For the first 15 years of my martial arts training I had a teacher who was always training as part of the class. While many sport coaches are usually on the side barking orders he was actively showing, demonstrating and practicing his techniques with us.
Unsurprisingly when I started running my own classes I could not think of a different way of teaching and, more than 25 years later, I am still training while teaching and teaching while training. Until about 4 years ago I could probably count on one hand, within a whole year, the number of lessons I missed or I simply coached without being part of the class. More recently, partially due to a number of training incidents which damaged my back, toes, shoulders, ribs and arm I started to slack a bit, train lighter or a bit less intensively to a point where a standard training session would be kind of challenging.
Early last year I was taking it easy as I was still recovering from a broken rib which happened in October 2015 and, during a training session, I ripped a tendon in my left arm which required a surgical procedure to be put back in working order. I noticed then that I allowed my fitness level to slip too much below a minimum expected level and this was triggering a number of niggling issues.
At that point I decided to increase the frequency and regularity of my training while reducing the times I allow myself to simply run a lesson to no more than once per month. I also select very carefully my training partners to minimise the risk of training due to excess of force or lack of control. Fast forward about 6 months of very regular and consistent training and I feel, once more, at the top of my game. I decided to concentrate on fast and technical training, which I most enjoy, and leave the sheer full contact stuff to people who are 10, 20 and 30+.
I simply had to acknowledge that if I have students in my weight category or heavier and they are training for full contact fights I should not try to spar with them full contact as I can get hurt. Apart from that I can still train regularly and consistently with a broad range of athletes at various levels of skill and fitness and keep in good shape while enjoying myself and being able to keep my technique at a high level and being worth the black belt I am wearing.
An old maxim, from die hard masters, sounds like:
“if you hurt one of your limbs you still have 3 to fight with”
I that really true? Over the last ten months I broke a rib and tore the tendon of my left bicep in two separate accidents about 6 months apart. Following the maxim above and ignoring most of doctors’ suggestions I carried on training, missing no more than a handful of training sessions.
As I already discussed in a previous post I decided to adopt an active approach to recovery by training as much as possible as long as it was not causing pain. In both cases it was matter of assessing what moves, techniques and combinations were possible and set the limit to a point which would not hurt, aggravating the injury or slowing down recovery. As each injury is different I adopted a very empirical approach which allowed me to assess every week the level of progress as well as the intensity and speed of each technique I could perform.
When you get injured you realise how the whole body is deeply interconnected; ribs are more or less in the middle of your body and you don’t realise how much you move them until one or more of them is painful. In fact it’s pretty difficult to do anything intense without triggering some serious pain. The arm is obviously more peripheral to the body but most sharp and intense body movement will have an effect on the arm itself, even just because the arm’s muscles get naturally tensed within the natural instinct of keeping a decent guard.
So going back to the maxim mention in the first paragraph, how does it qualify to an everyday practitioner of martial arts? While injured, in my opinion you can:
- Practice gentle warm up techniques and movements which stretch the body and some power activities which are not using the injured parts
- Practice regimented and pair techniques as long as you perform with a very controlled partner or partners substantially weaker and light than you which, in case they deliver at full power, will not risk to injure you
- Avoid sparring or any power activity; in fact I tried sparring while my arm was still recovering by using one arm and both legs but any sudden movement has an impact on the whole body and was often hurting the operated arm. Once more I applied the rule of training with light and inexperienced people which would allow me a little workout while teaching them a few new techniques and it partially worked
I would like to conclude that you should be very careful if you decide to follow my suggestions. Pain is there to warn you against worsening conditions. You should really listen to your body and follow what works for you, while challenging yourself on a daily basis.
Every time I get injured and I see doctors they always suggest total rest to avoid aggravating the injury. I somewhat disagree about total rest being the best solution for my fast recovery. Here is my latest first-hand experience.
