Q&A: Training Bruises

Is it normal for a dojo student (10 year old) to have defensive bruises on their arms from training? There was a boy at school who was questioned by his teacher on where he got a bunch of bruises on his arms and that’s where he said he got them from. His instructor. Is that okay or is that abusive?

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This is a very serious topic so Starke and I are going to take turns answering this question. We’re going to have similar answers from different perspectives. Keep in mind we were both exposed to martial arts at very young ages, and I am a former martial arts instructor. I come at this from both the perspective of instructor and child martial artist. I have fourteen years of experience in the community of what we’ll call commercial martial arts which is where the martial arts studio functions as a business, which is the type this child is most likely practicing.

Starke:

Without seeing them, I don’t know. You’re asking me to render an opinion based on almost no information.

Michi:

Martial Arts is a physical contact sport. Bruising is as normal here as it is in any other contact sport. Would you ask the same question if the child was participating in one of them?

My initial response to this question is yes, that’s normal and doesn’t necessarily mean anything untoward occurred. I’d need to see the instructor’s practice in class and speak to the child before I could conclusively determine if any abuse took place. If the bruises are on his forearms then he was probably practicing blocking. If he received them from his instructor then the likeliest answer is they were practicing the techniques closer to full force rather than with another student where there’s no contact allowed. His instructor is the safest person to practice with because they have the best control.

That said, bruises happen. In fact, bruising is the most common injury you’ll receive during martial arts training. It is so commonplace you won’t notice it happening, and, depending on the severity of the bruising, this child might not have even noticed them until the teacher pointed them out.  Martial arts is a physical contact sport. You’re gonna get bruises, and you’ll get so many it’ll become so normal you don’t notice.

Other people do notice, though. If you’re not from the culture or community, and are used to bruises being a signal of something being wrong either at home or on the playground then you’re going to perceive the bruising on the wrists as being wrong. This child’s teacher’s response is also normal.

Starke:

Minor bruising in martial arts training happens.

In particular, learning to parry hand strikes can easily result in a pattern of bruises along the outer forearm. The bruises will be centered around the bone, as that’s the point of contact. The most basic form of these techniques involves catching the opponent’s incoming strike with the forearm, and redirecting it away from the body. Initial practice can be done very lightly, but, eventually, you’re going to get some minor bruises from practicing this with a partner.

How extensive and severe may indicate some issues with oversight in the dojo, or it may reflect actual abuse. From a very superficial, “hey, this is a thing I saw,” it’s very hard to render a professional opinion. In most cases, a public school teacher is not going to be qualified to render that opinion, and will react to any sign of physical injury.

The only thing about this that bothers me is the statement that those injuries came from his instructor. But, we’re in a game of telephone here. You told me that you heard that he told someone else, that… so, what happened originally?

It strikes me as odd that his instructor had him practicing parries with enough force to bruise. Though, some of that could, legitimately, be the kid’s enthusiasm. So, technically the bruises would be self inflicted (because he was striking his instructor’s arms with more force than was called for by the exercise), but the instructor would still be the one who “caused” the bruises, when someone asked the child.

Michi:

I’m going to disagree with Starke. At ten years old, it doesn’t actually take much force to bruise. I spent most of my pre-teen years wandering around with inexplicable bruises on my forearms, or halfway up my upper arm, or on the inside of the wrist, depending on what techniques we were practicing that week. I usually didn’t realize I had them until days later, and they only ever hurt if I poked at them. I’d sometimes show off particularly hideous ones to my peers (or ones I was proud of) just to freak them out.

I don’t know what you mean by “defensive bruising”, but my concern kicks in when the bruises are in unusual places that don’t correlate to the type of training the child says they’re doing.

You could easily get bruising on the wrist from practicing wrist releases, especially if you’re working with your instructor and they want you to experience breaking free from the real thing. The bruise you might get from the training could be indistinguishable from someone forcefully grabbing your wrist. Practice involves simulation.

We don’t know what his martial art is. “Dojo” is a common term in the US when referring to a martial arts school because everyone knows what it means. When I was a kid I’d tell people I was going to my “karate school” because no one knew what Taekwondo was and Taekwondo is the second-most popular martial art in America. So, we don’t know what he’s practicing and don’t know what’s normal at his school.

Lots of traditional Japanese martial arts don’t practice with pads, or use them in a very minimal way. If he’s practicing any strand of Karate — which he might be, karate is one of the most common martial arts — there’s going to be more bruising there.

Starke:

Is this abusive? Without a more comprehensive investigation, I wouldn’t be comfortable making that call. I’m inclined to think that it’s a credible story, so far as it goes.

Is it fine? Not exactly, but minor bruising isn’t automatically a sign that anything’s wrong with the Dojo. This could be the result of a cautious instructor making the right call, and not asking the boy to practice with his fellow students.

Ultimately, I don’t know. There’s not enough information on what happened here. I’m inclined to think everything’s fine, but I have scars from training, so my zero point might be a little off.

Michi:

Martial arts studios are businesses. The most common students studios make the most money on is children between the ages of five to twelve, and many parents use martial schools as after school day-care. These are usually family oriented establishments who put a heavy emphasis on child safety, they have to or else they don’t stay in business. I’m not going to say abuse doesn’t happen in martial arts schools, it does. However, we’d need a lot more information to make a judgement call.

I don’t know his martial art. I don’t know his belt ranking or how long he’s been training. I don’t know if these bruises are common for him or not, if this is a first or just the first time his school teacher noticed them. I don’t know if he’s had any serious behavior changes within the past few months which might indicate psychological signs of abuse which correlate with his injuries. From the information given, I’d say his bruises are most likely the result of normal training; especially if he wasn’t hiding them.

Exterior bruising on the outside forearms, upper arms, thighs, and shins is very common in Taekwondo because these spots are where you take the hits. Interior bruising on the inner arm/inner leg is less usual but not concerning. The severity of the bruises, the color and depth of penetration are the important factors because I need to know how hard they’re getting hit. I’d want to know about bruises around the core, and I’d still need an established pattern rather than knowing if it was a one off accident. The only place I’d initially be very concerned about is bruising on the face or neck. A ten year old should not be getting bruised on his face or neck, especially not by his instructor, but I have seen it happen from other students as an accident. I’d also need to observe the instructor, the demeanor of the students, the attitudes of the parents, and probably on multiple occasions to be certain.

Let me tell you though, the instructors are the ones who come away with the most bruises. We’re the punching bags, especially for younger students. Even when it’s something simple like holding out a paddle, you never know when they’re going to miss and… there go the fingers. I can’t tell you how many jammed and occasionally broken fingers come out of board breaking seminars. Someone is going to miss at least once. Again, you need to hit and get hit to ultimately test out whether your technique is working. Your instructor is the one who is safest to do this with because they’re the only ones with the control to hit just hard enough so the child learns whether or not they’re doing the block right. This lets them simulate the real thing without being in any danger, even from the other students. The worst bruises come from your peers, not your teachers.

Media dresses up martial arts training to be more harsh and nefarious than it actually is. We deal with those questions on this blog all the time. The real world is much less salacious and more mundane. Martial arts training for kids is very safe, much safer than some other sports (I’m looking at you football and gymnastics), but it does involve physical contact which can result in bruising.

-Starke and Michi

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