Medical Committee Comments on Prohibition of Head Strikes in U18s MMA Competition

IMMAF -WMMAA this week published its first competition rules for under 18s, modified from the unified rules with respect to the stage of physiological and educational development of the various age groups. Most notable and most talked about has been IMMAF – WMMAA’s prohibition of head strikes for under 18s, which was recommended unanimously by the Medical Committee. Here two Medical Committee  representatives comment on the policy.

Dr. David Wang (USA) is a Sports Medicine physician with over 20 years of experience working with athletes including kick-boxers and MMA competitors.  He is Medical Director of a concussion clinic and his research includes concussions and the various ways they affect the athlete:

“With the rapid worldwide growth of MMA, it is imperative that governing organisations such as IMMAF continue to keep safety a priority. To that end, the IMMAF with the guidance of the medical safeguards committee, continues to assess athlete injuries, ensuring the sport is as safe as possible.

“Most recently the IMMAF has solidified rules for youth participation in MMA. One of the most noticeable rules is the protection of participants less than the age of 18 from intentional blows to the head. In recent years, it has been noted that the younger athletes who are neurologically immature are more likely to have increased vulnerability and longer recovery from concussion compared to their adult counterparts. These younger athletes may also be more sensitive to cumulative neurologic issues independent of concussion.

“These age related precautions have already been instituted in other sports with a noticeable improvement in concussions. Examples include avoidance of checking in ice hockey until the Bantam level and elimination of heading of the soccer ball in younger soccer players. Each organisation is working to minimise exposure in the younger age groups.

“There is still much to figure out with regard to this issue and it would not be surprising if these rules continue to change into the future. It is the goal in amateur MMA to use the younger years to refine techniques and training, ultimately leading to success in the sport. It is also understood that a more neurologically mature athlete can better tolerate the forces to the head that can occur during unrestricted participation. The IMMAF will continue to follow injuries associated with the sport and adjust the rules accordingly, all with the safety of the athlete being the primary goal.”

Commenting below, Professor Dan Healy (Ireland) is a consultant neurologist with clinical experience in sports medicine. He has had pro bono involvement with MMA since 2011, working with the Safe MMA project in Ireland:

“This decision is the first time any major contact sport has crossed the Rubicon and taken deliberate head strikes out of the equation for children and teenagers. Exposure to deliberate head trauma in sport should be a choice made consenting adults, not kids.

“I understand the criticisms, particularly in learning to defend the head and in preparedness for adult competition. But punching the brain is convincingly associated with underperformance in a child’s education, brain-speed and long-term neurodevelopment. The traditional model was partly negative-feedback.  A sloppy guard resulted in a box to the brain. I’m confident that IMMAF’s competition and coaching structures will reward children for good defense i.e. positive-feedback, will encourage attack, timing and athleticism and will develop champions of the future from the ground-game up. And these children will have faster brains. And faster brains make faster fighters.

“IMMAF has chosen not to ignore the science. I hope it will be a catalyst in other sports like boxing and kickboxing where full-contact head-shots are still the norm as early as 10 years of age.

“Time will tell, but this decision by IMMAF may have as big an impact as the Marquess of Queensberry rules did in 1867. It’s about creating champions, not child champions.”

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