Thursday, January 05, 2012

Advice on how not to get hurt?

I have a girlfriend who trains in an area without a lot of BJJ options.  She just sent me this message and I hope you can help her with her decision.

"This year I've made a resolution to figure out how to get hurt less often in BJJ or quit training. As an example, in December I got my ribs popped and then ended the month with a concussion from a knee to the back of the head. It's starting to get to the point of being just too dangerous to continue training.

So what I would like to know is, do you have any experience (or know of any lady who does) with how to get hurt less often?"

I will say that she's at a gym affiliated with a quality program (it's not a TKD school by far) and her coach, from what she's described, sounds like a good guy, with a reputable black belt.

Suggestions welcome!!!

Tangentially related-- Hillary Williams writes in a Sherdog thread about technique vs. strength, and men vs. women in jiu jitsu:

"The actual strength capability, if it can be mildly quantifiable, is as Mcrow so graciously reminded us: 145 pound guy =/= 145 pound girl as far as muscle composition. I don't really need to touch on that part.

However, *how* women use the strength we have is also interesting and needs to be touched on. It explains why little male grapplers are still not quite comparable to female grapplers. I'm not going to go on feminist babble, but I will mention some gender differences that everyone knows but know one really thinks about.

Men are taught to be boisterous, aggressive, courageous etc. from a young age. They help dad build things, play sports or games with other kids, and use their bodies as tools very young. This allows them to develop a very instinctive sense of using their bodies effectively because they learn naturally. In many male sports, an "attack" gameplay is the norm: movements that involve leaving one's space and aggressively confronting an object or another player. Women, however, are gracefully emphasized. Almost no girls are put into contact sports; volleyball, soccer, gymnastics are common. These all teach grace, movement within a bounded area, and reacting to intrusions in that space.

When you watch women in combat sports, there is a similar pattern that emerges. When men start Jiu Jitsu, they are familiarized with the idea of combat their entire lives from being males and are generally pretty stoked about it. They really want to be fighters. They'll not know one bit what a guard pass is but they will flop, flail, and attack as best they can. They'll be generally aggressive about the learning process itself and will decide their own style of game down the line. Women are almost all apprehensive at first. I'll jump on a 2000 pound animal that's never had a human on its back with no fear, but I know I was terrified the first time I did BJJ. They're out of their element, almost none have ever done anything full contact before (most girls don't "wrassle" with dad or friends, either). Their Jiu Jitsu, initially, is often more reserved, unsure of goals or objectives (many don't have the UFC/MMA familiarity with even seeing the ground movements like many men today do), and are more reactive to movements that invade their space rather than attack outside it. Part of this has to do with our disadvantage of effect use of our body as a whole: We are stronger the more compact we are, and reaching outside this space leaves us exposed and vulnerable.

As we're learning BJJ, girls understand--at least subconsciously--that what we're doing isn't "normal" for girls. We kind of compensate by emphasizing the technical aspect of Jiu Jitsu, which can be manipulated to appear graceful and thus socially okay for a girl to do. Girls are slightly more naturally flexible (the majority of the difference is early emphasis of stretching in female exercise) and so we end up doing very flexible, flowing games that react to the aggressive male attacks that we encounter in the gym. We become sneaky, we learn to be quick and agile, to move around you rather than through you.

Tangent: That ISN'T to say women are more technical, or that the game produced is more technical. I hate that phrase, actually. Who's to say that a black belt doing berimbolo and tornado and rolling around on their head is more "technical" than the person who does the most basic scissor sweep? If both the techniques were effective in their objective, they are technical. Just because something is simple, does not mean it is not technical.

Because women rarely train with other women, quite often our reactive game works well for us. We defend all the time; men can't stand 'losing' to girls, so most of our rolls are defense rather than expansion. I have seen MANY female students (and I have done this myself) abandon certain techniques in the gym because they were simply not effective against big guys. If you don't have female training partners, like me, you end up with parts of your game (that could be vital against equally sized opponents) given up on due to frustration.

This can lead to a lapse in a girl's offensive Jiu Jitsu. When men try to "not use strength," it's a catastrophe. Don't worry boys, it's not your fault, it's just impossible for you to roll like a female would. Even if you're trying to "not use strength" (stupid idea to begin with), your body shape, size, and weight is a challenge in itself. When we run into situations where we're finally with someone going balls to the wall to beat us, we're confused and unprepared. The more you compete and do Jiu Jitsu, the more you can taper your training and prepare yourself, but I don't know a girl in BJJ that didn't say her first tournament was a shock. Men are used to aggressive rolls, winning some and losing some, and have a much easier time of it.

