Is headgear bad for sparring?

It may seem surprising but Olympic boxing headgear is no longer compulsory!


Ever since 2016, the boxing headgear rules have been relaxed: boxers fighting in the Olympics are no longer required to wear headgear when competing. According to a boxing headgear study research carried out by the International Boxing Association, referees had to stop fights as a result of head injuries far more often when the boxers were wearing olympic boxing style headgear.


This seems surprising given that headgear is designed to protect the head.  A number of theories have been put forward as to why this might be the case:


1.  It may be that the design of the headgear is reducing the level of visibility for the wearer.  Most designs feature cheek pads which could hamper an individual’s peripheral vision.


In boxing, the most dangerous blows are the upper cut and hook.  If these connect to the chin and jaw area, they can cause the head to whip round. The brain, which sits surrounded by a soft, fluid-like gel encased in the skull, is also spun around and is the movement that can result in concussions.


It may be that the wearer can’t see the incoming upper cuts and hooks in order to be able to dodge them.


2.  An alternative theory is that the sense of protection that the headgear provides may make the wearer more confident and emboldened. This may make it more likely that they will take more risks against their opponent.


Perhaps this entails the fighter being more aggressive than usual, going on the offensive more often than is perhaps sensible. Indeed, this may make them vulnerable to a counter-attack technique.


3.  Another theory is that wearing headgear simply makes your head a bigger target. Blows that would have missed now make contact. Even with glancing blows, some of the energy will be absorbed by the skull and consequently by the brain.


It’s likely that the brain will suffer the impact of more glancing blows as a result of the headgear presenting a bigger target for the opponent to hit.


So, should you spar with headgear?

Those new to boxing often ask ‘does headgear prevent knockouts?’. The answer is clearly “no!”.   A hard enough punch will overpower the headgear’s ability to absorb the impact of the blow, resulting in force being transmitted to the skull. If this causes the head to jerk in one direction with sufficient power, the brain will accelerate in the direction of the force and will compress against the side of the brain. If this compression is sufficient, it may result in concussion.


So if the research says those in boxing competitions may suffer more from head injuries and they don’t stop the wearer being knocked out, then should you spar with headgear?


The important thing to remember is that sparring is different from an actual competition.


You often train with your training partner, who generally speaking, isn’t going out of his way to try to knock you out. Sure they’ll be looking to land their strikes but they won’t be going full force. Those that do, usually get thrown out of the gym.


Headgear also isn’t designed to stop you from being knocked out. It’s designed to protect the soft tissue of the face, such as the nose, eyebrows, cheeks and ears.


If you continually spar without headgear, then, overtime, these relatively delicate features of the face will be subjected to a severe pounding.


Should headgear be mandatory in boxing?

The research by International Boxing Association, found that referees had to stop fights as a result of head injuries far more often when the boxers were wearing headgear. Clearly this finding raises some interesting questions and a lot more research is needed to drawing a definite conclusion on this topic. It’s certainly too early to say that professional boxing headgear should be made compulsory.


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