How I Came Back to BJJ Competition After a Serious Injury
Where to begin…
Well, two Sundays ago I competed after not having competed since December 2013 (that was my purple belt competition debut after having been promoted that same summer). On February 22, 2015, I won gold in my division, and I won silver in the absolute (had to use a lot of different strategies against a larger opponent).
That Sunday was the first time I had ever made it to the podium of the absolute. I was absolutely devastated after losing in the absolute. I had an opportunity that I failed to capitalize on, and, much to my dismay, my opponent executed better and beat me.
In retrospect, I had nothing to feel bad about. After all the dust has settled, the mats packed up and put away, and the body aches have set in, I know that I am truly lucky.
Last weekend, in and of it self, was a victory, period.
In preparation for the 2014 IBJJF San Francisco Open last January, I separated my shoulder (the ac joint to be exact). I wanted to compete anyway, thinking I could just always tap early if necessary. But, I was approached by several trusted training partners who communicated that a life of shoulder problems is not one I wanted. Ultimately, it is your responsibility to care for your body.
I reluctantly heeded their advice, got it checked out, and was in a sling for weeks.
I’ll save the details of the rehab for another time (ended up using a cool jits product that really helped my recovery). At the end of March, my shoulder was finally starting to get a decent range of motion and I was able to do some light training. I was starting to show up more to training when work allowed and things were looking up.
Struggle is part of a champion’s life.
Then in April, during a roll, I blew out my knee. I had a nasty damage to the meniscus, acl, and mcl. Fuck, that was painful (both physically and mentally). Just as the shoulder situation was beginning to ameliorate, my knee got wrecked. FML.
I was on crutches for weeks upon weeks.
When I could finally walk, my knee was slipping, my leg would give out, and going up the stairs to my apartment was an arduous process. This portion of my recovery took the longest. Eventually, I could walk practically normal, but pivoting and going up steps showed that there was still work to be done in the recovery department. When I could finally climb stairs half-assed, I started showing up for training again ever so sporadically. I also started a new job that had hours that didn’t interfere with training. Things got better.
I had to get a knee brace just to be able to do basic warm ups and drill technique. I could barely roll with the kids or smaller ladies in the class, but at least I was on the mats. At this point, I knew that eventually I would be able to roll with people my size, but I thought I was probably done competing.
I almost made peace with that.
I thought, “well, a life of keeping it playful is better than a life of no jiu-jitsu.” I was tired of getting injured and not being able to train. Sure, there are ways to work around a lot of injuries. And, I love drilling as much as the next guy, but, without being able to actively attempt to apply it, it felt incomplete.
I don’t know about you, but a burger without the patty is just inadequate.
If my choice is between not eating or having a meatless burger, I’d rather not eat the “burger” at all. I wanted my meat patty, damn it. So, in November, I went to a Bikram Yoga studio to finalize my rehab process. I would go to jits, cut out early, and speed to the Bikram place barely in time to start their last class. I think it was the last piece of the puzzle to the rehabilitation. After a month of the uber stressful hectic schedule, my body felt the best it had in a long time. I can’t recommend Bikram yoga, or “Hot Yoga”, enough. It works wonders.
In December, out of curiosity, I tried doing warm ups sans the knee brace. What do you know? I experienced much less pain and the knee felt much more stable. I was starting to feel much more positive. I started putting on the knee brace and trying to roll light with people my size. I was careful, oh so careful to avoid positions that put my knee at risk.
Turns out, my entire game was based on positions that exposed my knees to a lot of torque. De la Rivas and Reverse De La Rivas were no longer my friends. So, I started playing with butterfly guards, one legged x-guards, and a lot of just random positions to try and find something that kept me moving and enjoying bjj. It got my ass handed to me by my training partners, but I was just happy to be there at all.
I saw the orthopedic doctor at the end of December, and we agreed surgery was not imminently necessary. After the new year, my teammates were stepping it up for the SF open. The hustle was hard. The grind being embraced by all.
Out of shape, over weight, and only a shell of my former self, I said fuck it. I talked to my instructor, and told him I wanted to do SF with the team. We came up with a game-plan and went to work.
Random thoughts I had during this process, “Competition classes are more intense than I remember.” “Man, everyone has gotten so good!” “Wtf, can I execute anything at all?” “Too tired, can’t breef.” “I’m gonna throw up.. I’m gonna throw up.” “I LOVE THIS.”
Prepping for tournaments has a habit of doing that to you. Making time pass quickly, that is. Between the dieting, the endless repetitions, the ebb and flow of aches and pains, the collapsing on your bed post training, and the daily affirmations you have to recite to yourself to prepare your mind, two months can pass without you even realizing that you have alienated yourself from family and friends (but if you have supportive friends and family, they won’t hold it against you).
Two weeks out from the tournament, I suffer a horrible hamstring pull on my good leg. “Great, just what I needed” I thought. I recognized the bad energy I was putting out. I had come too far to allow a pulled muscle to deter me. So, I massaged it constantly, I employed nightly Epsom salt baths, and I stretched as much as possible as often as possible. I was resolute. SF was happening, period.
And then guess what happened…
I got a cold on the Thursday three days before the tournament. Lmao. At this point, all I could do is appreciate the cosmic humor. One last hurdle and I was home free. You mean to tell me, all I had to do is hit the fluids hard and rest? It was a wrap, homie! I kicked the fever and showed up to SF feeling focused, excited, ready, and lucky.
Sometimes you can have so much doubt that you can’t beat anyone. You are losing to yourself.
