When you hurt someone on the mats: Tips for avoiding Injuring and Injuries
Everyone know’s how bad it feels when you get hurt. The physical and emotional pain of injuries can be very frustrating. On the other side of that coin is the person who played a role in the injury – whether on purpose or by accident. Throughout my Jiu-Jitsu journey I have hurt partners in training – both by accident and on purpose. That’s a hard one to admit. When I say, “On purpose”, it wasn’t me plotting and scheming to hurt someone. But rather my own “ego-flares” getting the best of me.
Let’s first deconstruct how most injuries occur on the mats. There are basically three ways someone will get hurt: 1. Egocentric Grappling – I.e. An ego-flare where a match becomes overly-competitive and emotionally driven. 2. A “freak accident” occurs that was unavoidable. 3. Inexperienced grappler / novice.
Egocentric grappling. To be egocentric means to think only of yourself. When you only think of yourself, you immediately put your partners safety at risk. A grappling match is an exchange of technique and trust between two people. If for example you try a flying arm-bar on your partner for the first time and you haven’t drilled it to the point of safety and control, then you’re only thinking of yourself. Attempting dangerous, un-drilled techniques on an unsuspecting partner is a recipe for disaster. Another example of egocentric grappling is refusing to tap, even when you’re in danger of injury. It’s not fair to your partner to take your own limbs to the point of injury. Don’t put them in a position where they hurt you because you refuse to tap.
You also have to be mindful of your own emotional state when you’re grappling. The six basic human emotions are: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. We need to be mindful that we are not activating emotions like fear and anger when we are rolling. According to scientists, “At a basic instinctual level anger may be used as a way to help protect territory or family members, secure or protect mating privileges, protect against loss of food or other possessions, or as a response to other perceived threats.” Anger can trigger physical changes in our bodies like: increased heart rate, blood pressure, production of adrenaline, and trigger a ‘fight or flight’ response. All of which, by the way are unhealthy for your body. Trust me, anger isn’t going to give you super human power…but rather the opposite. Having chemically induced strength is really an illusion at best. Fight or flight is inherent in humans to ward off actual threats. When you try to call upon inner-strength through anger, you are really demonstrating a mental weakness and fragile ego.
I’ve personally entered a deep state of anger many times over the years when I’m rolling. What I’ve observed is that when I am mad I force everything, and nothing works. Why is that? It’s simple, when you reside in a region of anger or fear…you cannot rationally think or effectively problem solve. Jiu-Jitsu is like human chess. Can you imagine playing chess and being really pissed off? Jiu-Jitsu requires mental clarity at all times for maximum gamesmanship. The tricky part about anger is that you don’t always see it coming. So when you do arrive at anger…that’s a time to stop the match and use the restroom. If you notice that your partners becoming irate, be careful and protect yourself and if needed, cease grappling and excuse yourself. Remember, it’s always about the higher good of everyone involved. It’s okay to step away and find some clarity before resuming your training.
Freak Accident. I generally think most accidents are avoidable, but they do occur from time to time. But the nature of a freak accident is that it unpreventable, so there’s not a lot you can do. As a whole I think that the environment needs to be safely structured to prevent mishaps. This includes: ample mat space / safe training area, complete transparency and clarity regarding which techniques can and cannot be used and at what belt level, catch and release when necessary. Always have “life guards” on duty when lower belts are rolling. That means instructors who can stop matches / offer advice when beginners are being unsafe or risking injury. If you’re an instructor and you have new students in your class you have to be very careful about using this time for your own personal grappling, versus watching students and providing feedback.
Inexperienced Grappler. Most injuries in Jiu-Jitsu happen in the first 18 – 24 months of training. It’s generally a combination of poor timing, inexperience, lack of technique, unfamiliarity with moves, etc. that cause injury. In addition, the inexperienced grappler has to deal with the repercussions of ‘fight or flight’ during the early months of training. When you combine poor technique and timing into a fear-based reality the risk for injury is really high. What I generally recommend for beginners is to play “catch and release” until you are familiar with how submissions are applied. All it takes is a wrong turn and a quick twist and somebody is off the mat for six months or more. In addition, beginners should avoid live, competitive take downs. It’s safe to drill takedowns, you just have to be very careful with full on competitive takedowns. Rule #1 – Everyone needs to walk tomorrow!
I feel like instructors are under a lot of pressure nowadays to be able to teach whatever the latest …cryangle choke…submission of the month…I just saw it in EBI and on YouTube…technique. I always try to remind myself when I’m teaching that the most basic arm-bar is just as exciting and more important to beginners than the latest flavor of the month. As an instructor it’s a balancing act to give students what they really need while honoring your own creative impulse. For beginners you don’t need to learn every single move on the front end, you’re better to build a solid framework of fundamentals than to be a move collector. You’ll have plenty of time to accumulate moves. For instructors I recommend finding your own unique twists and turns that you can add to basic moves to feed your own creativity.
Additional Safety Tips:
- Foot-Locks Everyone these days is excited about foot-locks in the Jiu-Jitsu community so of course this spills over into BJJ academies. If you’ve been on the mats for a minute then you are painfully aware of the danger of foot-locks. With most submissions there is a degree of pressure before pain. (Remember, beyond pain lies injury) With ankle and leg submissions there is almost no pressure before pain and the pain is generally a result of injury. This leaves little time to tap and a wrong turn or twist and you’re injured. In addition, with leg attacks most people feel strong with their legs so they’ll defend longer than they should and often get injured on the “escape”. With foot-locks I recommend tapping early, letting go if your partner doesn’t tap…even to the point where you lose position.
- You don’t need to teach anyone a lesson! Your job is not to police the mats. If someone is going too hard or being reckless it’s not up to you to break their arm or “put a hurting on them”. If you’re grappling and you feel like your partner is being careless or unsafe, protect yourself and get through the round.
- Combat Tactical Breathing & Tips for relaxing When you’re tense and uptight when you grapple you’re setting the stage for a possible injury. A tense body moves rigidly and without fluidity and offers little range of motion. When you feel tightness in your body immediately return to your breath. Try Combat Tactical Breathing. This breathing strategy has been used by first responders, the military and athletes to focus, gain control and manage stress. In addition, it appears to help control worry and nervousness. Relax yourself by taking 3 to 5 breaths as described below. Visualize each number as you count.
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