Heal Up or Jump Back In? Getting Back on the Mats After Injury

Val Worthington is taking questions about jiu-jitsu and life. Submit yours here and it could be featured in the next installment!

Question: Hey! I'm a blue belt from New Jersey. Is it better to fully recover from injuries or to scale down my training?

Oh, the injury question. When things go our way during training, we may feel practically invincible. Then we land wrong. Tap too slowly. Get a limb tangled in a gi. We get injured. This, along with death and taxes, is a certainty in the life of a jiu-jiteiro: If we stick with training long enough, we will at some point be sidelined by an injury.

The very first thing I want to do in responding to this question is make it clear that I am not a physician. I am not authorized to give medical advice of any kind, and this response is based on my own experiences and those of my friends and teammates, not on any kind of medical training.

Thus, the very second thing I want to do in responding to this question is encourage anyone who is injured or sick, or who suspects they may be either, to consult a licensed medical professional for advice specific to that injury or illness. Jiu-jitsu practitioners as a group are notoriously reluctant to seek medical help, instead “training around it” or “just shoving it back in its socket and using the other one.” We do not want to miss training, which anyone who trains understands, but sometimes our passion for training clouds our better judgment.

Believe me when I say I know health insurance and medical care are expensive. I know many of us try to get along without them, and I cannot speak for anyone besides myself regarding whether they are a priority, let alone an affordable one. Given what jiu-jitsu requires of us, however, if I had my way, it would be on everyone’s short list of considerations.

This leads to the third thing: Make sure any doctor you consult has some sense of what you do and what your goals are. I have heard many a horror story about doctors who, upon completing their examination of a grappler, make the dastardly pronunciation, “You should probably just stop jiu-jitsu altogether.” I am fortunate to have a physical therapist who understands my passion for jiu-jitsu and an osteopath who himself is a blue belt. Add to this the fact that they are both highly skilled and dedicated, and I know the care I get for injuries is oriented around helping me get back to my regular routine as quickly, safely, and cost-effectively as possible. Do your best to find qualified physicians who have a similar mindset.

Now, the heart of the question—whether it is better to heal completely from an injury or scale back your training as you regain strength, stability, range of motion, or whatever else you lost when you got injured. This will depend on many variables, including the nature and severity of the injury, the types of positions and movements that do and do not aggravate it, whether you will be prescribed physical therapy, and the level and type of physical demands in the rest of your life, to name just a few. You will not be surprised to read that I strongly suggest you work closely with your doctor(s) when considering these variables.

There is another variable, however, over which you have more control, and that is your awareness of your own well-being and personality. In other words, how well do you know your body and mind? Regarding your body awareness, in recent years, a raft of experts has begun to turn athletes’ attention toward improving mobility and being aware of their own bodies’ baseline capabilities. This serves multiple purposes, including helping to maximize performance and prevent injury. It may also increase individuals’ recognition of when they are operating at 100% and when they are not, when they are simply expanding their comfort zones and when they are doing themselves real damage.

Regarding your personality, think about how much you can trust yourself. In other words, are you one of those people who sticks to it when you say, “I am only going to drill, no live training” and “I am going to class, but I will just sit on the edge of the mat and take notes,” or does the voice in your head slowly but surely change its tune to, “I’ll just roll this one round,” and “You know, I’m feeling pretty good, so I’m gonna see how it goes”? Can you trust yourself to listen to your body, common sense, and the best medical advice you can access? Or will you go full-bore against everyone’s better judgment?

I have just used a lot of words to convey a relatively simple message: Know thyself, body and mind, before you get injured. Prioritize finding trustworthy doctors who value your well-being and your training priorities in equal measure and who understand your financial situation. If you do get injured, listen to your doctor and your common sense to put yourself on the fast track to recovery.

Thank you for the question!

About Valerie Worthington

Here, in no particular order, are some of the things that define me: parents who are psychologists, a childhood spent in the New Jersey suburbs except for a year my family spent in Germany, studying English literature and learning theory, always trying for the funny--not matter how self-deprecating, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art I have been training for almost 20 years. I travel a lot and enjoy snacks just as much. I am reasonably intelligent, but this is undercut by my love of irreverence and childish humor. I am also the author of Training Wheels: How a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Road Trip Jump-Started My Search for a Fulfilling Life.

Photo by CAM Photos & Design.

Valerie Worthington

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