Injury Advice from a Black (and blue) belt
by James Brochu
Disclaimer: If you’re squeamish about injuries and just starting out in BJJ, this article might not be for you. Second Disclaimer: I’m not a medical doctor, just a dude that gets injured a lot.
When Ryan Ford asked me to write an article from the perspective of a black belt, I didn’t really know what to write about. I wanted to write about something that could help lower belts in their BJJ journey, and a new technique or my theory on foot locks doesn’t really apply universally. But I am an expert in one aspect of the sport with which all BJJ practitioners are going to be familiar: injuries. If you’re lucky, you might make it all the way to black belt without serious injuries, but you’re still DEFINITELY going to get hurt along the way. If you’re unlucky, you might have to contend with some serious stuff along the way like I have. As one of the ‘unlucky’ ones, I figured it would be good to share my experiences and how I managed to continue training and progressing with chronic and sometimes serious injuries.
First off, let’s define what I mean by chronic and serious injuries. I don’t mean a sore leg. I don’t mean bruises and cuts. Those are normal for a combat sport. When I talk about this, I’m referring to the laundry list I’ve experienced:
- Broken Ribs
- Torn Shoulder
- Torn muscles
- Broken Feet
- Knee issues (plural)
- A plethora of broken fingers and toes (don’t worry, you get used to these)
- Broken nose and chipped teeth
- Lower Back issues
- Bulging Cervical Disc with paralysis and loss of feeling
Given the list above, you may be wondering why I persisted training and if BJJ is worth it; The simple answer is that I love this sport and can’t imagine my life without it, and YES it’s absolutely worth it. But there are some things that you learn along the way. You learn how to cope with the injuries, you learn when to take a break from training, and you begin to see injuries as opportunities to change and improve your game in a new way.
Coping with injuries so you can continue training is a skill you’ll learn along the way. It involves being proactive with your body more than the average couch potato. You need to focus on inflammation. Ice things when they hurt, and take Ibuprofen regularly and in relatively large doses (if it isn’t 800 milligrams regularly, it isn’t helping). Your next best friend is support. Use braces to prevent little injuries from graduating into big ones. Invest in good athletic tape. If you’re training regularly, your hands and feet will take a beating. A little bit of tape can not only prevent injuries, but can strengthen your grips and allow you to be more aggressive against grip breaks. One of the biggest improvements in my game came when Leo Noguiera showed me how to use aggressive grips and prevent grip breaks – but I definitely went through a lot of tape until I got it right. And lastly, make sure to strengthen supporting muscles to prevent and heal injuries. If your knee or shoulder is strong in all directions, it’s less likely to get injured. If your grips are strong, you’re less likely to break a finger. I’m not talking about your biceps here, I’m talking about the little stabilizing muscles in your body – strengthen those, and your injury rates will plummet.
Coping with injuries so you can train is a hard skill to learn, but the more difficult one is learning when to take time off to recover. Over the years I’ve learned that there are injuries, and then there are INJURIES. The big injuries that require time off to me are the ones that:
- Won’t heal if you continue training. Torn muscles and broken ribs are a great example.
- Might cause permanent or serious damage if not you continue training. Training with a neck injury can paralyze or kill you. Trust me – I know!
- Force you into dangerous positions in BJJ. If your injury causes you to train dangerously or to put yourself in scary situations, you’re not helping yourself or your partner.
One of the hardest times in my life was when I had nerve damage because of a bulging disc in my neck. I lost feeling and strength on my left side, my pectorals and biceps wasted away to nothing, and I couldn’t even lean against a wall with my left arm because it was so weak (pretty emasculating, if I’m being honest). The pain as the nerves died was worse than anything I’ve ever experienced, and a couple of times I seriously considered quitting Jiu-Jitsu forever. I was out for about a year while I got surgery and recovered from it and It took months to regain the strength and confidence to train again. I took my time, and eased back into BJJ. I came back to technique first, and worked on my strength and conditioning until I was comfortable coming back to full training. If I have one piece of advice for those with serious injuries, it’s this: Don’t Rush It! Come back when your body is ready and you’ll average more time on the mat.
And the final lesson I’ll share from my injury-ridden past, may be the most important. When you’re injured, but it’s not serious enough to keep you from training, use it as an opportunity to explore new positions. I never had a great half guard and deep half guard until I injured my knee. It forced me to play a more guarded game, and to rely less on athleticism and strength, and I became much better for it. For instance, if you’re a dominant open guard passer with an aggressive game, but your ankle is injured and you don’t have agility, work on your pressure passing or even your closed guard. If you’re a rubber guard player with a sore hip, try working your top game more. Watch videos and learn more about positions you’re normally weak at. Even if they aren’t positions you plan to use in your core game, you will get better at understanding and defending them when the time comes.
Ultimately injuries are a part of everyday life in BJJ. But if you are proactive with your body, quick to recognize serious injuries, and willing to open up to new positions while injured, you will get better and you will progress. I’m living proof that you can expand your game and continue to improve, even when you’re injured. And let’s face it, if you train BJJ, you’re always at least a little bit injured. Now shut up, put some tape on it, and get back on the mats! ~ James Brochu