Jiu-jitsu isn’t a gentle art, despite this often-used title. However, it is more gentle than muay thai or other striking-based arts, where the goal is to neutralize your opponent by severely damaging their brain.
Still, grappling isn’t gentle, and because of this reality, injuries happen. In fact, it’s rare that someone, a casual hobbyist or grizzled competitor, makes it to black belt without requiring injury rehab, surgery, or some other form of corrective treatment to a physical ailment.
Injury is just part of the game. And while I’ve already spoken about the best way to spend your time when you’re injured, less discussed is coming back from injury– those first few weeks back on the mats, where everything feels… slow.
Your movements might not be smooth; you probably will get your guard passed, and your conditioning, no matter how much you tried during your downtime to keep in shape, will likely have faded.
This adjustment period can be frustrating. Yes, jiu-jitsu is partially like riding a bike. The basics will probably stick. The stuff you were working on adding to your game, though? These elements most likely will need attention. The same goes for your lesser A material– that stuff that definitely could make it into your best techniques but is at the lower end of the threshold. That stuff will likely be rusty and not quite as easy to perform as before too.
Expect grueling training sessions while your teammates, who knew you before you got hurt, try to cheer you up. However, as long as you don’t injure yourself, there’s mostly good news to you coming back to the mats. First, you’re back on the mats! That alone is great.
For everything else, your fitness, your technique, and the like, that will return in time, and probably sooner than you think. You just need to be patient with yourself and not let your ego get in your way.
This can be a tough road, though, as we’ll discuss in this post.
Returning From An Injury Is More Difficult Than Starting As a White Belt
If you’re a white belt, you’re more or less the nail of the gym. But people might have varying levels of patience with you flailing uncontrollably while sparring because when you first walk on the mats as a white belt, not much is expected of you. You know you’re not good, and so does everyone in the gym. Everyone knows you have a long way to go, and because of that, there’s a degree of patience you give yourself.
Returning from injury, though, is more difficult– at least mentally. You remember the level you were at when you got injured. You remember the moves you like to do, and you recall who you could hang with ability-wise. When you return from an injury, though, at least for the first few weeks, it’ll be rough.
Lower belts will likely get the better of you; people of your ability level will feel untouchable, and you’ll probably think about everything before actually moving. If you go into shin-on-shin, will that jeopardize your knee? If you invert, will you aggravate your neck?
Depending on what you injured, you’ll be slower and less intuitive– always thinking before executing a move. Those few seconds can be pretty crushing in a live roll. And it can mean the difference between defending a guard pass and getting passed.
Things You Can Do To Get Back To Full Strength
There’s good news, though. If you stick with it, and you keep your ego in check– which isn’t always the easiest thing in the world– you’ll get back to full strength sooner than you think. Most of the time, when you’re ready to go back to the mats, as long as you listen to your doctor, you’ll be fully healed and ready to train.
This means that the limitations on your body are mostly limited to your own apprehension. It’ll take a few days to get over that, maybe even a few weeks. But you need to trust your newly healed limb, bone, or ligament to hold and have the confidence to put strain on it. That said, you should still listen to your doctor to make sure you get full clearance to train again before trying this out.
While you’re getting that confidence back, the best thing you can do is work moves you’re less adept at– your B-game. You’re likely going to have a rough few days of training while you get reacclimated to live rolling, so you might as well try to elevate some of your lesser moves into your main game. Your A-game will return in due time. Why not make it vaster when it fully returns?
Don’t Sit Out Rounds
I see this often; people sitting out rounds because they’re tired, and it is counterintuitive. Yes, there are extreme circumstances– dehydration, extreme exhaustion to the point where it could be life-threatening– where sitting out is necessary. However, outside medical emergencies, you should be training when you’re on the mats– even if it means getting submitted on repeat.
Your jiu-jitsu is the sum of all the times you’ve gotten submitted. You need to get beaten a lot before you can learn to do that to someone else. And that’s okay; it’s part of the process. You just need to trust it. Fear of being submitted, even an embarrassing amount of times, will only hinder your overall growth.
And it will only slow the time it takes for you to get back to full strength. You may get submitted by people you usually play with when you’re at full force, get decimated by people you typically have engaging back and forth rolls with, or be exasperated after only one round. That’s also okay. Just keep going.
The Way Back
If jiu-jitsu was easy, there would be no point in getting your black belt. The black belt itself would be a meaningless title, too; there isn’t much point in bestowing titles on someone who has mastered an easy practice. If this were the case, though, nobody would do jiu-jitsu. It’s supposed to test you, push you to your limits, and show you things about yourself you didn’t already know.
Injury recovery is just part of this maddening but still somehow addicting process. Just try to keep this in mind: Your ability in jiu-jitsu isn’t limited to one or even a week’s worth of training sessions. It’s much more significant than that, spanning years of development and maintenance.
Jeff Nelson is a brown belt under Danilo Cherman of Team Nova Uniao. He started training jiu-jitsu in 2014, and he always complains about Star Wars on his personal Instagram account.