build from there. If students are learning rolls, for example, start simply, on the ground, and then work steadily to kneeling, standing then jumping rolls. If students are learning breakfalls, start them practicing from a roll, then a trip, then a dive roll, then a hip throw, and finally a shoulder throw.

Many of the skills and teaching techniques discussed in other chapters throughout this book are also excellent for risk management. They help introduce students to skills slowly, guiding them to greater skill, helping them grow as martial artists. As so many of them help students learn safely, they also help to reduce the risk of liability as well.

Maintenance of Safety Equipment

Most of us have seen an old kicking shield, battered by years of use, wrapped with duct tape that is separating. Some of us may even have them in our schools. If you kick them wrong, you could catch a toe and break it. Even if you hit it right, you could hit the soft spot and really hurt your partner.

If it’s old, if it is no longer serviceable, get rid of it. Keep it as a souvenir if you like, but when it becomes easy for you to imagine a first-day student hurting him/herself on it because of it’s condition, it’s time to retire it.

Likewise, torn mats can be dangerous. Replacing them can get expensive, and taping them may add a few years to its life, but at some point, the benefit is not worth the danger and the mat must be addressed.

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At one school, the original mat covering the floor was brand new — a decade ago. The tarp covering the mat had torn in some areas and separated in others. From time to time, a student would catch his feet and stumble or fall. The instructor, as wise as he hoped his student would become, saw that the mat was now more of a danger than a training aid, and he got rid of it. Soon, double-padded athletic carpet replaced the mat.

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Keep up on your equipment. When you see a problem, fix it. When a student or a parent brings a problem to your attention, fix it. If you address problems when they are small, the repair can be simple. Other problems might be more difficult to fix, and you should try to maintain a fund for those, or parents and fundraisers can often be a tremendous help when something big needs to be done.


A young man was sparring in a martial art in which the groin is a primary target. He had forgotten to wear his cup, but neglected to mention that to anyone. Then, wham! He got hit in the groin and landed on the ground. As far as anyone knows, he recovered completely.

A cup cannot protect you if you’re not wearing it. Neither can chest pads, head gear, gloves, shin pads or anything else. Equipment must be used to be effective. Students should have sparring equipment with which to spar, whether provided by the school or purchased by the students. If the school owns the gear, the school is responsible for keeping the equipment in good condition and disposing of it when it is no longer effective.

Instructors should maintain a policy of requiring students to inform their partners when they are missing important pieces of equipment that are not obvious, such as groin cups. The time for discovery is not when the kick lands.

Likewise, students should be required to inform others of any physical limitations or injuries they may have, such as a headache, shin splints, sore shoulder, etc., that might affect the techniques used. Students should also be required to tend to their own limitations, by wearing knee braces, wrist wraps, bandages, etc., as their condition warrants.

An instructor that maintains a “No excuses!” policy might generate tough students, but he is just as likely to generate seriously-injured, sometimes permanently-disabled students. It is better to forbid a student to spar without proper equipment than it is to allow a student to go ahead and fight without an important piece of protective gear and get hurt.

Adult students can be granted more flexibility in what safety gear they use, especially in extra-curricular sparring (before and after class), if they have the experience and skill to take care of themselves. Anyone, though, who injures another, must be severely limited in what he is allowed to do. Allowing someone with a known track record of hurting others to fight without gear, may be construed as negligence on the part of the instructor. If the sparring partner did not know about the tendency in his/her partner to hurt people, and the instructor did, then the instructor could be held responsible.

Safety Equipment is an important aspect of modern martial arts instruction. From a risk-management perspective, it is critical to have safety equipment for any exercise that may be dangerous without it.  Tradition will not be an excuse in Court if a student is seriously injured.  It is likewise important to remember that equipment must be in serviceable condition, and, finally, that safety equipment must be used to protect the students from harm, and to protect the instructors and school from lawsuits.