It's been awhile since I last posted to my blog, thanks to Twitter and host of other diversions.
I recently had an experience in martial arts that I thought I would share, as I think it's a lesson for other sports, business and relationships as well.
I train in Krav Maga, a pretty aggressive form of fighting that orignated in the streets of Israel. Krav Maga is great for practical self defense, and the training center I joined has the most motivated, helpful, and fit people I've been around since my crew days at college.
Four months ago, I began experiencing pain in my right shoulder-- what Orthos would call 'impingement'-- during warm ups. Basically, my shoulder hurt every time I raised my elbow above chest level. Since Krav relies on a lot of punches and defenses with both arms, it's pretty hard to get past any problems with a shoulder, elbow or wrist for that matter.
After several weeks, the periods of pain escalated, and my shoulder began to hurt during warm-ups, during training, after training, and eventually, around the clock. I tried icing, heat, NSAIDs etc, but the only real relief I could get was not to train at all.
Like many martial arts forms, Krav Maga relies on a set monthly curriculum of training for students at each belt level. Students come and go as they can, with everyone trying to do their best to learn the requirements for their level. However, if you miss classes, you fall out of sync and miss instruction in certain skills. Since higher levels require years of training, falling too far behind becomes a big problem. More importantly, missing classes for rest means you're getting out of shape.
When I passed my Level Two exam in March, I had set a goal of completing Level Three testing by December. Up until the time my shoulder began to hurt, I was tracking ahead of schedule with my skill-building and fitness. Achieving my goal seemed straightforward. I just needed 60 classes under my belt, and to make sure I learned all the skills well enough to perform them.
However, once my shoulder began to ache, and rest was my only relief, the plan started to go awry. Cutting back classes meant I was missing skills, falling out of shape, and falling behind the timeline for my Level Three exam. Still, I pushed ahead through the pain, went when I could, and hoped for the best.
Finally, by mid-November, I was on the bubble: if I concentrated on making the remaining classes, brushing up on missed skills, and improving my fitness, I could still make the December test date. Since I'd set my goal, I decided to go for it, in spite of not being healthy, balanced and in adequate shape.
As it was with Level Two, the Krav Maga Level Three test is grueling experience. The total running time is 4.5 hours, with a few short breaks. During that time, you are constantly working with your partner on holds, kicks, blocks, punches, escapes and ground maneuvers. The instructors are there the entire time, so you can't let up.
For the first half of the exercise, I felt pretty good. My shoulder hurt, but I ignored it and stayed busy. I felt pretty assured that I would pass with flying colors; all I needed was another two plus hours of strong effort and mental focus.
Oh, how wrong I was.
In the third hour, I began to feel very fatigued; all my missed training began to catch up to me. And, as I grew more tired, I was sloppy, and then-- the dominoes began to fall. My shoulder was constantly aching, diverting what little attention I had left from what I was doing. With my partner and I trading blows, blocks and kicks, I failed to react quickly enough on a front kick block. Coming up too slowly with my left leg, I ended up jamming my left toes into the heel of his shoe at full force. The pain was immediate, excruciating and warranted; after many years on the athletic field, I knew at once that I had broken a toe (my third one). Being stubborn and determined to finish, I shook it off and blocked the pain from my mind. Second domino down.
About fifteen minutes later, we'd started to trade side kicks, maneuvers that require considerable hip and leg flexibility. Because my left two was hurting and my balance was off, I was trying to deliver the kicks without bending and stretching. I was getting by until-- "pop," I felt my left hamstring pull/tear. If you've done it, you know it feels like cracking a knuckle, except there's no joint. Then, the pain sets in and the muscle spasms. Third domino.
At this point, my optimism started to wane. With another 90 minutes to go, I realized I might not make it through-- I'd have to retire due to injury, and re-take the test another time. This really weighed on my mind, since I had set a goal, and I was not keen on doing another four plus hours of testing any time soon. After a minute of walking and muttering, I got back to the work at hand, and I tried to block all of the injury out of my mind.
luckily, the kicks were over, and we moved on to holds-- chokes, bear hugs, escapes and so on. I could limp my way through, or so I thought. My partner was training safely but aggressively, and I was doing the same with added fatigue and distraction from my ailments. At some point, our knees collided full force. It was a jolt, and my right leg went numb for a moment. With all the adrenaline and stubborness, I didn't pay much attention at the time, but I had a hunch I'd done more than bruise it.
Fast forward ten more minutes and we're moving on to the ground, when I noticed a lump the size of a ping-pong ball had formed to the right of my right kneecap. It felt squishy and odd. I get a lot of bruises and knocks that never swell, so this one really concerned me. Domino four.
Now, I had a broken left two, pulled left hamstring, and a lump on my right knee. Meanwhile, my right shoulder hurt as bad as ever. I pressed ahead, figuring I would go until I simply had to stop; no turning back now.
Needless to say, the last hour consisted of thirty, two-minute short efforts, between glances at the clock, while trying not to think about the growing waves of pain from all sides. I am not sure how I made it, but the end of the test finally came, and I limped back to my car.
As with all level tests in Krav, you don't find out for several days while they compile their notes. Meanwhile, I couldn't have cared much. I was left as a physical wreck, packed with ice and unable to get much sleep for the first few days. My knee swelled up even more, so I decided to haul my carcass to the orthopaedic for an evaluation, and what I got wasn't pretty- confirmation of a bone break in my toe, a partial tear of my lateral meniscus in my right knee, and confirmation of arthritis in my acromium joint in my right shoulder. Add in a hamstring pull, and I win the Trifecta.
Now, two weeks later, I've been out of training entirely, resting and heading to physical therapy to get myself healed.
Looking back, though I've achieved my goal, I'm paying a big toll and have learned a valuable lesson about the idea of 'playing hurt.'
It goes something like this: if you have a pain in your shoulder, in your leg, in your hand, or perhaps in your your heart, spirit or mind, moving forward without addressing it will create more pain and discomfort down the road.
"Compensating" for a wound throws your body out of balance; and by being out of balance, you place other stresses on your body that lead to more injury, more pain and more suffering. Playing hurt simply ensures that you'll pay a higher toll down the road.
In my case, I was lucky. Though a sore shoulder set off a chain of events-- missed training, reduced fitness, and clouded concentration-- I was able to achieve my goal and pass the test. But that set me up like a set of dominoes for more pain and hurt, and now I'm on the sidelines to heal, rehabilitate and get back my foundation. As a result, it will cost me more time and hurt to get back to where I was.
As you think about your fitness level in sports, your relationships or your work and school-- is there a wound or pain that's throwing off your balance and diverting attention? If so, perhaps addressing it and healing now will help you avoid more discomfort and imbalance in the future.
Food for thought.