Something I’ve learned in the last five years is that really and truly, no one in jiu jitsu cares about your body. Because of that, you have to be your own bodyguard.
In some ways, I was “lucky” that when I started jiu jitsu, my physical difficulties were visible – I was overweight, huffing and puffing, and obviously physically fatigued. When I took breaks, it was clear I needed one.
In the past few years, I’ve struggled with more invisible injuries. There was the herniated disc in my back, and more recently, my shoulder. About a year ago I noticed my shoulder felt very painful. I couldn’t really do pushups or pullups any more, and the handstands were too painful to do. Raising my arm made me gasp in pain. I could no longer even lay on my left side to sleep. I refused to do any warmups or exercises that could exacerbate it, which included sometimes completely sitting out of the warmups. There were certain drills I wouldn’t do, and sometimes my partners simply couldn’t practice a technique on me. It sucked, but because I took care of it, my shoulder is a LOT better. It’s not at 100%, but I test it every now and again, and I baby it.
TRAINING PARTNERS: NOT YOUR BESTIES
Your fellow practitioners are there, as you are, for their own self-improvement. They want to improve their skills. You being injured sucks for them because it can limit how much they can do. I’ve asked partners to only do a drill on their weak side because my shoulder was so painful. Of course they don’t want to hurt you, and hopefully they have empathy for you, but realistically, unless you actually set limits for them, they will be focused on training as hard as they can. My personal strategy: Be selfish and set what limits you need to.
INSTRUCTORS: NOT YOUR MOMS/DADS
Your instructors are trying to help you be better. They want to push you, and they want you to succeed. They cannot differentiate between a mental block and an actual physical limitation. They can’t see your arthritic knees, your torn ACL, or your bum shoulder. Their goal is not to safeguard your body – it is to teach you. They are also human, which means that it’s definitely possible that they will look down on you if they think you’re just giving up. My personal strategy: Tell the instructor what your physical limitations are, and what they can expect from you.
YOURSELF: YOUR OWN WORST ENEMY
Unfortunately, we can be the worst when it comes to taking care of ourselves. I’ve seen countless people push themselves further than is actually possible. I’ve seen them decide to spar before they’re physically healed. I’ve seen them come in when they are sick. I’m not exempt. This month I was out nearly a week because my rib was so painful that even breathing made me gasp in pain. I thought “Oh man, they’re going to think I’m flaky because I haven’t gone.” My strategy: Keep in contact with your gym, and take care of your body.
GYMS: WATCH FOR RED FLAGS
Good teachers need to find the balance between pushing someone beyond their mental limits, but not beyond physical limits. I get hugely concerned when I hear folks say that no one is “allowed” to take a break at their gym, or that they will berate someone for not being able to keep up. NO ONE IS THE BOSS OF YOU. I hereby give you permission to take care of your body. I would never train at a place that was so focused on “improvement” that they ignored the physical well-being of their students. The muddy part is that you ARE paying to improve, and often a trainer’s way of helping you improve is to tell you have to push out one more rep, or you must do five more before you’re allowed to stop. The reality is that your hobby is voluntary, unlike the army where you ARE required to keep going.
HOWEVER: STUDENTS CAN EXHIBIT RED FLAGS, TOO
The reality is that very often injury is met with little to no empathy simply because everyone is in varying amounts of pain themselves. What you can handle at the beginning is much less than what you can handle later in your jiu jitsu career. You get accustomed to a certain level of pain and injury, and in general what keeps a purple belt off the mat will likely be different than what keeps a new white belt off the mats. The unfortunate reality is that if you’re staying away because you have a bruise or a sore finger, and the time you stay away is more than the time you are coming, you get written off.
tl;dr: No one really cares about your body, which is why you need to.
Jiu Jiu’s Questions: How much has your pain/injury threshold increased as you’ve trained? Do you communicate injuries to your gym/partners? How well do they support you safeguarding your health? What are their responses to injuries/physical limitations? Are you your best friend or your worst enemy when it comes to your body?