Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the “gentle art,” you say? Ask anyone who has trained for a bit and they probably have an injury story to tell you. What happens after that injury? How do you get back in the saddle after getting sidelined? While I’m no expert, I’ve learned a thing or two from my injury experience. Here are a few reflections on what helped me get back to competing after an injury benched me for months.
In September of 2019, I competed in a local tournament and fell hard on my shoulder during a takedown, causing my arm to get extended the wrong way. My adrenaline was so high that I continued for the duration of the match without feeling any pain. Then about 2 hours later when the adrenaline was long gone, there was no denying something was very wrong with my shoulder. After a couple of trips to urgent care and an MRI, it was confirmed that my shoulder labrum was torn and would require surgery. “Guess you won’t be competing again, will you?” said the nurse. Ugh.
A few weeks later, I had surgery to repair the tear, in addition to reattaching my bicep tendon. Luckily, my insurance covered it, but this injury made me miss work and made a pretty negative impact on my mental health.
Recovery & Mental Reps
Thankfully, my recovery went really well, and I was able to start physical therapy right away. Having at least some physical activity was good for my mental health and helped me envision training again eventually. Taking things slowly during recovery wasn’t easy, but once I started making progress, my hope increased. When I felt up to it, I started watching class and getting in mental reps. No, it’s not as satisfying as hearing that sweet, sweet gurgle sound of choking one of your teammates, but it helped me to stay in a routine and think through movements.
Eventually, I was able to do modified warm-ups and drilling. Several months later, I felt strong enough to flow roll and ease into a regular training rhythm. Often, the people we train with become like family. Getting to the gym to be around my teammates was so uplifting!
Mentors & Teammates
Like many who train, I have appreciated the camaraderie that develops on the mats. The friendships I have found through this sport are unlike any others, so when I was nervous to come back, these friends understood what that vulnerability felt like. I even had two teammates who had been through the exact same surgery!
Good coaches are also so important when it comes to recovery. I’ve been lucky to have one who knew I wouldn’t give up competing, but also didn’t push me when I wasn’t ready. When I was able to start training again, it was good to have someone looking out for me and making sure that whoever I rolled with was respectful and safe. This brings me to my next point…. good teammates!
Being selective about my training partners probably saved me from re-injury and helped build my confidence again. For me, this looked like avoiding offers to roll from teammates who were not as experienced or didn’t demonstrate control over their movements. It can be hard to say “No,” but being as safe as possible can get you back on the mats faster.
When I finally decided to pull the trigger on entering another tournament, my coach helped me figure out some goals. First, a performance goal (a specific action I wanted to achieve during the match) and an outcome goal (the desired result). Having these two goals helped me stay focused and helped take off some pressure. My performance goal was to hit a takedown and my outcome goal was to write about my experience!
Having the right mindset can make or break your competition experience.
The mental aspect of competition is probably the factor I have always struggled with the most. Being prone to anxiety and trying to unlearn years of negative self-talk are huge challenges for me, but since I know this, I have learned to combat them. Recognizing and challenging a cognitive distortion (negative thought) helps me turn my mindset around. Especially after returning from an injury, I learned that creating a positive mindset helped me trust my body. Repeating mantras to myself when getting closer to competition time helped as well. A few of my favorites are “I’ve trained for this and I’m ready,” “Do not accept the position,” and “Stay in the fight.”
There are a few things that I do every time I compete that are extra helpful. I pick the gi and rash guard that I am most comfortable in. In the days before I compete, I make sure to eat enough food to have energy and dial down any hard weightlifting or workouts. I like to get my hair braided because it is one less thing for me to worry about and it makes me feel more confident. Same with wearing eyeliner! Find your ritual and go with it. At the venue, I try to stay away from crowds, so I don’t pick up on negative energy. Headphones and good music get me pumped up, too!
I’m happy to say that 15 months after my shoulder injury, I’ve competed again and even won a match. I didn’t get re-injured, and I walked away feeling proud of myself for getting back out there and facing the challenge. If you are fresh off the heels of an injury, I hope that you recover quickly and are able to get back to competing. Be patient with yourself and know that you can do hard things!
Danielle is a blue belt at National Martial Arts in Norman, Oklahoma. She is a veteran, military spouse and social worker. Jiu Jitsu has brought her the best friendships. When she’s not training, you can find her spending time with her family. She hopes to one day start a non-profit program using BJJ to help people work through the effects of trauma.