What is the Best Headgear for Wing Chun?
There is headgear marketed for boxing, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Muay Thai, wrestling and more! But I have yet to find any specifically marketed for Wing chun practitioners. However, since heads are heads and punches are punches there are many options available to us. But what is the best?
Let's start with the worst...
Sport Karate and Tae Kwon Do rules limit or completely eliminate strikes to the face. As such, the headgear designed for these arts leaves the face greatly exposed. In personal-defense training like Wing Chun, we need to have many punches thrown at our face and need to return many in kind to our partners. Therefore these types of gear do not fit the purposes of Wing Chun training.
Cover yer Face
Your best choices will be those that give coverage to your face. There are two primary types of headgear that I recommend for Wing Chun sparring. Those are the so called "no-contact" full faced headgear and boxer's training headgear.
"No-contact" headgear come in a variety of shapes and materials. What they share in common is that they create a gap between the face and the point at which a punch is received. This is achieved by the addition or integration of a facemask or large bar to a foam padded helmet. Facemasks are made of clear plastic, plastic cages, or metal cages. The helmet portion is often dipped foam or leather or vinyl encased foam. Dipped foam has the benefit of easy cleanup.
The "no-contact" headgear seems to be the most popular among Wing Chunners and is what most students in our school wear. As they provide the best face protection and bruises and broken noses tend to be unbecoming for most professions, this is understandable. This protection does come with trade-offs, however. Headgear with facemasks or bars tend to obstruct one's vision more that other styles. Also, they add greater volume to your head than do others. Not only does this mean you will get "touched" by more strikes, you will also have more "connect". While the shots that connect won't hurt your head/face as much, that force will still travel to your neck. And do not think that the protection to your face is 100% while wearing such gear. I personally have had my nose cut even while wearing this type of headgear, but measuring that against how many injuries have been stopped, these are still a winner.
Boxer’s training headgear is my current, personal favorite. You will not tend to see dipped foam construction in this category but there is still a great variety and combination of materials used. Leather and/or vinyl shells over foam are the most common but many other materials can be found in use. Designs tend to vary a great deal in shape as well.
I specified “training headgear” as “competition headgear” tend to be lacking in cheek pads. I recommend headgear with as large of cheek pads as you can stand. (Mexican-style headgear have the largest pads and smallest gaps.) These pads protect more than just your cheeks. While your nose is not covered the pads still reduce the contact your nose receives by causing incoming, gloved punches to form bridges across the gaps in the padding. If chin padding is a must for you then you may end up with smaller cheek pads. It just seems to be the design trend.
Boxer's headgear tend to obstruct one’s vision less than “no-contact” headgear. Additionally, your head will feel like a smaller target than if you are wearing something with a facemask or bar. The trade-off here is that your nose and face will not have the same protection. Depending on how sensitive you are to your nose being altered from it's current state, the protection is sufficient but you will definitely get more nose contact wearing boxing style headgear than closed face headgear.
Whichever type of head protection you choose, a good fit is important for good function. Different models and sizes may fit differently even though they may look much the same. Your ears should fit into the ear holes comfortably with nothing over them that might create a seal against your eardrum. The chin strap or pad should come under your chin fully. Finally, it should fit snuggly to reduce sliding but not so tight that it strains your face muscles. Personal preference is always going to be a factor in choosing your "best" headgear. Individual fit will be the most subjective element.
Train smart = Train safe(r)
When you spar or do other drills involving hard contact, you are going to get hit. You are going to get hurt. Gear is there to reduce this but you can never completely eliminate injury. Limits on striking force and location still need to be observed when working with your partners to manage risk.
Behavior is the number one safety factor but do not neglect your other safety measures either. Headgear is just one component of safer sparring. Appropriate gloves should be used to protect both partners. (MMA fight gloves are not a good choice. Open palmed training gloves or boxing gloves of 16oz plus are where it is at.) Mouthpieces should be worn even with closed face gear. Good mouthpieces help to protect your brain not just your teeth and gums. Arm, leg, groin, and torso armor should be considered depending on the level of force and techniques being used.
Sifu Nick Edmonds
Red Light Wing Chun Phoenix, Arizona