The importance of headgear in boxing has been a bit of a debate over the last few years, with the Amateur International Boxing Association (AIBA) and the Olympics both seeming to favour the removal of headgear. But why? Surely protection is there for a reason, right?
Risk of concussions
The AIBA introduced headgear to the Olympics in 1984 following on from a major outcry at the death of one fighter and brutal beating of another in the few years before, both during nationally televised fights. In response, the AIBA introduced headgear to amateur fighting.
However back in 2013, chairman of the AIBA medical commission, Charles Butler, revealed that headgear may not be as good as preventing concussions as people thought. According to the report, Butler collected data on roughly 15,000 boxer rounds and determined that in the 7,352 rounds that took place with boxers wearing headgear, the rate of concussion was 0.38 percent, compared with 0.17 percent per boxer per round in the 7,545 rounds without headgear.
That percentage may sound small, but it actually means that over twice as many concussions occurred with headgear than without in the rounds studied.
But what about the other aspects of safety?
Headgear isn’t just about concussions though, and there’s a lot more to it, leading to a bit of an ongoing debate into what effect headgear actually has. Below we’ve broken down the basic understandings of the other aspects that contribute to the protection of headgear.
Benefits of headgear
- The head receives less physical force
- Punches to the head simply don’t feel as hard
- Wearer is less prone to physical injuries such as cuts
- Added protection to ears, nose and jaw with certain headgear
Problems with headgear
- Wearing headgear creates a bigger target to hit
- Blocking isn’t as effective as the ability to guard is somewhat reduced when wearing larger headgear
- Restricted field of vision
- Wearing headgear often leads training partners to think it’s okay to hit harder
- Slightly slower movement with bulkier headgear
While concussions are reportedly more frequent, there are still a number of reasons why headgear is worth having. While not as dangerous by any means, many fights are ended because of cuts. It’s also important to remember there’s a large divide between the minimal types of headgear used In amateur fights and the bulkier headgear used in training, which often have added protection for the ears, nose and jaw.
You can start to see a number of benefits when training with headgear, with slightly less in competition, so it’s fairly easy to understand why the AIBI removed headgear in the 2016 Rio Olympics… For men, at least.
Hang on a moment, if they removed headgear in the Olympics for men, why did women still have to wear them?
This one confused us for a moment too. Lots of questions spring to mind; Do they not care about women getting concussions? Do they feel like women aren’t ready to fight without headgear? Do they think people won’t want to watch women box without headgear?
Well, to put it simply, women aren’t built the same. The study was focused completely on male boxers, so it would be making a pretty big assumption to say that it affects women in the exact same way. A different study from 2007-2008 in the Journal of Athletic Training on the gender difference in concussions discovered that females generally suffer worse than males when participating in the same sport:
• Girls playing high school soccer suffer concussions 68 percent more often than boys playing the same sport;
• Girls appear more susceptible to concussions in sports like soccer and basketball than boys;
• Concussion rates in high school basketball were almost 3 times higher for girls than for boys;
• Girls took much longer than boys for concussion symptoms to resolve and return to play
While this study didn’t look at boxing or other competitive martial arts, it wasn’t quite established whether the higher rate of concussions is down to differences in biology or external circumstances, but the fact is it’s clear that there’s a difference which isn’t fully understood. AIBA decided to hold off on making the decision on women’s headgear until they can understand the situation better. Just because headgear repirtedly puts men at higher risk doesn’t mean it affects women the same way.
So should you wear headgear for training?
This is the question which really matters, and even with the facts we know, there is no clear cut answer. We believe it depends entirely on what you’re doing.
Training should never be full power and should be focused on technique more than strength, so if your training partner is hitting you hard enough to give you a concussion, then you need to have a word with them and ask them to control themselves a bit more. There’s a big different between landing the occasional hard shot and trying intentionally to take your opponents head off.
But the sport you do has a big impact too. Assuming you’re sparring with some control, you need to then look at what you’re doing. If you’re boxing, your targets are the body and the head, and every strike is aiming for one of them. If you’re doing something else however, such as Muay Thai or Kickboxing then there will be much less emphasis on head strikes, and much more on the whole body, with a lot more movement and parrying as well. The wider field of vision will likely help avoid the strikes all together, along with the many techniques to keep your opponent out of boxing range, therefore headgear may not help as much. If you’re doing MMA then headgear may in fact even become a hindrance when grappling.
In our opinion, if you’re training in boxing then headgear is a great option. The protection from cuts, and injuries to different parts of the face are greatly reduced, and if your biggest worry is concussions then it’s the intensity you spar with, not the headgear which is the problem.