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Advice for Training While Injured from a White Belt in Jiu-Jitsu

Hello again. It has been a while since I last spoke about training in Jiu-Jitsu. 126 days to be exact. Each day I feel like I’ve gotten just a little bit better, understood just a little bit more, or identified just one more thing that plays into my favorite styles of movement. However, I can’t say that this progress has been linear, nor has it been unimpeded.

Unless you’re God’s gift to luck, you will get hurt training in Jiu-Jitsu. For those lucky few who have presently managed to dodge the injury train, try the lottery while you’re at it. I’ll only take a 1% finder’s fee for the suggestion. As for the rest of us, getting injured is something you need to accept will happen. There is no way to continually train in a sport where the objective is to control and manipulate an opponent’s body against their will – to the point of being able to break their joints or force them to go unconscious – without assuming a non-zero amount of risk of injury for either party. Each additional day you train is always another roll of the dice.

Hopefully your instructors value teaching proper technique and form, as those things will be your most valuable assets for preventing injuries in the first place (barring staying generally healthy, active, and limber). It’s harder to get hurt if you defend yourself correctly and never place yourself in overly-compromising positions. The more you train and the more your instructors show you, the faster you'll be able to recognize when you are in dangerous positions, and how to safely maneuver out of them.

Nevertheless, injuries will happen. Let’s assume from this point forward that all parties are always training benevolently, and save any discussion about malicious behavior or intent within the gym for another time. When training, and even competing for that matter, physical forces will inevitably align to compromise your flesh: torn muscles, tendons, or ligaments, broken bones, and potentially worse. How you choose to deal with these situations dictates how quickly you move forward and progress.

I am just returning from my third injury now, and I can say that I thoroughly do not enjoy riding on the Injured Reserve list. The first injury was with my ribs this past January. My X-ray showed no broken bones, though I didn’t get any further testing done, so who knows what actually happened. All I know is I was off the mats for six weeks because of that one. The second injury was to my right knee’s Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) in the beginning of June, removing my ability to compete in a local tournament that was about to happen, as well as in Jiu-Jitsu Con 2023. After taking nine weeks off of the mats for that one, I returned only to hurt my Lateral Collateral Ligament (LCL) on the same knee a week later. That took me off the mats for another two weeks, but I have since returned to rolling as of September 4th. So, while there is still a lifetime of training and injuries ahead of me – which means that there’s also an immense amount of knowledge I still need to gain – here is some advice for training while injured from a white belt in Jiu-Jitsu.

Initial Injury Assessment

So you were training, and you got hurt. What next? Well, the first thing to do when an injury happens is to immediately tap, regardless of whether or not you are drilling or rolling (and don’t forget to say “tap,” too). Don’t give your training partner the chance to exacerbate anything, especially considering the fact that they will likely be unaware that anything has happened in the first place.

Let’s assume that you determine this is more than just a “sitting to the side for a second” type of thing. Stop drilling or rolling for the day, and seek medical advice from a trusted professional any way that you can. Obviously, if your limbs are compromised in some fashion, you don’t need a doctor to tell you that they’re compromised. At some point, you will know so because you will feel that they’re compromised. However, you will need medical professionals to determine exactly what is wrong, and which roads are most appropriate to – and through– recovery.

Regardless of what happened, whether you simply hyperextended a joint, or broke multiple bones and completely tore multiple muscles, tendons, and ligaments, this next part has nothing to do with Jiu-Jitsu and everything to do with what you value and prioritize in your life.

Value Assessment and Prioritization

So, we are past the point of finding out what our injury is, and we have a road to recovery. Before we resume training, we need to pause and look at what’s going on in our life and see what we value, and how to prioritize everything accordingly from there. For some, it means resuming training as soon as possible, as often as possible, as intensely as possible because these people value progressing their knowledge and ability in Jiu-Jitsu more than anything else. For others, it means taking a break, focusing on recovery, doing anything but Jiu-Jitsu because these people have other things in their life that they value and need to prioritize more than getting better at Jiu-Jitsu (familial obligations, other physical health issues, mental health issues, and so on).

