Injuries and What to Do with Downtime

Training was going great. You finally crushed the plateau in your progress and the three or four techniques that you had been working on were finally coming together. You felt sharp and strong. You were anticipating counters and slipping out of attacks with a whole new level of style and efficiency.

And then you got hurt.

Jiu-jitsu injuries come in all shapes and varieties, from bumps and bruises to broken bones and torn ligaments. As far as big injuries go, knee, shoulder, and back injuries seem to be the most common. If you suffer a setback to one of those areas, you’re probably in for a good bit of time on the bench, ranging from two months to a year. For a passionate jiu-jiteiro, prescribed downtime like this sounds like a death sentence. Things were going so well, and now you have to sit out. Worse yet, all of your training partners will make progress while you’re gone, so not only are you not improving, you feel as though you are falling behind at a rapid clip.

I’ve had a lot of practice with sitting out for injuries, and I’ve come up with a few ways to pass the downtime productively. Here are my suggestions:

  • Recovery must be your top priority. This should go without saying, but for as intellectually challenging jiu-jitsu can be, it can also make us really dumb when it comes to our own health. No matter how badly you want to train or how much you think you can come back a few weeks early and just “go easy” (yeah, right), you have to give your body the healing time it needs. Listen to your doctor. An extra month of sitting still now is better than a re-injury and six months of starting over later.

  • Visit the gym, or don’t. I have training partners that are dedicated students of the sport. If they get hurt, their training schedule doesn’t change. They come to the gym and watch. They take notes. They ask questions. Even if their bodies keep them off the mat, their minds are still present. I am not one of those people. If I can’t train, being in the gym is a special kind of torture. At the same time, it starts to give me crazy ideas like “maybe just a little bit of drilling…” I don’t like to leave me training partners behind for long periods of time, but going cold turkey is the only way to keep me sane and healthy. Have a hard conversation with yourself and figure out where you fall on this particular challenge.

  • Mental exercise still counts. Matt Kirtley just wrote a great article on purely mental training that you can do away from the mat, and all of those tips apply to injury downtime as well. For me, I use downtime to dig into a new instructional topic or position that wasn’t a good fit for my on-the-mat training. I might never use it in my game, but the education of how the position works is still useful. I also map my game out with an instructor’s mindset. I ask myself “If I had to teach someone my game, how would I go about that?” This is good for keeping techniques fresh in my mind, but it also helps me identify holes to work on when I get back while giving me a map for what to drill in what order to shake off the rust.

  • Find a new hobby. Dwelling on your injury is not mentally healthy, and it could lead to you making some poor training decisions. If you know you have a big chunk of time away from the mat, do something that’s not jiu-jitsu. Read a new book series. Pick up a new skill like drawing or painting or playing an instrument. For me, a big part of my passion for jiu-jitsu comes from the mental challenge of learning and training, so it’s important that I find another place to get that sort of stimulation if I’m not able to train. It also keeps me from just being outright bored out of my skull.

  • Use the buddy system. An injured jiu-jiteiro is historically not a very bright person. While you are in a place of mental clarity and are thinking like your adult self (as much of an adult as you can be; your results may vary), ask your most responsible training partner to hold you accountable for your recovery. That means doing the exercises that your doctor suggested and also taking your time easing back into training. I have a go-to training partner that has been with me through almost every major surgery in my life, and I respect him enough that I listen when he says, “Take it easy, dumb ass.” Having a person like that in your life can save you a lot of pain.

There’s no way around it: being injured sucks. If you follow my suggestions here—all of which are based on me making hard mistakes in my own training—your downtime should be less painful and perhaps even productive. Feel better soon, and we’ll see each other on the mats when you’re well.

Panda photo by Keith Roper. Some rights reserved.