That being said, I think the "technique beats strength all the time" boolsheet that is fed to women as a BJJ pitch is absurd. Women are taught that "if you just focus on technique, technique, technique, it'll all work out." It also implies that strength and technique are mutually exclusive, as if strength is a bad thing. If strength was such a bad thing or not important we wouldn't have damn near every one of our top athletes looking like fitness models and doing S&C daily/weekly. Technique is the effective and efficient use of strength as much as an armbar is. If I can use my shoulder and weight distribution in a way that I can hold down a 190 pound brown belt, I'd consider that some pretty damn technical shoulder pressure. Women think they're aren't as strong, or that they'll never be able to match their male partner's strength, so they don't even attempt to access their own potential."


JAB said...

Tap early. Tap often.
Find an excellent instructor who monitors who rolls with whom.
Tap early. Tap often.

But most importantly... EXCELLENT training partners. What she describes is par for the course (but a concussion from a knee???? Are we competing????).

Oh, and tap early....

clinzy said...

It's really hard to give advice on a situation like that without a lot more information. How long has she been training? Is she in a 'young' school, with minimal colored belts? Is she 95 lbs, or 195 lbs? All of these things matter.

The first thing I would do, without knowing all of those things, is suggest that she drill (NOT ROLL) with anyone that she considers unsafe. Ask to work a specific guard pass during rounds with those people, so that she's on top the entire time. While it can be good to train outside of your comfort zone from time to time, you can't do it if your training partners can't be trusted. If you don't have the experience (I'm talking several years here) to protect yourself, drill. There's no shame in asking to drill, and most instructors will understand that desire, especially in light of the multiple injuries.

Next, I would suggest not rolling with white belts for now, if this is an option. If not, I wouldn't roll with anyone that has been training less than a year. If it's someone she doesn't know, I would attempt to get to know the person before rolling with them. Often, if you are friendly with your training partners, they're much more careful with you.

Third, I would make sure that people understand that the gym isn't the place for winning. This is going to take some intervention by the instructor, but if you have a student that has had popped ribs and a concussion in the span of a few weeks, it seems like the environment might be a little too competitive. Sure, accidents happen, but they shouldn't be happening that often. Are they happening to other people, too? Is there a high percentage of students sidelined with injuries?

Finally, learning to flow roll will probably help. Rolling and constantly moving without going for any submissions will help both grapplers improve without injury. Oh, and the female needs to also look at her rolling style. Is she going 100% and expecting her training partners to go light because they're bigger/stronger? This happens to a lot of women - they think that because they're not as strong or as big, they can roll harder against men. If you're doing this against a purple belt, you're probably okay. If you do it against a white belt, he's going to respond in kind, and the woman will almost always lose that battle. It's not fair to ask our partners to roll any lighter than we're rolling against them. This is why flow rolling is probably a good solution.

Whew. This is long. I sure hope that this woman (whoever she is) finds a way to stick with BJJ - it's definitely worth it.

Ariel said...

Roy Harris has an iPad/iPhone app called BJJ Over 40. It supposedly has a lot of info on keeping your butt in one piece.

My own personal experience? Being a late-20s girl, I knew from the get-go that I would never be able to do what the 18-year-old boys could.

My suggestion is this: watch the older higher belts you work with. They have the most to lose by being injured. And if they've been around a couple of years, they've obviously found ways to protect themselves from the occasional brand-new lunatic. I have a guy I work with. He's in his 60s and he's just about a purple belt. Watching him has given me so much insight into keeping myself in one piece.

Anonymous said...

Clinzy is right in that your friend shouldn't train with someone who has only been training for less than a year.

She should also not be afraid to walk away from or turn down dangerous training partners.

I have stopped mid-roll with guys who were head hunting and walked away. It's just not worth it.

At the end of the day BJJ is about individual improvement and she's not going to improve if she's injured.

And you have to think about your injuries as a whole. While injuries when you're young can be dealt with; we all get old and those injuries come back to haunt us when we hit our 40s and 50s.

She should also talk to her instructor. He may need to set some ground rules or re-iterate them.

Before every open mat my instructor states the rules:

No strength; technique only.

Rolling will be slow and controlled.

No techniques allowed that he hasn't taught.

No leg submissions(this only pertains to sparring, we do learn heal hooks, etc. during the technical portion of the class)

Shake hands to begin and shake hands at the end.

Any violations of the above rules results in you being dismissed. And it's happened a few times. Mostly to new guys who think that the rules are just suggestions.

I think if she does that along with some of other comments I think she'll be fine.

Anonymous said...

@Chrissy, to answer your questions.

Training nearly 3 years, blue belt for half the time. The school is young. Around the middle of the weight range, but tall. And I am on the older end of the age range at the school.

Training partners are assigned by the coach and I've quit going to open mat.