Neither side is morally or ethically superior or inferior to the other. Everyone should be afforded the freedom to value Jiu-Jitsu – or any other part of life – more than anything else, as well as the freedom to have those values change without ridicule or judgment. I don’t think anyone can shame a single-parent for putting Jiu-Jitsu down for a while if they get seriously hurt, and choose instead to spend time with family and refrain from over-doing themselves. Nor do I think that you can shame a world champion from being back in the gym the next day after being discharged from the hospital the night before. What matters is your values, and sticking to them. If you need to do other things and wait to return until you're at full strength – good – we’ll see you when you come back. If you need to be in the gym regardless of how physically unable to train you are – good – we’ll see you there. Just make sure you’re not disobeying any direct medical advice. Thankfully, everyone at Methods seems to have this perspective as well, so it’s natural to feel warm and welcome whether you’ve been gone for months, or are on the bench the very next day after blowing your knee out.

Training while Injured

So you’ve gotten checked out, you know how to heal and recover, you’ve assessed your values and determined that you still want to train even though you physically can’t, and that nothing is going to stand in your way of getting better in this practice. What next?

This next part is very simple, though it might be one of the most difficult and painful things you’ll ever experience: show up, watch class and/or open mat, and ask questions. Moreover, stay off of the mats until you’ve healed enough to get back on. And then from there only do what you can, and not more, until you’ve healed enough to begin working on pushing your physical limits again.

The whole point of healing is to get back to where we were before, and then begin improving from that point; it is not to continue pushing our limits past what we already know our body cannot physically tolerate (because we suffered an injury in the first place). So, this will likely mean riding the bench… for a while. If you value getting better at Jiu-Jitsu more than anything else, you must show up and sit on that bench, especially if you feel shameful or cowardly for doing so.

Since I started training in June 2022, I’ve been on the bench for roughly 12-13 weeks. That doesn’t sound like much, but when I realized that I’ve only been training for about 65 weeks, proportionately speaking I’ve spent nearly 20% of my time with Jiu-Jitsu on the bench. 20% of anything is significant. And in fact, there is an entire principle based around the significance of 20% of something, known as the 80/20 Principle or Pareto Principle.

Essentially, the Pareto Principle states that 80% of outcomes, or results, are yielded from 20% of inputs, or efforts. In other words, 80% of the results that you receive from something generally come from 20% of the efforts you put in. From a business perspective, this might be reflected in a business receiving 80% of its revenue from 20% of its products. From an athlete’s perspective, or for the purposes of this article, a Jiu-Jitsu perspective, 80% of progress gained comes from 20% of time put in. For me, that 20% of time came from being injured. It won’t always be the same for everyone, but if it is for you, keep on reading.

Riding the Bench

You have to understand that even if you want to be the best in the world, your body has physical limits and must be allowed to heal properly if pushed too far. Refusing to do so will snub any chances of long-term progress. Your broken bones and torn ligaments don’t care if your heart can’t handle being off the mats. They need rest and time to heal. Stay off the mats until you can safely get back on them.

However, fret not; you can still train on the bench. It likely won’t be easy or enjoyable, but it is possible. You have to show up, rain or shine, pain or euphoria. You have to pay direct attention when your instructors are teaching class, and imagine yourself doing each repetition of each move with each person in class. Ask anything and everything you can to help you understand each movement that is taught until you reach a point to where you believe you could hop down on the mats and do them with your eyes closed – if only you were able.

Mind you, the difficult part about this is not physically going to class, physically paying attention, or physically asking questions. The difficult part is mentally going to class: refusing to feel sorry for yourself or to use an excuse as a reason to not go to class. The difficult part is mentally paying attention: staying present with the current techniques being taught and not drifting off into some fantasy about being perfectly healthy and, “what you could do if you were 100%.” The difficult part is mentally asking questions: pouring over and over the same techniques which you feel you fully understand and trying to find new parts that you don’t understand or haven’t recognized, without letting the arrogance of competence blind you.

