I'm a big proponent of jiyu kumite, or free fighting. Why? I suspect many people who like free fighting will say they like it because it's more like "real fighting" than drills or preset techniques - that it's a better simulation of self defense situations. To be honest, I'm not sure I buy that. In order to free fight safely you have to restrict the distance, the techniques used, and the equipment (i.e. wear protection) enough that I'm not sure it actually applies at all to self defense, and I suspect that well designed drills can actually do a better job of teaching self defense. But I could be wrong.
Still, free fighting is awesome because:
- It's fun. It's fun the way a tennis match or ping pong or a football game is fun - there's something inherently more fun about having to respond to an unpredictable environment, and competing with another person, that for most people is always going to be lacking in kihon or kata practice. And fun isn't just a "nice bonus" - if a workout/ training regimen is fun you're more likely to stick to it, and as they say, the workout routine you stick with is the best workout routine.
- Because free sparring is so chaotic it's going to spur on neural development you won't get otherwise. Sparring is a never ending set of new problems to solve - all quickly and in three dimensions. That kind of practice is going to cause your brain to stay sharp, to develop new connections, in a way that repeating the same old thing can't. That's not just fun, it's a huge benefit for long term health.
- Free sparring trains muscle groups in ways that basic training can't. Getting out of the way of being hurt - or at least hit hard - is going to make you exert more force, in more random directions, than you ever will doing solitary practice. Notice how sore your legs are after some free sparring - everyone will work harder, more intensely, and in more varied ways, when motivated by an impending ass kicking, than they will when training alone.
Now, there are many ways to free fight. Free fighting has to have rules and restrictions - without them it would be too dangerous and everyone would get maimed within a few sessions (imagine free fighting without protection, allowing groin shots, eye pokes, rabbit punches, ground and pound...)
Then the questions is: what rules and restrictions should you have?
Here's the basic tension:
- The freer the fighting the more fun it is. Imagine sparring using only jabs to the body. All the time. Now think about how you'd feel if you got to use your back hand to punch the body - I bet it would be like getting out of prison. The more open the sparring, the more complex the strategies involved, the more possibilities - different tactics, different techniques - open up, the more fun and neural development you'll have.
- The freer the fighting the closer it is to "real fights" and the more applicable it is for self defense. If you only train without groin shots you'll be ill prepared to defend against that guy in a bar kicking you in the groin.
- If you compete in a fighting sport your sparring better include everything you'll see on the mat/ in the cage/octagon/whatever. If you want, watch an ill prepared kyokushin or taekwondo guy do kickboxing for the first time and eat a ton of punches to the head. Not pretty. If you spar without ground fighting, head contact, or whatever, you'll probably be ill prepared to deal with those things.
- However, the freer the fighting the more likely it is that you'll be maimed doing it.
Here's the sad truth: getting punched hard in, say, the stomach, hurts. Getting kicked in the leg hurts. Armbars hurt. And these things happen when sparring. After every good sparring session I'm wearing a set of bruises for days.
BUT when you get punched in the stomach, even if it leaves a bruise, the long term consequences are negligible. I've had a lot of bruises on my arms and chest over the years - once they healed all that was left was a memory.
On the other hand, every time you get hit in the head hard enough to make you see stars, or black out, even for a second, or get knocked out, you're probably doing permanent long term damage to your brain.
Think about that. Every slap to the ear, every face punch, every fall that has you experience flash dizziness - each of these events is probably doing irreversible damage to your brain.
Talk to an old boxer. Or former football player. Or a soccer player who heads the ball. Or anyone who's been hit in the head a bunch of times. Pro sports are starting to try to come to terms with this reality, that we have every reason to think that the damage from even minor concussions is cumulative and basically never heals. Symptoms include severe depression, memory loss, and a bunch of other shit you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. There's a reason people are so worried about MMA fighter like Chuck Liddell who get knocked out many times - current medical knowledge seems to say that those guys will never be the same, never recover full neurological function.
Does that mean nobody should train with head contact? Well, I wouldn't say that.
If you have a serious chance to make a living as a fighter then you have to think long and hard about this. I'm not going to tell you not to train with head contact - you'll need to do so, at least somewhat, in order to survive actual fights. I would say that you should NEVER train Chute Boxe style (those guys regularly knock each other out in practice) regardless of your career goals. And you need to think long and hard about the fact that your profession - for however long it lasts - will absolutely result in permanent brain damage, which will impair all sorts of things for the rest of your life. I'm not going to say it's not worth it, that's a personal decision, but it's worth thinking about.
If you're a police officer, corrections officer, bouncer, military dude, or someone else who has a serious need to be in real fights on a regular basis, then you have to figure this out. You can't count on being able to deal with a punch to the face when the first one you ever see is during an actual prison riot thrown by a guy who is actually trying to kill you.
But if you're not one of those guys - if you're a recreational martial artist, in it for the fun and the health benefits and for something cool to do - you might want to rethink allowing even small amounts of head contact in your practice. The damage from head trauma is subtle, insidious, and cumulative.
In summary: head contact makes sparring more fun and more vigorous, but shots to the head - probably even relatively mild ones, certainly hard shots - cause permanent and cumulative brain damage. If you're training to acquire skills that might establish you professionally or are likely to save your life, that's one thing. If you're training for fun and fitness, go full contact to the body but leave your head untouched. Yes, your training will be less "realistic," possibly less authentic, and possibly less fun, but you'll be much, much better off in the long term.