Baby, Don’t Hurt Me

A secret part of me gets giddy when a new student joins my class because I get to re-tell one of my favorite jokes. When we are working on a submission or some sort of positional control—usually involving a cross face or a good bit of pressure—I saunter over and explain how exactly the technique works and all of the little ways it painfully exploits the biomechanics of your opponent’s body.

So I finish the explanation, and I say, “You know how they call jiu-jitsu the gentle art? Well, it’s only the gentle art for the person that’s winning.”

Cue the big laugh, and my students, who have heard it before, politely humor this small bit of joy in my life.

Lately though, I’ve started to think that calling our sport the gentle art is entirely inaccurate, no matter what end of the victory equation you’re on. After ten years in the sport and a career that has afforded me the opportunity to work with a number of accomplished black belts, I can’t help but notice a trend: grapplers are broken people. I haven’t met a black belt that doesn’t have a laundry list of injuries. Some are small nagging pains, but each jiu-jiteiro seems to have at least one injury that could be grounds for stepping away from the sport completely.

I’m talking about herniated disks, pockets of fluid in the spine, fractured vertebrae, and pinched nerves in the neck. These are in addition to bad shoulders, torn up knees, and mangled digits that barely resemble fingers. It seems as though earning a black belt has some pre-requisite of self-destruction, and then white and blue belts have the nerve to complain about their instructors not rolling enough.

But that’s not the point I really want to make. My bigger concern: Are we ignoring an important conversation about grappling longevity? We spout rhetoric about training hard and training often and promote this dream of being a world champion, but we don’t talk about the very real costs that come with that journey. And is the price worth it? Could we shift our perspective on what training should be to better preserve the health of ourselves and our students?

Some areas of our training worth considering:

  • Techniques that rely on inversion—Building your game around inverted techniques means that you will spend a lot of time on your shoulders with the potential for downward pressure that strains your neck and lower back. Sure, you could win some matches, but is the wear and tear really worth it, especially with younger and younger competitors adopting these strategies. Could neck injuries be the jiu-jitsu version of Tommy John injuries?

  • Techniques that put significant, repetitious strain on major joints—I interviewed a high level competitor known for a triangle game, and he casually mentioned how it had wrecked his knees. Even in my mediocre jiu-jitsu life, four knee surgeries have taken triangles off of the table for me. Eliminating triangle chokes all together is clearly not a solution, but perhaps encouraging variety in our students’ games is wise, especially with leg locks continuing to grow in popularity.

  • Competition training intensity—The previous generation of competitors, the Rickson Gracie era if you will, has not escaped the toll of injuries. Even Rickson who many considered to have the “purest” technique is a shamble of injuries collected through many years of training and difficult competition. At the same time, we have to admit that the original generations of jiu-jitsu competitors did not train with the same frequency and intensity as the new generation coming up. The bar has raised, so if the founders were unable to escape a lifetime of injury, we have to assume that the situation might be worse for a generation growing up at a time when competition is fiercer than it has ever been.
My intent is not to suggest that jiu-jitsu itself is broken or that we should abandon jiu-jitsu innovation all together. Instead, I think that we should take a step back and reconsider what we really mean by the jiu-jitsu lifestyle. If we truly believe that the sport is a lifestyle, that means it should be something that we can enjoy for the rest of our lives. If we accept long term pain for short term gains, we undermine that goal.

And I don’t have the solution. All I have is a concern that our twenty-something competitors are going to use up their bodies the way that other professional athletes often do, hitting their 30s with the knees and backs of 70 year-olds, and that our admiration of these competitors will drag casual jiu-jiteiros into a training approach that is not sustainable for them either.

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