If you can stay true to showing up, watching, and asking questions, your time on the bench will make you better. To be quite honest, I believe that the weeks of bench time that I had to spend watching people do the exact same things I’ve been doing for months (be it in drilling or rolling), has yielded me just as much progress as the months I’ve spent physically training, given that I had established contextual knowledge with those prior months of physical training in the first place. That 20% of my time that I could have spent at home, or elsewhere, I chose to spend in the gym even if I couldn’t physically participate.

Yet, I gained tremendous results from doing so. I would be so much further behind myself if I had chosen another path. For me, I valued that progress more than any feelings of shame, loss, or yearning that I felt when I sat and watched others get better and have fun. So, it would have been wrong of me to let those unreasonable excuses get in the way of achieving that progress. For others, they might value making sure their livelihood stays secure and seeing that they make it back to 100% in the first place. Again, neither side is superior or inferior for holding any particular position. You just have to stay true to prioritizing that value while it is front and center with you, and then shift prioritization when your values can, or do, change.

Getting off the Damn Bench

So, it’s been a while. You’ve healed enough to bear your own weight, as well as move it. You’re ready and able to safely return to the mats. What next? That answer is very simple, although it’s more nuanced than you’d expect: get back on the mats, silly!

Again, please don’t be ignorant by either ignoring medical advice and getting on the mats before you’re ready, or pushing yourself beyond your limits too quickly. Let’s assume your bones and soft tissues are at least structurally stable, but maybe aren’t completely ready to Hulk Smash everyone into the earth yet. Start off training slowly. Do very basic movements like shots, hip-escapes, squats, rolls, and anything else you can think of, slowly. Monitor any pain or discomfort and adjust accordingly. After you’re ready, move on to drilling. If you can only do movements that involve yourself, stick with that. Not every day will feel like you made progress, but collectively over time, you will. Continue training with your focus directed at gaining progress, day after day, until you can move on to drilling with a partner.

This is where you will need to be careful. You’re involving another being in your recovery process, and they can never be inside of your head feeling the things you feel (at least for now, but let’s pray that stays a dystopian nightmare for the not-too-distant future for as long as possible). You need to have open communication. Let your partner know what’s going on, what your intent is, and what you are trying to be careful of. Unless you train with downright selfish people, I doubt anyone will have any problems with you wanting to make adjustments. If they do have problems, find others who don’t and train with them. Be mindful of yourself and your partners. Tap if something is starting to go wrong so that no one gets hurt, either physically or emotionally; and try your hardest to give proper resistance to your partners – don’t just be a dead fish because you don’t want to try. And then do all of this until you feel that you can roll. And rinse and repeat until you are back to 100%.

That Can’t be it…

No really, that’s pretty much it. There are some specific actions that I take when injured that I believe help speed my healing and recovery process, but we’ll save that for another time. I have to keep you wanting more somehow, right? Nonetheless, the advice I’ve given here is what I believe is most vital to continue training while injured. Most importantly, it’s advice that anyone can follow if they so choose: Assess what’s happened to your body and how to address it, prioritize the things you have going on in your life, show up once you value training more than anything else, and then train at your maximum capacity until you push that capacity further – from riding the bench all the way to storming dojos. Do everything you can do, and definitely do not do what you should not do.

The time you spend injured can be brief or long-term. However, the returns gained from how you spend that time can be extraordinary if you commit to them. You just need to be willing to spend that time wisely, regardless of how difficult that may be, and then commit to spending it in that particular way. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is only one way to get your 10,000 hours in. It just so happens to be the case that how you choose to spend some 20% of those hours can directly dictate the direction of your progress. If you value getting better at Jiu-Jitsu, don’t ever let anything get in the way of you spending that time in the best ways possible. Everything depends on it.


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