Want to practice martial arts? Make sure you don’t sign your life away.

May 25, 2023 3:33 am

Our columnist advises readers to take gym safety seriously. Otherwise, you could face serious medical repercussions. (Getty Images)

I stood still, trembling in fear, as I watched the individual swiftly move around me through my peripheral vision. I was struck in the head by their fist. They didn’t stop the move or back away, and I suffered a second blow to the head. I felt myself falling and felt my head hit the ground and snap up.

Everything went black, and the next thing I knew, I was on the ground. I was not the victim of an alleyway mugging, nor was I a chorus member in the off-Broadway theatrical rendition of “Roadhouse.” This happened to me at an all experiences-allowed martial arts gym.

As a sport, martial arts can assist all demographics in fostering a sense of discipline, community, self awareness, and confidence in one’s own safety However when industry standards of safety are ignored, these gyms can threaten the health of members.

In 2022, there were a reported 31,763 martial arts studios in the US, and according to a recent study, 13% of children under the age of 11 have participated in a martial arts activity in the past year. Due to the growing interest in the sport, as well as the large number of minors who continue to practice it, we must do more to ensure proper safety standards are met at every gym.

This gym in particular taught and facilitated classes in wrestling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a ground-based martial art that utilizes angles and pressure in order to non-violently submit an opponent. As a young single woman in college, I began studying jiu jitsu, as I wanted to become more independent and learn practical self defense strategies. After having my credit card stolen off my person and witnessing threats of physical and gun violence, I knew it was vital to have self defense skills under my belt.

I attended three separate martial arts gyms, with my injury occurring at one where I spent half of my senior year studying. In one of my first few practices at a different gym, I discovered the brutality that could go hand in hand with the sport. Over the course of a few months, I heard and witnessed brazen misogyny, continuous threats of violence toward other members, and physical retaliation against members.

Despite such issues, a gym complete with industry-standard safety precautions and surveillance cameras could still run effectively. But that gym didn’t have those.

If you are studying martial arts or pursuing joining a gym, check to make sure that your gym meets industry standards of safety, in order to avoid potential injury or hazard.

– Sarah Grindstaff

If you are studying martial arts or pursuing joining a gym, check to make sure that your gym meets industry standards of safety, in order to avoid potential injury or hazard. Martial arts gyms should have surveillance cameras in the event of injury or intentional harm. In the event that an injury occurs and fault must be proved for insurance reasons, surveillance cameras can provide insight and physical evidence of the injury and the cause.

Many martial arts gyms will also purchase policies that include accidental medical coverage, which does not require any finding of fault to pay out. This can offer a reduction in price and assistance in player recovery, as well as a bit of life insurance for a gym that may see players injured and hospitalized.

However, this type of insurance is not required and not always present at gyms. Before joining a gym, ask the owner to confirm that this type of insurance is maintained.

Additionally, most gyms will have you sign a standard liability waiver. Most will include the clause “up to and including death.” Speaking from personal experience, these waivers hold up in court, meaning that when you sign up to attend a martial arts gym, you may very well be signing your life away. When signing a waiver, be sure to read it completely and verify that safety standards are maintained, to avoid the personal liability accepted upon signing.

These standards include adequate supervision during all drilling exercises, matching experience levels of drilling partners, immediate response times to risky or violent conduct, maintaining emergency medical plans, practicing skills for stabilizing and evaluating injured participants, suspension of risky or dangerous participants, sideline screenings after head injuries and the proper maintenance of premises.

In the early stages of joining a gym, also be aware of the many risks, and if you see that the above standards are not consistently maintained, consider trying or switching to a different gym.

Finally, check with the gym owner or staff about the presence of surveillance cameras. If you are attending a gym without these, advocate for their inclusion. In the event of serious injury, these can protect both the participants and the gym from legal liability, as well as avoid the consequences of gaslighting and perjury in the event of a lawsuit.

Joining a martial arts gym and partaking in the activity is a big decision and should be treated as such. One afternoon in a martial arts gym, especially those with inadequate safety precautions, can change your life. One afternoon in a martial arts gym gave me a moderate concussion, along with two ER visits and two massive ER bills for the old scrapbook. An afternoon in a martial arts gym is why I can no longer ride roller coasters. Why I have to keep a daily journal to record my weekly migraines. And why I can no longer remember the word for what happens when you have recall issues.

One afternoon in a martial arts gym gave me a hole in the top of my head that you can put a finger in, but wasn’t quite deep enough to cause me permanent, severe brain damage.

If you are looking into practicing martial arts, do the necessary homework on the gym, and don’t let yourself get roped in by false advertising or aggressive recruiting practices. The decision to start martial arts is a serious one, even if you are young and healthy. And if you are already part of a gym, work with leadership to better enforce and adopt even better safety standards.

Sarah Grindstaff is a risk advisory analyst in Kansas City, Missouri. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Sarah Grindstaff
Sarah Grindstaff

Sarah Grindstaff was born and raised in a small town right outside Saint Louis and has always had a deep passion for public policy and civic engagement. Grindstaff now studies political science and economics at the University of Kansas. Some of her previous work includes a number of editorials published at the University Daily Kansan. In her free time, Grindstaff enjoys writing music, participating in numerous student organizations, and telling bad Ronald Reagan jokes.