Yes, I have considered that I am causing the problem and in the last 6 months my game has become very defensive and reactive like Hillary wrote in her post. My aim is to roll smoothly and flow without moving quickly.

I consider it a 'win' if I don't get hurt. So I tap early, often and repeatedly.

HomeImprovementNinja said...

As someone who's approaching 41, I have concerns about injury too. The previous comments were right on the money, particularly Clinzy. But if it's a high level gym with people who want to compete in MMA, then more aggressive people are going to self-select that program than it would be in a hobbyist school.

What I find has helped me is
1) roll with the gi, you can slow down the game a lot and control it with the gi.

2) focus on moving yourself, not moving your opponent, especially in sweeps (I learned this in a felipe costa seminar and that one tip made the whole seminar worth the money).

3) work positions that fit your body. I have "old man knees" from playing soccer so I don't like guard b/c people dig their elbows into them. So i learned to play half guard. I don't like getting smashed in side control (ribs!) so my go to defenses for a guard pass are deep half if i can turn into them or turtle if i can turn away. both those options keep weight off me.

4) work your chokes (someone who outweighs you by 100lbs can muscle out of an armbar, but not a guillotine or RNC).

5) STRETCH! I do some yoga and capoeira on the side (not very well) and being loose prevents injuries.

6) learn to grip fight, especially in gi. they can't pass or submit you if they can't get a grip.

Shark Girl said...

Wow, I feel for your friend. That sucks. To what does she attribute the injuries (e.g., over-competitiveness)? That could make a difference in how she approaches the situation. I think she needs to have a heart to heart with the instructor, especially if he is doing the pairings.

AJH said...

I have faced some of these issues as a male that is at the smaller end of most people that I have the opportunity to train with.

The problem with trying to change your training approach to avoid injury is that it often means you approach rolls with a different view than your partner. If I want to be smooth and flow that won't matter if a bigger guy comes in trying to smash my face or twist my head off, unless I'm clearly better than he is and can avoid those positions fully.

Maybe it's the luxury of training at a small academy, but my instructor has always been willing to point out over aggression as an impediment to proper training, which has bread a culture where we hold each other accountable (men and women alike) when we are acting like meatheads.

Just last week, in fact, I was rolling with a woman who I often train with (and a higher belt than I). When we were done, she commented on how much strength I was using that day. She meant it to illustrate that I was abandoning/ignoring technique and move. I appreciated her saying something and, even knowing her intent, I also know that my approach put her in danger. I would feel the same way regardless of if a man or woman made that comment.

I guess, in short, I've always felt that its the instructor's roll to keep training a safe and collaborative atmosphere (or the higher belt's at an open mat situation). I would think any instructor would want to be approached about issues that threaten that atmosphere being present for any of their students. I would also be disheartened if a training partner that I was putting in danger felt they could not address that with me.

The Part Time Grappler said...

Ooh I have a few links

The Roy Harris stuff is great. I have the...ehm...VHS version of BJJ over 40 :)

Stephan Kesting:

Stephan and Emily:

Most importantly: Decide why you want to learn BJJ and stick to your decision. Most problems happen when people just go with the flow. The flow of any system (BJJ, water in a river, people moving in a flock, organised religion...etc.) is geared towards (and resulting from) the majority. It's a common ground of what about 75% of the participants are doing. If you are smaller (taller, weaker, stronger, bendier, stiffer...etc) than the average of the people you are with but still just do what everyone else is doing, there will be problems...unless you decide why you are training and you stick by your decision.

You want to train self defence? use the material highlighted above to survive and technique WILL always beat raw strength if you're using it to survive and tire out your much bigger but not as technical opponent.

You want to compete? What's the point in training competitively against someone much bigger, different belt and even a different gender???

You just want to train casually to lose weight, get fit and enjoy your hobby? flat out refuse to roll hard with someone who might (accidently or not) hurt or injure you.

Decide why, and stick by it.

Hope this helps.

K said...

I think everyone made some great suggestions, but perhaps this is the issue... You may be one of those injury prone individuals? Every sport/team at every skill level has one and the reasons for it are
1. Overuse injuries - Not giving yourself enough time to recover,
2. A high pain tolerance - And an inability to recognize when you are hurting yourself and
3. A high level of work ethic and motivation - Where you are working at 100% all day/everyday!
The solution is easily said and not so easily done... Listen to your body! You may not want to hear what it has to say, but seriously BJJ is hard! It is a combat sport and you are fighting (I have had to remind myself of this often). Also maybe find yourself a good massage therapist, ICE (Ice, Compress, Elevate) any new and inflammed area and apply heat to the chronic aches and pains.

