I consider myself to have been very fortunate in my training: over the past ten years I have only had to take one full month off the mat due to sickness or injury. Part of that is due to luck – I’m not going to deny that. Sometimes bad things happen even though you have done all you can to protect yourself from them. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to avoid the little things that can interfere with your training and leave you either frustrated at home or sitting matside taking notes. In this article I aim to outline a few of the things that I credit with my success in staying active on the mat over all this time.
In a lot of gyms I’ve visited there has been a prevailing culture that wearing protective gear somehow makes you less serious about the art or even scared. This is a mentality that most people eventually grow out of but, by that point, the damage has often been done. The two things that I would say should be required if you are training seriously are a pair of kneepads and a number of long sleeved rashguards. Your knees receive more than enough abuse during jiu jitsu training, so anything you can do to cut down on the wear and tear should be embraced. Kneepads are cheap (I recommend volleyball kneepads, which you can easily pick up on Amazon) and help immensely with cutting down on those kneecap bruises that can either keep you from training completely or limit your ability to do so at your best. Long sleeved rashguards, worn either in nogi or under your gi, give you an excellent layer of protection which not only significantly reduces the risk of transferrable skin conditions but also stops you from picking up little nicks and scrapes that may in turn lead to infection down the line.
Although probably less important than the previous two items, ear guards are also extremely useful when it comes to stopping slightly bruised ears from turning into a full blown cauliflower ear that requires draining or time off training to allow the swelling to go back down. Mouthguards are also a good tool to have both in terms of avoiding biting down into your own lips (a problem I had consistently in the early days of training which lead to the unfortunate joke that it wasn’t a proper class until I’d had to go off the mat bleeding) and in preventing damage to your teeth. There are a number of high quality lightweight mouthguards these days – SISU brand being just one example – that can keep you safe whilst only interfering minimally with your training and breathing. Finally, keeping your kit clean is even more important aspect than having it in the first place. All of your training gear, including kneepads and ear guards (and your belt!) should be washed after every training session. If it is not clean, then it begins to slowly move from being something that should help keep you on the mats to something that may eventually contribute to taking you off them.
Tap Early, Tap Often
A significant number of the injuries people are going to suffer in jiu jitsu are going to come during submission attempts. Obviously, tapping as soon as possible is key to avoiding injury, but there are a couple of other aspects to consider. Firstly, active defences to submissions will always be more dangerous than passive ones – that is to say trying to roll out of an armbar is more likely to lead to injury than just trying to keep your elbows tight to your body and hugging your arms to stave off the attack. So when it comes to casual training, where there is no ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ it is important to consider whether it’s worth the risk to try a defense like that. Your training partner has already isolated your arm and extended it, so by that point as soon as he establishes control of it, it would be much safer to tap and start over.
Secondly, joint locks will generally be more likely to lead to injuries than chokes, so personally I prefer to give up my neck rather than any of my other limbs because the consequences of holding out when locked in a submission are significantly less. Finally, choose your training partners wisely. There are certain people out there who, no matter how good their intentions might be, tend to be involved in a disproportionately high number of injuries. Sometimes, these people may take a liking to training with you. There is nothing wrong with turning them down if you think it isn’t in your best interest safety-wise or training-wise. That doesn’t mean you should avoid them completely, but if you have a lot of other training partners available, why risk injury training with someone who has proven to be more dangerous than the rest? Be polite, don’t make an issue out of it, but train with them when you feel ready to roll taking their style into account, not just because they ask.
If Things Do Go Wrong
Sometimes, you’re going to end up in a situation where you can’t train, no matter how much you want to. Maybe you tweak your knee, maybe somebody accidentally kicks you in the head and your ear blows up like a balloon. Whatever the cause, you need to take some time out, and you want to make the best of it. Firstly, if you can, try to make it down to training anyway. If you can work technique but not spar, then do that but more importantly decide before the session what your policy is going to be and stick to it. More than once I’ve seen the training partner who was too injured to spar accept the invitation from the white belt with 30kg on him because there is no one else to train with. This is generally not the best idea. If you are too injured to do any training at all, or nursing some kind of infection which means you shouldn’t even step on the mat, then it can still be extremely valuable to go down to the academy once or twice and just watch a class. It is amazing what you become aware of when your perspective shifts from being in the middle of the mat working on things to being on the outside watching people train. You can really learn a lot about your training partners’ games when you aren’t under them or on top of them. If you are unable to get down to the gym at all, then now is an excellent time to dust off that instructional set that you’ve been meaning to watch but have just never got around to. That way when you are fully recovered you can come back onto the mat with new things to work on and all that pent up energy and motivation from the time on the sidelines.