I feel safe enough to post about this now that I’m coming out the other side. I’ve had minor injuries that took me out of training in the past. Things like broken fingers, toes, tweaked this or that or catching an infection can suck but this, this was my first SERIOUS injury. It’s the first time I’ve had to contemplate not being capable of training jiu jitsu or any contact sports again. It was terrifying. I’d like to speak some about it, and how I’ve gotten through thus far.
First off, everyone asks what happened, so lets get that out of the way. It was my fault. Must have forgot to leave my ego at the door.. I just had to prove that a sweep I had showed and loved would work against a guy more than double my size (seriously). I crawled under him, and told him “go as hard as you can”, and got neck cranked. For the record I did get the sweep. That sweep cost me an unbearable amount of pain and some serious medical issues beyond the training it cost me.
Had I been smart I would have been conservative in my recovery, but the moment I was in slightly more bearable pain a few weeks later I went about going way too hard and getting dumped on my head from standing with my arm trapped.
So after the second trip to the doctors the MRI showed bulged discs at C3-4-5-6-7 , with the major damage on 6-7 coming out to the left and impinging on my nerve. Nerve pain is UNREAL. This is complicated by finding that I have Spinal Stenosis and Degenerative Disc Disease. Pretty much means the cavern my discs are in around my Cervical (upper, from neck down to between shoulders) spine is narrow and the discs are fragile and crumbling.
The first month I’d say I couldn’t sleep more than 2 hours at a time without waking in severe pain. The best I can explain it was my spine would seize up, my arm would freeze, and I’d want to smash myself in the face with a hammer to make it stop. My long suffering wife attempted to convince me to go to the emergency room several times. I refused. I would not take pain killers, and somehow made it through. About 8 weeks in I started to regain feeling in my finger tips.
Let’s just say it was terrible beyond my ability to describe and move on to the important stuff. How did I recover? How did I deal with it mentally? What was my process?
First off, I seriously did not know if I would need some sort of traumatic spinal surgery, if I would be able to train again, or if I could ever even do anything physical again. I decided to ACT AS IF. I would do actions as if I would recover, as if I would be able to be active again, I would continue forward so long as I was capable.
I immediately reached out to my mentors and coaches. I made a point of calling, texting, messaging, or sending owls to anyone I would need for support. I pulled my coach aside and sat him down to discuss it with me and hash out my plan. It’s always nice when people reach out to you, hear your going through something, or ask about you. I don’t expect it. Personal responsibility isn’t just a motto, it’s a practice. I got my shit together.
Now, the plan itself.
In loose form my initial thoughts where to spend more time reviewing video, stay physically present at open mats and classes even if I couldn’t participate, follow Dr’s orders, and find what physically I could do or if drilling was possible.
Here’s how that hashed out:
I sat down with my coach, Warren Stout, Stout Training Pittsburgh / Team Renzo Gracie. We discussed my physical limitations. I was able to sit on the mat, I was unable to have my head touched, I could barely turn my head, I could take no shock or impact. His suggestion was a focus on double seated leg entanglements and referenced a specific section on John Danaher’s Leg System DVD . I was capable of leg pummeling, practicing my grips, and light drilling of strategic engagements. You can argue all you like about whether lower body holds are relevant to “da streetz” , if you want that to be your game, or even if you choose to engage in them at all. For me, prior to the injury I felt solid with my leg work but I was focused on transitioning to expanding my stand up and kimura work. I no longer had a choice. If all I could do was practice grip formation I would have worn holes in gi’s lying in bed, whatever I could do, I would do. My leg work has grown by leaps and bounds during this time.
As I healed and was able to lay on the mat I eventually was able to work on my closed guard as well. This was very limited, I couldn’t put pressure on my spine so no throwing up arm bars or triangles, but I was able to be in position and drill and even do live grip fighting only rounds. Month’s of nothing but seated leg pummeling and grip fighting from closed guard may not be the most fun, but again, I improved, and it kept me on the mat. In the end, just being able to be on the mat was a goal in itself.
With video review I quickly found I was unable to assimilate new information. I couldn’t make the leap from seeing a new movement without being able to try it and feel it. I was however able to expand my understanding of positions I was already familiar with but couldn’t currently perform. Now as I heal I find myself able to functionalize this added knowledge. In my Purple Belt Thoughts post I had spoken about the time I took to learn from Romulo’s excellent Spider Guard set. I reviewed the entire set and found many small nuances I had missed as well as techniques that at the time I was unable to perform but now find myself using more effectively.
I attended classes and open mat’s. I found at open mat it was interesting to be an outside observer and really focus on following one team mate through an entirely of a training session. It was especially useful for me to identify and follow people that exemplified mindful and technical training. I watched my good friend and tattoo artist Seth one day hit the same set up to mounted triangle on nearly everyone he rolled with.
In classes I would observe, take notes and walk the room assisting as I discussed with my coach and as I was able.
Note taking took on new levels of importance. Not only for retention of knowledge but simply it kept me busy, kept me active, and kept me engaged. A friend of mine turned me on to this super cool Rocketbook Notebook. I found it really improved my active learning if I would take notes on techniques with questions and review those with others. This would keep me actively engaged and using the notes not just passively writing a record.
I’ve always watched competition video, but I found it especially useful to go deeper during this time really studying matches and taking notes on them. Pairing this with my video review it is great practice to watch an athlete teach a technique and then find them using it live.
Coaching has always been rewarding for me. It was a great joy to me to be able to spend time on the mat coaching others while I myself could not perform. I went so far as to take a few people and request they allow me a portion of their open mat time to coach them on some positions. Being able to be on the mat and participating while seeing them improve really kept my spirits high. I’ve been able to help my friend Donny prepare for an upcoming tournament. During one of his knee injuries he would come in at open mat and video my matches for me, send the video to me, and we would review them. I found this quite useful, and being able to do the same for him now both helps my teammate and keeps me busy and useful.
I am very lucky to have an excellent Physical Therapist who has both trained BJJ and lifted. He’s worked with some of my other teammates, and came highly recommended. I’ve had some minor PT before and I can’t say I ever took it very seriously. This time, this level of pain, I had to take it seriously and I have. I can move my head again, I can touch my chin to my chest, and I’m not in incredible unending pain.
The most important thing, the part I come back to again and again in these posts. I have excellent friends and teammates. People put aside time for me. People allowed me to boringly and repetitively work grip breaks on them or heel hook them over and over. People took a round out of open mat for me. I’ll be clear, I asked for the help, but once I asked I had more than I needed.
I’ve gone from pre injury being frustrated by my max bench to post injury being incredibly excited to be able to move an empty bar again. I’m staying conservative, but I’m starting to be able to move through most positions again. It’s time to start working on the Kimura I had to put on hold what seems like forever ago. I have renewed appreciation for being able to train at all, and I may even consider taking a rest day, ya know, once this injury is over.