Manage Your BJJ Injuries, Expectations, and Learn From My Mistakes

Injuries suck. Even as I write this, I have torn cartilage between my ribs. There are inherent dangers to any sport or physical activity, and the “gentle art” is no different. Over the past 10+ years, I’ve had a number of injuries, (some of these self-diagnosed and others by a clinician). I sprained the left medial collateral ligament in my knee twice (grade 2-3), tore the meniscus in both knees, tore ligaments in my elbow (I’m assuming on this one because of the popping sounds I heard), sprained the acromioclavicular joint in my right shoulder, dislocated and fractured my right pinky toe (multiple times), and suffered ongoing lower back injuries (bulging discs and whatnot). These don’t include any minor aches, pains, joint swelling, cauliflower ear, etc…

Looking back, I think most of my injuries were (and still are) due to my competitive nature and ego. For the first 2/3rds of my BJJ career, tapping was considered a weakness.  I instinctually felt I was “losing.” This type of impudent mindset can also be one that thrives on competition. Sometimes arguing with my wife over the etymology of word is entertaining. I don’t actually care about the result, I just enjoy the little excitement that comes from discourse.

Jiu Jitsu provides a physical discourse. But if you are constantly straining against forces, eventually something will break. Literally. Take my first knee injury. A larger and more skilled training partner was applying a sweeping technique. Instead of falling, I resisted as he put a great amount of force near my knee. Eventually, my knee gave in and I heard a loud “POP!” All my injuries follow a similar pattern: someone does a move, I resist it with all of my strength, and something snaps.

Most of the time, the mental aspect of a serious injury is worse than the immediate physical pain. It often takes weeks, months, and sometimes years to fully recover. I’m often disappointed when people are improving around me while I lick my wounds on the couch, (more on this later).

During and even after an injury, stepping back on the mat is a huge mental hurdle. BJJ has so many dynamic and unpredictable movements. It’s hard to prepare for what might happen and game-plan the unknown.

The best way to move forward from an injury is to assess the situation and think about the bigger picture. Remember each person has his/her own issues. Yours is probably not too unique. Another part of the bigger picture is to remember advancement in this martial art is a marathon.

Once you consider the bigger picture, find out what you CAN do. Can you still drill technique? Can you come to class and take notes? Can you do bodyweight exercises? Setting some small attainable goals will keep you mentally engaged until you are ready to get back full tilt.

Learn from my mistake: Tap often, “take the fall,” and respect your training PARTNERS.  Tap often is a pretty simple concept, but, it’s REALLY HARD. I’ve gotten better at it by asking myself (sometimes during a precarious position), if my position will affect how I feel the next day. For example, “Will this make my shoulder hurt so I won’t be able to lift weights?” If the answer is yes, tap.

 “Taking the fall” means accepting someone’s energy. I provide this example often to my students: If your training partner attempts a sit up sweep, don’t try to catch your weight (and your partner’s) with one arm to resist getting mounted. You’d be better off “taking the fall” than risk hurting your elbow or shoulder.

Acknowledging internally that we are all training partners, not opponents is hugely beneficial to injury prevention. When I internalize the fact I can’t enjoy this sport without YOU, my partner, it helps me take care of both of us better. So, when one of our fingers is caught awkwardly in the gi, I’m much more likely to stop the position.

Ironically, injuries may actually improve your BJJ. An extreme instance of this is the development of the modern half-guard. Roberto “Gordo” Correa had a knee injury preventing him from utilizing full guard, so he developed an entirely new set of techniques to work around it. While you may not invent a position, you may find you have to improve another weak area of your game or find a new position while you recover.