Using Sport Psychology Skills to Improve Martial Arts Training:
Assessing and Coping With Injuriesby Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Athletes typically have a great deal of difficulty adjusting to injuries especially those that prevent them from engaging in their particular sport. Much of their sense of self is connected to their sport. An injury can cause disruption to their usual routine and prevent the self-satisfaction and accomplishment they experience through their sport. As a result, they often experience a sense of loss, confusion, and irritability or frustration when they are injured. This article is not just for those athletes who have already experienced an injury because it is important for every athlete to prepare for eventual injuries and learn how to assess the seriousness of the injury and how to cope with a temporary change in their activities as well as how to deal with a career ending injury.
Martial artists, in particular, have trouble accepting and handling injuries. They are frequently taught to ignore pain so as to not let their opponent know of a weakness. Often they become very skilled at ignoring the warning signals provided by pain and they may tend to minimize pain which can lead to problems of not recognizing the seriousness of an injury.
Pain is an important signal from the brain that there may be a problem somewhere in the body. When people do not experience pain such as due to a neurological dysfunction, they can experience severe consequences including crippling injuries that could have been prevented and fatal or limb-threatening infections. Therefore, we need to view pain not as a sign of weakness but as a messenger. And as it is with all messengers, some can be ignored but others need to be heeded. However, we should not decide to ignore a messenger until we have at least heard the message. The signal of pain needs to be attended to if only to assess the cause and to determine whether further action needs to be taken. Often pain is an early warning signal that when paid attention to can prevent further serious injury.
Experienced fighters have likely developed the ability to quickly assess the pain and determine a course of action. However, martial arts instructors need to be careful with their novice fighters. Rather than have them ignore the pain signals, they can teach them how to assess the pain. Instructors need to keep in mind that many people may have little body awareness prior to their martial arts training. What may be simple for the experienced instructor to assess may be beyond the novice martial artists capability. Therefore, part of early instruction can be explaining the particular pain signals when the student experiences them and helping him or her know when it is okay to ignore the signal.
If the martial artist experiences an injury identified as temporary and has attended to the necessary physical recovery assessment and treatment, he or she then needs to focus on mental recovery. Too often, negative thoughts intrude such as "This is really going to hurt my training schedule. There's no way I can win now" or "It's going to take so much effort to regain my level of ability. Is it worth it?" The martial artist can easily become depressed even if the injury only sidelines him or her for a few months. However, depression can have serious consequences. It can impact the length of time that it takes to physically recover both because the athlete doesn't take proper physical care of him or herself as well as the chemical imbalance created by depression slows the healing process.Thus, it is important for the martial artist to stay in control of the thought process. He or she can do this by choosing to view the recovery time as an opportunity to practice the mental game which often doesn't get enough attention anyway. Some of these skills I have discussed in previous articles. The martial artist can develop relaxation skills by practicing breathing and meditation. He or she can develop focus by practicing moves imaginally and even imagining sparring scenarios.
Errors in performance can be corrected by mentally rehearsing the desired behavior. During this time the martial artist can set mental goals to be achieved. Not only do these exercises help keep the athlete motivated and positively focused, but they also aid in reducing physical recovery time.
Of course the more difficult situation to manage is when an injury puts an end to martial arts practice. I've heard individuals state that if they couldn't continue practicing the martial arts, they would want to die. Although such an attitude is part of a normal grief reaction and the individual needs to mourn the loss of such an important part of their life, each martial artist needs to be prepared for this possibility. Initially, the martial artist needs to allow the normal emotions of grief to occur (see Issues in Ending a Sports Career for further explanation). However, with proper preparation, he or she can begin to focus on other activities and life experiences to replace what they have lost. The individual needs to recognize that the martial arts and/or physical activities aren't the only source of satisfaction, competence, and excitement in life. Sometimes, as we come to an acceptance of the loss we can open ourselves up to the opportunity that is presented and experience new aspects of life. In fact, what is unique to the martial arts versus other sports is that the martial arts have emphasized a philosophy of life that can continue to be pursued even if the physical aspects of the arts cannot.