Dealing with Injury


April 16th, 2011, in the best shape of my life, I entered a grappling tournament.  Business as usual really, I had been competing in BJJ and amateur MMA for a couple of years already.  Calm, confident, prepared, in a lot of ways I was already looking beyond that day to my next fight, where I’d be competing for an amateur title. I chuckle at that thought now.  At least I don’t sigh at it anymore.

My first match was against an unassuming, polite, Brazilian kid.  We exchanged pleasantries.  He in terribly broken English.  My two Portugese phrases equally bad I’m sure.  I remember Tom DeBlass in my corner telling me the kid was intimidated, that he wouldn’t even look my way.  He might’ve been right, but no matter.

In mid-air, going over, all I could think was damn, I’m down two points.  Landing, however, elicited a different thought.  My shoulder exploded like a tripped mouse trap.  Thwap!  The problem is, fixing it would prove slightly more intricate than resetting a spring and replacing the cheese.  I managed to suffer a grade 5 AC joint separation (to put the severity of this in perspective, webMD only went up to grade 3).  In other words, my collar bone had detached and now hovered above my shoulder by about two inches.

Most men aren’t idiots, but they do idiotic things.  Shockingly idiotic are most male athletes.  If you’ve seen Jaws, you’ll have a good understanding of what happens when tough guys are sitting around, and one of them mentions an injury they’ve had.  The conversation quickly devolves into a gruesome scar contest, accompanied by some feverish logic as to why one injury trumps the others.  It’s childish, it’s Neanderthal, it’s idiotic, and I partake in it constantly.  That being said, you could imagine my sentiment at the NY Open after I non-chalantly removed my gi top and the medics cringed.  I felt a strange sense of pride in my grotesque injury.

I’m not that tough, and I’m not that funny.  But looking back, I think I was able to joke with the paramedics and doctors so easily because I didnt understand the extent of my injury.  I figured it was a dislocated shoulder, I felt it go right when I landed on it.  In all honesty, If I’d realized that I’d actually ripped my collarbone off, I probably wouldn’t have kept fighting.  Then again…[asked why I kept fighting when I knew my shoulder dislodged, I said, “because f*#% him, that’s why.”] Idiot.

After seeing a specialist, the reality set in.  They would need to screw my collar bone back on, tighten it up with some wire, and reattach the ligaments.  Completely immobilized in a sling for 3 months, no jiu jitsu for 9 months.  My shoulder would certainly never look the same again, and it could take up to two years for it to be 100%.

I’m an active person.  I love martial arts, I genuinely enjoy the gym, I’m like a little kid when I’m at the beach; and a doctor told me I can’t do anything that makes me me for six months.  On paper this looks like a cake walk. It is not.

Asking someone how their injury is doing is like commenting on the weather.  As a society we all feel oddly compelled to point out to every person we encounter on a hot day, that it’s a hot day.  In other words, resist the urge to ask the guy with a cast on his leg how his leg is doing, it only reminds him he’s not going for a jog later.  I was pretty bitter.

But then something changed.  I got a call from my boss (more accurately my instructor, mentor, and friend) Professor Ricardo Almeida.  He told me the academy could really use me, if only just as a presence to observe classes.  In reality, Professor knew that it was I who needed to be on the mats with the students.  There’s something therapeutic about being useful, having purpose. I taught that very day, and all my classes- in that sling- for the next two months.  Don’t tell my surgeon.

In the months following my injury, I learned what it is to wait, to rest, and to be bored.  I experienced impatience, restlessness, and insomnia.  At times even despair, anger, envy, and doubt.  More importantly, however, I experienced my own ability to persevere, my dedication, and discipline.

I’m not the toughest, but I’ll hang in there.  I’m not the most talented, but I can hold my own.  I’m not the fastest, but I can keep up.  I’ve realized that a serious injury can put things in perspective.  It’s a forced introspection of sorts.

What my injury has allowed me to realize is that I’m resilient, that my horse is still in the race, and for that I’m grateful.

I’m back training now, and call me crazy but I think my jiu jitsu improved in those six months.  I’ve always defined myself as a martial artist who teaches classes, but that’s not quite right.  I’m teacher, through and through, who gets to train everyday in the martial art he loves.

author: Peter McHugh

Professor Pete McHugh is the owner and Lead Instructor of McHugh BJJ in Mt. laurel NJ. He is a black belt under BJJ & MMA legend Ricardo Almeida.


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