On 7 April 2016 I sustained a serious injury: while demonstrating a leading hook punch against the shoulder of a 97Kg student of mine I tore the tendon of my left bicep. Difficult to say how that happened after hundreds of thousands of these punches I have thrown in my life but there I was: A&E at Cambridge Addenbrookes’ hospital at 8:30pm, just after the end of the Thursday’s lesson. I managed to get a consultant to see me in emergency the following day and, although he advised I could have a nearly normal life leaving the arm as it was, I decided to get operated on the first available slot. The operation took place at Addenbrookes hospital at 12 noon on 14 April, 7 short days later.
I was released from hospital on the same evening; my left arm was on a sling and I received precise instructions about what I could and should not do with the operated arm. Basically I could squeeze the hand and move my fingers around; lifting absolutely nothing, not even the arm’s own weight for the first 6 weeks and then no more than a cup of tea for the following 6 weeks. When I was still in Italy 20 years ago I saw my master sustaining a similar injury which also needed a surgical procedure and he carried on training while he was wearing his sling. By the same token I had a strong opinion that total rest, which would have driven me to total craziness while make me very unfit, was not the best option for me.
Here is how it really went, while keeping myself safe and injury free:
- I missed the Thursday lesson on the day I was operated (14 Apr), most people were joking about me turning up at class.
- I was in pain the Friday and a bit on the Saturday (15 & 16 Apr); did not work on Friday and took a total of 3 pain killer tablets. That was the total pain killer intake for the whole time after surgery. Friday was the only day I actually missed from the office and worked from home, doing the minimum necessary.
- I could not really move fast so, while I accepted to miss the Sunday (17 Apr) lesson, I decided to walk, with arm in sling, all the way to Kelsey Kerridge where we train and watch half of the lesson; total walked distance about 7Km. Being in the room with other people training made me feel very well.
- Walked to the office on Monday up and worked a full day but missed the lesson on that evening (18 Apr).
- Turned up at the lesson on Tues and run the beginners course (19 Apr); I kept the injured arm totally safe in its sling and demonstrated everything with my right arm and legs; in this occasion I did the minimum amount of warm up and stretching exercises to get ready but did not break a sweat during the whole lesson.
- On Weds (20 Apr) I also run a lesson for Cambridge University and managed to show all combinations with one arm and two legs or by asking someone to demonstrate what I was asking for; I realised then it was easier than I imagined.
- On Thurs (21 Apr) I continued with the beginners course.
- On Friday 22 Apr I had the first check-up with the consultant, together with X-rays; the operation went as well as expected and it was progressing well. Next check-up three weeks later.
- During the following three weeks I started to take part in all warm up sessions and increasing the number and intensity of exercises, getting to a decent aerobic cardiovascular workout. I was using my legs to kick any possible combination while still keeping the arm at rest. I received some good advice from one of my physiotherapists which helped a faster recovery of motion and strength.
- On 13 May I had the 4 weeks check-up which confirmed a very good progress of recovery and rehabilitation. The consultant suggested keeping the arm away from full power exercises for the following 5 months.
- Within the next few weeks I started to use the left arm for very gentle punching, just for straight punches and still avoiding block of any technique.
- On Monday 6 June I did my first sparring session since the operation; I trained just with beginners, females under 65Kg. This allowed me to perform most of my techniques at a slow pace, keeping the left arm in guard position but without using it for any form of attack or defence and just punching with the right arm.
- On the same week I also started swimming once per week; about 40 lengths on the first attempt, 60 slow ones on the second one and 60 at a good pace the following times.
- Over the following weeks I kept training kickboxing regularly and increasing pace and strength to most techniques. I pay lots of attention to avoid direct strikes on the left arm and still use it just for straight punches but I feel at least 80% in shape.
Having spent a couple of months at a slow pace training, carefully avoiding tough classes and technique I realised how much fitness I lost in terms of strength, power and endurance which I am now working hard to recover. On the positive side I was supposed to do next to nothing for 3 months and then start a slow recover afterwards while I managed to cut that by two thirds: less than 3 months after the operation I am feeling great.
