Living in the Injury Prone Zone
I just came back from an extreme hernia repair. I’ve had two meniscus repairs and one meniscus removal—all on the right knee. I have turf toe. I have nuggets of cauliflower ear. I can’t throw a football with my right arm because it feels like my elbow will fall apart. I have a weak lower back. My right shoulder clicks. My fingers are morphing into knots. I’ve broken my nose.
I am 28. My body is broken, but I love jiu-jitsu.
When I was 21, I had aspirations of being a world champion, just like every other young blue belt on the planet. I saw how my heroes trained, and I set about emulating their intensity. I trained twice a day and mixed in strength & conditioning. I ran up stairs. I flipped tires. I trained until my white gis turned a sweaty brown, and then I trained more.
The harder I pushed, the less my body wanted to keep up. My knee would pop here and there, but I carried on, not knowing that a bucket-handle tear in my cartilage was on the horizon. As the surgery-unbeknownst to me—crept closer, I racked up other minor injuries. I started to feel like something was amiss: I wasn’t recovering as fast as my heroes. I wasn’t winning as many matches as they were. I wasn’t as fast, as strong, or as technical as they were when they were at my level.
Fast-forward through the injuries and surgeries I listed above and now conditioning outside of training is minimal, now I am thankful if I get to the end of a class, and have no aspirations of climbing to the top of a podium on the world stage.
Here are the lessons I wish I had learned prior to my injuries:
Jiu-jitsu is a contact sport that wears your body down. Every black belt I’ve met, from hobbyists to world champions, has a list of injuries and aches much longer than mine. If you are new to the sport, listen to your body. Take the time to recover if you get hurt and respect the damage-potential of submissions. If you play your cards right, you’ll get to your 60s with some gnarled fingers and little else to show for the ruggedness of your journey.
Train at your speed, not someone else’s. We are reaching a stage where our world champion grapplers have been training full time since they were blue belts, and they are mixing their hard work with a generous gift of athletic genetics. If you aren’t a super athlete, that’s okay. Jiu-jitsu was designed with you in mind, but don’t hold it against yourself if you can’t go as hard and as long as some 24-year-old superstar.
Believe it or not, there is more to life than jiu-jitsu. Surgery means not only physical pain for me but an immense burden of stress and worry for my wife. Beyond the actual damage to my body, every injury I’ve had has been harder for her and our relationship than it was for me. Staying healthy and taking some time away from the mat is better for my overall quality of life. I might progress more slowly, but that’s better than not training at all and alienating my family.
Competition does not have to be your endgame. The spotlight of competition is alluring to be sure, but it’s not for everyone. There is nothing wrong with training a few times a week for fun, and in many ways, contributing to the sport at its roots as a teacher or a casual mentor is far more meaningful than winning a gold medal. Your name might not be on the marquee, but you can still make a big difference in your own little ways.
Don’t ever feel bad. Jiu-jitsu is an immensely personal journey. Don’t let anyone make you feel like you have to compete or you have to train with a professional athlete’s intensity. Jiu-jitsu should be fun. If you aren’t having fun in training, you should probably assess the fit between you and your gym and look elsewhere. There are plenty of gyms out that aren’t obsessed with churning out hardcore competitors.
Your body is as unique as you are. Figuring out the best way to use and preserve that body is entirely up to you. Whatever you do, try to be honest with yourself about your own capacity and don’t be afraid to find meaning and enjoyment out of other aspects of the sport.