Before I conclude this little story, it’s important to note that I didn’t/don’t own the monopoly on obstacles on the journey to this tournament or any other tournament. In fact, quite the opposite is true. I am confident that the majority of athletes, if not all, go through many trials on the journey to competition. Specifics and circumstances might vary from individual to individual; my teammates all had many hurdles to jump to get to SF. From the white belt competing for the first time all the way to the black belt moving up weight classes, we all had things in the way of our burgers. As a blogger, it is important to document as much as I can. Resilience is an important trait character trait.
Well, we feasted. It was glorious. And, we are all very very lucky.
Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.
– Bruce Lee
To my instructor for his willingness to adapt my training in a way that kept me as safe but allowed me to work, for his guidance, and inspiration (he competed two weight classes above his natural weight class, and cleaned out the entire division on his way to a double gold performance – #LikeABoss).
To my girlfriend who: had to massage my hamstring almost nightly for the last three weeks leading into the tournament, helped me with meal preparation, and being my biggest fan. You make me feel many loved. I owe you lots of cuddles and netflix.
To my teammates for working around my injuries, and pushing me beyond my perceived limits. For giving me feedback during our rolls. For beating the brakes off of me. For your support. For your friendship. For your encouragement.
To WarWorldWide for the WarTape. My grips were not broken once during the tournament, the tape was completely in tact until the end of the day, and my hands & fingers felt 100% healthy throughout training for the tournament. This was key.
To Jonathan Leung from Flow Kimonos for the Air hook up. The lightest Gi on the market which helped considerably in making weight.
To Eric Heath for the JitsGrips (the instrument I used most for rehabilitation of my shoulder AND my knee). More information to come about JitsGrips on the blog!
To Grounders Soap for the care package of bjj soaps that kept my skin healthy and sexy.
To Chicali Bros for the continual support, “somos pocos pero locos.”
To Verbal Tap for providing me with some much needed psychological respite. What’s up with the picture, Kevin? #DontBeScaredHomie
This interview with Romulo Barral talks about his own challanges on the road to becoming an ADCC & World champion. It is worth the time to watch it. Did you know he only had two weeks of training for worlds before he won the tournament? That’s right, after completing his physical therapy, he only put in two weeks of concentrated bjj specific effort towards the tournament.
His response is, “My training was my physical therapy.”
How’s that for mindset?
Dean Bithell says
great wisdom, triumph, inspiration and perseverance!
What the spirit of jiu-jitsu is all about!
What most people outside, and even inside, the community do not understand.
Its not just the grappling, its the sum of the life that supports it!
Ruben Avila says
Hey Dean, thanks for dropping me a note here! Thank you for the kind words. That is a very good about, it’s not just the grappling it’s the sum of the life that supports it. I like that sentiment!
Very inspiring story. Keep doing what you are doing!! #WAR Yemaso
Ruben Avila says
Hey Travis, thanks for dropping me a note brotha. Hope to see you around soon and thank you for the kind words.
Thank you for this! Just what I needed to hear about. Looking at my second ACL reconstruction and feeling pretty depressed about my prospects – I wasn’t feeling motivated about the prospect of doing this rehab a second time, and the work I know it’ll take to come back. I decided to compete next weekend at the Alaska State Tournament, despite my knee being blown – mostly because I know how long I’ll be out of the action after surgery, and I want to go ahead and compete while I have the option. BUT – its super hard to imagine competing when you’re hurt, limited, and can’t do the things you normally would. After my surgery, I’ll have to walk through all of that – again. But I’m heading out next weekend to have a good time, and to remind myself that I can come back.
So encouraged to read about how you modified what you were doing. I’ve been working on doing the same. Its a super long process to come back from serious injury, and I applaud you. Thanks for giving me some inspiration!
Ruben Avila says
Sarah, thank you SO much for dropping me a note. I really appreciate your sentiment. I think you are the inspiring one here to have the mental fortitude to compete despite having a blown out knee. I have competed many times while hurt, and I know how insecure it can make you feel. However, I think you are going in with the right attitude of having a good time.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, you just have to have faith. And, remember, there is always other parts of your game to develop if you are missing the mats a lot.
I applaud YOU!
Please come back and let me know how your tournament went, will ya?
Aldo Artoko says
Ruben.. Thank you for your writing.. Keeps my hope up. I recently separated my AC Joint (Grade 3) saw 2 doctors 1 recommended surgery and the other say no surgery is needed if I want to get back on the mat. Right now all I ever wanted is to get back on the mat but also want to make sure I will heal properly first. Quick question – I assume you didnt get your Shoulder AC Joint repaired, What grade was yours and how does it feel rolling with separated shoulder?
Again thanks for your blog – really comforting for a person in my situation.
Hey Aldo, thank you stopping by and dropping me a comment. I suffered a first degree AC joint separation. I did not have surgery. Everything I read seems to have conflicting reports on whether it is necessary or beneficial. The common theme is that it is a very slow healing injury. I was in a sling for months before I started to do very light physical therapy. I did not really roll during my time of healing, and when I came back I mostly worked on passive drills that did not use my shoulder or have me put any pressure on it.
When I came back, I rolled with one arm and used the belt to keep my healing shoulder in place on my body. I did this for several weeks. Once physical therapy was starting to show benefits, I allowed myself to stop tying the belt to my body. I then slowly started using my shoulder in rolling very lightly. Mostly for framing or active posting. It wasn’t until my shoulder felt good during my rehab that I actually really started to use my shoulder.
My advice is to take your time let it heal well and dedicate yourself to building a stronger/more flexible body so you can enjoy BJJ for a long time.