I recently went on a holiday where I spent ten days in different places in France and Italy. I noticed, once more, how these countries have a very different drinking culture compared to England where I live. In most southern European countries it is very much about drinking in small amounts while socialising. Although British drinking culture is also associated to socialising, there appears to be more emphasis on the drinking itself. The result is often having seriously unhealthy side effects with people experiencing hangovers which incapacitate their activities the day after drinking, or some times longer. This post discusses a simple martial arts orientated solution to binge drinking.
One of my students was pointing out, a few nights ago, how he drunk excessively on a Friday night and felt awful throughout the whole weekend. He felt totally frustrated as he was incapable of doing anything physical. I find it strange that people want to drink to this extent knowing they will feel sorry for it. Then, the next time they have a chance, they are back to the same binge drinking.
So I suggested to this student a simple and practical advice which I have been applying to myself since I can remember. Force yourself to train, just turn up to a class and train. Training martial arts when hungover is a very fast way of recovering for the following reasons:
- The need to move fast will have a cardio vascular effect which will help sweating and getting rid of toxins
- The release of adrenaline will sharpen your mind
- Drinking plenty of water at the end of training will re-hydrate your body and make you fill better
Having advised to date a reasonably large number of students I can draw this conclusion: perhaps the first time you train when hungover it will feel very weird but, in my experience, it will have the following long term effects:
- Helping faster recovery from hangovers, e.g. shorter hangovers
- Better functioning in the long term
- Fostering the reduction of drink intake by reminding you, next time you drink, that training the following day is not optional
Here is the story of another student of mine called DB. He was a computer programmer who used to have a simple life style:
- Monday to Friday: work 8-9 hours, go home, cook dinner, eating while watching TV and drinking no less than a bottle of wine or a few cans of beer, every single time.
- Weekends: finding one or two parties around the region, attending them and drinking all night, feeling hungover and sorry the following day.
His perception of his drinking was hardly ever excessive as he rarely felt drunk but he noticed how his physical and mental performance was decreasing. At age 30 he felt like an old man; he realised how sluggish his reaction time was and how bad his physical performance was in terms of speed, power and endurance. When he joined our club he soon realised how people of a similar age, or even much older, could perform so much better than he did. He progressively reduced his alcohol intake to the point he was going totally dry for weeks and get the occasional drink at parties over weekends. His will to gain martial art performance pushed him to reduce his drinking by 80-90% within months. Training martial arts helped him to understand how badly he was treating his body when unaware of the damage he was causing.
So next time you go for a drink or a party make sure you commit to training the very next day, no excuses for hangover or laziness. Repeat several times and let me know the results.
Martial arts, particular traditional ones, are often based on rules which resemble military regimes. In many Dojos it’s common to refer to the master/instructor/coach as “master”, “sensei”, “sifu”; in my opinion this is often excessive and encourages an unnecessary distance between students and instructors. I always allowed my students to call me by my first name and establishing a collaborative role where I share my knowledge and experience. At the same time I make sure they respect me for my experience and ultimately my position of authority within the club they have decided to join.
I always aimed at running a club which is accessible for anybody to join, train and improve their technique and overall skill. I enjoy training with instructors and advanced people that help me challenge my technique and fitness; at the same time I also train regularly with beginners and intermediate students so they can experience first-hand my teaching and feedback. All of my instructors are encouraged to do the same.
I am aware of many so called fight clubs, particularly boxing clubs, where there is a very strict hierarchy about who can train or be trained by whom. In those environments only the key fighters have access to high quality tuition while the others, inexperienced or just not good enough, have to accept being considered less valuable students. This, in my opinion, might discourage potentially good fighters who did not yet get the chance to move up the skill ladder.
Of course meritocracy has to an important role to play and it naturally does. Students who train more often, attend to more lessons, tournaments and become more involved with all club’s activities are automatically more visible. They get more exposure to key lessons and more naturally get chosen as training partner by the most experienced students and instructors; the more this happens and the better they get, a very natural selection. So if you are an advanced or intermediate student who is already getting the right kind of attention from instructor you are in the right place. At the same time if you feel a bit invisible within your club and would like to change this you should try to get more exposure toward the better part of the class; train more often, try to learn better techniques and keep practicing; it’s a long journey.