The Hardest Thing in Jiu Jitsu

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Team Ironside / Flickr Creative Commons

Jiu Jitsu is hard. It’s fun and it’s amazing, but at the end of the day it’s hard. There’s a ton of work and a ton of learning to be done, including how to accept failure and loss, but what is the hardest thing in Jiu Jitsu? In this author and Jiujitiero’s opinion the answer is: dealing with injuries. I want to talk a little about that today.

One thing I don’t see a lot of conversation about, though it’s a constant and almost guaranteed part of your BJJ journey, is injury and how to deal with injuries along the way. Just about every player I know has lost training time due to injury, some sustained on the mats either in class or competition, and some having zero to do with BJJ which took us out of the loop none the less. Personally, I’ve suffered from all both (and some pretty serious injuries at that). While I in no way claim to be an expert on the subject, having survived injuries that have taken many completely out of the BJJ game, I feel I have certainly earned my spot at the discussion table.

Regardless of the source or reason for the injury, there are some things to take from it and learn from as we move forward, there are also some pretty heavy repercussions that need to be understood and discussed. Let’s take a look at some of those details.

The very first thing I want to talk about on the subject is mental health and the effect injury and missing training due to injury can have on your mental health. If you’re ever not sure how much you love BJJ then just wait until you’re injured and CAN’T train. At that time you will learn and know exactly how important it is to you. For those who train a good number of hours per week, perhaps 20 or more, a catastrophic injury can be frighteningly detrimental. The hard training BJJ provides is a great source of exercise, but we all know it’s so much more than just that. With that reward comes certain physiological change and development. One of the things we get out of the challenge-and-reward relationship that we develop with BJJ is the release of certain hormones during combat.

According to Google’s definition, an endorphin is “any of a group of hormones secreted within the brain and nervous system and having a number of physiological functions. They are peptides that activate the body’s opiate receptors, causing an analgesic effect.” Plainly put, we work hard, fight hard, and our brain rewards us with a squirt of feel-good. Other brain-juice that may be released as a result of the work done on the mats can include seratonin, dopamine, and oxytocin all of which make you feel awesome at the end of a great class. But what happens when you get hurt and can’t get your “fix”? Let me tell you, you go into some pretty serious withdrawals. It’s super important to understand why you feel SO sad and depressed when you can’t train due to injury so that you can mentally process it all better when and if it happens to you. Yes, you love to train and you miss your friends and routine, but beyond that, you are suffering from actual physical withdrawals of those hormones you’ve become accustomed to feeling the release of regularly. I had the pleasure of discussing this subject at some length with professor Rafael Lovato Jr. after his shoulder surgery and miraculous comeback in 2015. Even the best among us are subject to these hormonal withdrawals when out with a serious injury. I honestly believe this is one of the reasons we see a great number of opiate addictions in the world of combat sports, but I will refrain from further speculating on that aspect of the subject.

Obviously, the effect of this withdrawal is not nearly the same for a casual student who trains once or twice a week as it is for the student training those 20 or more hours a week. For them, training is life, and so then equally paramount is the strength of the effect of these hormones and their levels on that person. Regardless of their current amount of time commitment to training, one can expect to feel the effects of this hormonal deficit on some level during a period of recovery following an injury.

The next thing I want to discuss is how to deal with an injury during and after recovery. I think most of us just want to heal up and get right back on the mats as quickly as possible, in general. I won’t get into proper rehab and everything that goes with healing and recovering because there are complete sources dedicated to that. I will express a bit on how to deal with your injury  once you return to training. You may find that your new injury makes some of your old favorite things very difficult. For example, I love closed guard, but after I blew out half my left ACL and half my left MCL in a training accident, it became a bit tougher to maintain than it was for me before my injury. This is where adaptation and persistence will pay off for you.

You aren’t the first person to have a limitation and the need to adapt. Many greats before us have proven that where there is a will, there is indeed a way. Master Jean Jacques Machado has no fingers on his left hand, yet he’s adapted his game to a level most of us will never achieve. It’s noted that Roberto “Gordo” Correa pioneered the half-guard position due to his own knee injury making closed guard difficult to maintain. The point is that an injury will effect you, but it doesn’t have to stop you. My left foot and ankle are severely mangled from a series of accidents and injuries making many techniques difficult. I have a very hard time holding and controlling a butterfly hook on the left because my injured foot is simply very weak. Any time I begin to feel self-pity for my inability to keep up to my own standards with my damaged appendage I’m forced to remind myself that there are dudes out there training with NO LEG(s!) and that they have NO choice but to adapt and overcome. So must you and I. Find strength in that for yourself when coming back from an injury. Yes, it will be hard. Yes, it will be much like starting over. That kid you used to tool up easily may tap you a few times while you figure out how to run your game short one leg, or one arm, or one hand, but don’t let that stop you from pushing on and figuring out exactly how to achieve your goals DESPITE that shortcoming.

An injury will teach you humility, restraint, and hopefully to not make the same mistakes you made to get injured in the first place, as pain is the greatest of all teachers. Understand the physiological changes to expect and look out for while out of training, and expect to need to adapt your game after you’ve completed a healthy recovery period. Most of all, NEVER, EVER give up. Most of us spent many years of our lives prior to beginning our BJJ training and though it may feel like forever, the period of time required for a healthy recovery is just a drop in the bucket of time in the grand scheme of things, so don’t feel like there’s no point in coming back even after a year or more layoff. Stick with it through all the hard times and you may live to be an Old Dirty BJJ Bastard too. Oss!

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