Also a 145lb guy will be stronger then a 145lb woman. More Testosternone, human growth hormone, greater lean body mass. Sorry ladies, get on the strength training!

A.D. McClish said...

Avoiding Injury: Three things have helped me avoid injuries
1. Being very cautious with muscle heads. This means being aware of where their weight is going to fall, when my joints are in danger and how I can defend my ribs and head in a position.

2. Setting the pace. If I know I am going to grapple a muscle head, I try to set a relaxed pace. If I do that, they may be less inclined to go bananas. Sometimes they still go bananas, though. If I am really worried, I might even verbalize my desire to go at a lighter pace.

3. Staying relaxed. For both men and women, I have noticed that grappling with a lot of tension in your muscles can lead to injuries. If your muslces are taught, and you move or are moved in an unexpected direction, the muscle seems to have less ability to recover. I am no doctor, but this is what I've noticed. Staying relaxed also helps you to be more mobile and better able to move quickly out of harms way.


SavageKitsune said...

+1 on "it's all about the partners you train with." The vast majority of my injuries were sustained from white belt men. Having said that, some of my favorite partners have been white belt men; it just takes time and experience to figure out who is okay and who is not. I generally try to stick with the colored belts, and white belts that I have worked with before and know I can trust.

When I *do* roll with a white belt that I don't know- especially if he's a lot bigger- I start the roll by saying, "Go a little easy on me, okay?" That way, we establish from the outset that this is not a death match, and that he is not expected/encouraged to try to kill me so that he can say he tapped a blue belt. If he's still too rough or too heavy, I give immediate feedback, and if he *still* is too rough, I won't work with him any more. I also make sure to tell them to apply their subs slowly and carefully. If they have a good sub on, I'll be gracious and let them have it, so that they don't feel like they have to crank it quickly. (Note, if you're asking them to be gentle with you, it's not fair for you to use that to your advantage to go 100% and smear them all over the mat.)

I am particularly cautious with takedowns and moves that twist or crank the back (bow and arrow, etc). With stuff like that, it's all the more important to pick a good partner.

Another important thing is to try to keep the guy's weight off your ribs. I have had numerous "rib out" injuries, most of them from guys just being heavy in side control. Keep your knees and elbows in there, try to not be flat on your back, and protect your ribs.

Also- make sure you and your partner have enough room on the mat, and be aware of what's going on around you. A lot of injuries happen from other pairs careening into you. If you see another pair getting a little too close, and/or being really wild, stop your roll and move further away.

L.A. @ The Pugilista said...

Like most girls who've been training for a long time, I've always worked with guys (no girls) who were much larger than me and often times from an MMA background. I think the key is to create your own group within the class. Find the most skilled students and the most relaxed, technical ones and work with them only. Tell your instructor that is what you are going to do. Also, explain to training partners right before a roll that you want to 'flow' and not necessarily go to submission. Work on transitioning slowly between positions and take submissions out of the equation. Until your partners develop more control, control them yourself.

Anonymous said...

Getting hurt sometimes is a reality of training, I think. But not serious injury, for sure, especially not things like concussions.

I'm a little girl, but I rarely get hurt in class. One problem a lot of girls have is that they confuse aggression (which is necessary in BJJ) with that wild-belt spazziness that ends up with people getting hurt. Women should never be sparring with people who haven't been vetted and okay'ed by their instructor or people they trust and respect. I've been training 10+ years and I still let my friends roll with new guys first and ask them if they think it's a good idea.

Being aggressive and assertive in training is important. A "hey, seriously, calm down. NO, calm the &*$# down" can be really effective in getting a guy's attention if he refuses to cooperate. A lot of girls keep quiet about the idiocy, but it's better to speak up.

Talking to the teacher can also help. He will probably have something to say about who in the gym is good to spar with, and who to avoid (although she probably knows that already).

John said...

In a similar vein, I am a 48 year old (albeit male) who trains in a town with a single club. I've broken fingers, torn a rotator cuff and damaged a cervical disc.

Two things that work for me...

I had a revelation of sorts when I realized that if I was one of just a few people getting injured on a frequent basis, then maybe it is me that needs to make a change. My new tool is one called self awareness. I try and continually ask myself if this partner or this move could hurt me. I haven't limited with whom I roll but I ask the crazy ones not to hurt me. Sure they may be holding back but I want to save the high risk stuff for tournaments and belt tests. So far this is working!

Oh...and I wash my belt with my gi. Yes the stripes fall off. But everyone considers me to be a newbie so there is no target on my back. It's a cheap tactic but I try not to be a total meat head if I sense my partner is less skilled. I think my instructor knows I'm a belt washer so I may have to cut it out but for now it helps. Seriously, I get a lot of advice and few crushings :-)