We have all heard it said or even been the one’s to say it, but the central idea of frequenting a Martial Arts class, BJJ or otherwise, for the sake of one’s mental health is a prevailing anecdote that seems to go hand in hand with the journey of most practitioners across the globe.
Where it can sometimes be almost cliché, it is certainly not without serious merit, for as the title of this article suggests; We all have our story. So when we refer to BJJ as something that aids our mental health, what do we really mean?
It certainly isn’t the idea of just venting or getting our frustrations out. The act of grappling and facing down our own ego can sometimes be frustrating within itself!
Whilst that mechanism of self-betterment and growth can certainly be cathartic, I believe it refers to overcoming what occurs in your life away from the mats and utilising the positive environment or supportive community of our BJJ academy, to bring us back from the brink of mental health issues.
At the age of 25, amidst the rigours of training heavily for another MMA bout (which of course was life or death at the time), I suffered a series of complications pertaining to my breathing, skin conditions and vision impairment that left me completely bewildered as to what was occurring inside my own body. It was as if I could not function, heal, or recover in any way and in fact was going backwards with my perception of progress.
After awakening one morning to find my left hand and arm swollen inordinately, I rushed off to the emergency room, where I was initially informed that I was “overreacting” and I promptly sought a second opinion. At the time I had suffered my fair share of wear and tear injuries, some worse than others. Neck impactions, bone spurring at the lumbar spine, dislocated clavicle, broken arm, ankle, fingers and toes. But nothing that felt like this. After an ultrasound on the left side of my body, a large 17cm DVT (blood clot) was located at the site of my brachial/axial artery, spreading through the sternal chest wall and sterna-clavicular junction. Essentially, a big blood clot in my arm pit that was extending through the surrounding arterial junctions.
I did not drink alcohol, I did not smoke cigarettes, I was attempting to live as clean as possible as a competitive athlete and thought I was ticking every box in order to reach my goals. I was wrong. I was told in this time period that this was most likely caused by a form of blood cancer, or hereditary clotting factors in my blood. I was prepared for the worst by nurses and doctors, given the extent of the clot and proximity to my heart, lungs and brain; The propensity for the clot to calcify shard and pass through my blood stream, travelling into any of those organs would be fatal, causing a heart attack, pulmonary embolism or stroke. After ruling out cancer or blood conditions, It was suggested that instead of a years’ worth of blood thinning medication and regular weekly check-ups to assess my INR levels (thickness of blood), that simply amputating my arm would be the safest long-term course of action. I chose to chance it with the former option, and was lucky to stabilise, re-canalise the artery, and ultimately; survive.
It was a combination of force clotting syndrome, chronic dehydration (thank you weight cutting) and training through pneumonia that actually led to this clot. And it was this one event that led to one of the most severe depressions of my life. I was not invincible, and my actions had led to my own downfall. I was not a victim. This had not happened TO me; this had happened BECAUSE of me. A bitter pill to swallow, but crucial lesson to learn.
Throughout my recovery, I could not physically train. However, this was the time period in which I began to further myself as a coach, and realised, I had an aptitude for it. I was an analytical and long-term thinker who was eager and ready to help in the most meaningful way I could. The mats, the people at the academy, the support network built into martial arts; gave me a chance to live again. They brought me back to life. I furthered myself in the study of personality types, physical education, long term programming and athletic mindset. I had a chance to grow again.
Sometime after this (well, QUITE some time), I had an opportunity to return to MMA as a competitor, and even began training to fight again. One day at training I shot a double leg from the middle of the mats, ran it straight through to the edge of the mats and smashed headfirst into a thinly matted concrete wall. I lost a week of my life to severe concussion and to this day couldn’t tell you what happened first-hand, as I relied on others filling in the blanks for that event and the entire week to follow.
I was gone, blank, and depressed once more. I couldn’t even show myself out of shame and embarrassment to corner other fighters also training for the event that I was meant to compete on. Another glorious low. But once again, I was forgiven. I was understood. I was respected and trusted and given a chance to restore myself. And when I was ready, the mats brought me back to life once more.
It was at this point in time where I retired from MMA completely to apply myself as a coach and look deeper into the realm of technique as a grappler, leading to my brown belt and black belt promotions, as I took a sharp turn in my progression for the better once my mind was clear and focused. I realised that having a keen cognitive capacity was my true pathway forward and worked to maintain those abilities as best I could, another pivotal life lesson for me.
Flash forward to today and after almost a decade of coaching MMA, at the age of 34 I am the head coach and owner of my own grappling academy, alongside my wife, and am in a position to cultivate a positive, welcoming and forward-thinking environment full of people who are ready and willing to support each other both on and off the mats. Because in the end, the mats do help us revive, but really, it is the PEOPLE who aid us to survive.
The Truth About Mental Health And The BJJ Journey
Story after story. My own barely scratches the surface of the truth. I hear stories of those wishing to end it all due to depression, PTSD, abuse both physical and emotional, chronic illness and painful debilitating injury, catastrophic home life circumstances, deep feelings of shame, inadequacy, and abandonment, you name it, it has all been discussed, addressed, and most importantly; overcome.
This does not come without work. We are not mental health professionals and being a black Belt in BJJ does not make you a clinical psychologist. Serious issues need serious attention. We are, however, an understanding ear, and a guiding hand, that can show any individual that they have a capacity for learning and self-betterment that they never knew existed within them. It is about that self-worth and self-belief. That’s where this idea of positive mental health comes from in relation to the practice of martial arts.
This is why those who partake in martial arts are so protective of them. I have seen BJJ articles and memes using the “trope” of mental health to perpetuate a satirical view of what is seen as some sort of stereotype i.e “rolling too hard and crushing people aids my mental health.”
It is unfortunate that some would take that tact as it is in fact extremely detrimental to the fabric of what a positive environment is made of. Imagine being a sufferer of PTSD or forms of abuse already and then reading an article poking fun at your predicament, criticising you and alienating you all over again, blaming you for your illness.
In real life, if someone is rolling too hard at training, visibly shaken, upset, unable to regulate their breathing or even retain information; Our job is not to ostracise or condemn them, it is to understand and aid them, to support them and guide them. To help them. Fortunately there are organizations out there who serve this purpose as well, like Submit The Stigma.
I obviously have strong feelings and opinions regarding this topic. I am sure that if you have read this all the way through, that you have your own story to tell. And you know what I think? I think you should tell it. Tell your story, share with others your journey of overcoming obstacles and progressing in your life once more, and in turn, you will contribute a great deal to the wellbeing of those around you as they relate to your struggle, and understand that they can overcome their own. So, tell me, what’s your story?
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