65. Injuries in Martial Arts

Injuries are bound to happen in martial arts training. That’s the nature of the beast. However, senseless and needless injuries are an abomination to the core sensibilities of budo. I don’t care how anyone else will get all machismo on me about taking hits to the body and brain that will eventually render you into a blubbering lump of jelly before you hit retirement age. Unless you are doing professional or semi-pro ringed fighting, martial arts is supposed to be about BUILDING up your mind and body, not tearing them apart.

After all, it does no good if you go into battle and your warriors are all hobbling around on busted knees, with bad backs and wrenched elbows.  Samurai who developed the original Japanese martial ryu knew this, and so they drew the line between hard but sensible training and nonsensical training that bordered on the sadistic and masochistic.

In fact, the whole nature of koryu training, even those with a “resistive” competitive component, is based on training only hard enough to develop realistic skills, but not so hard that you destroy the practitioners’ bodies and render them useless for actual combat. There are built-in safeguards in kata training. There are rules in resistive training.  We need to be aware of them and respectful of such regulations so that we all can practice without fear of senseless injury.

In my own experience, I’ve trained in many different martial arts for over 42 years now, and I’ve had fewer major injuries in that time than I had with the four years I had participating in competitive team sports in intermediate and high school.  It may not say much about me, since I’m basically a clumsy klutz, but I think it says a lot about the kinds of martial arts teachers I decided to study under.

Most of my teachers were very, very good at what they did, they were good teachers, and they also stressed a cooperative, mutually beneficial dojo environment. Injuries happen less in that kind of an atmosphere. Proper attitude starts from the top.

I’m writing this because I’m reflecting on an email a friend just sent me. He noted that he was ready to kick someone out of his dojo for striking another student in anger. The student was a senior in his school, so the action he was considering wasn’t going to be taken lightly. The senior was training with a junior, who was making some terrible mistakes in a paired weapons kata. The junior struck the senior student by accident. The senior’s emotions took hold of him and he struck back at the junior in anger.

That, my friend noted, was a no-no. Period. End of discussion. You never deliberately hit someone, especially with a weapon, to cause injury. You get enough injuries as it is just by accidents and mistakes. My friend’s own seniors advised him to talk to the student before kicking him out. It was the student’s first major infraction, after all, so if he understood and accepted that he did something wrong, he might be salvageable. I think that was the action my friend eventually took.

Inadvertent injuries, whacks and hurts caused by clumsy techniques of junior members; these things happen.  But students should be taught to overcome their ineptitude and cease being a threat to life and limb for everyone else. What has to be weeded out first, however, are deliberate sadistic actions by those in power on weaker students, and the kind of injuries brought on by inattention.

Of the former, I recall another story recounted by a friend, who traveled to Japan in search of an aikido teacher. He ended up training in the dojo of a world-famed master teacher, along with other devoted students. But he quickly began to feel that something wasn’t quite right with the teacher, no matter how famous he was. My friend was a big, robust guy, so he could take a lot of physical punishment. But he noticed a lot of his fellow students changing before and after class, and their bodies were covered with black and blues and they often bemoaned their numerous injuries at the hands of the sensei. He openly questioned why the sensei seemed to lack control with his technique. The students, however, in typical “abused” mentality, blamed themselves. They didn’t move the right way when they were uke. The sensei had taught them a valuable lesson in taking a breakfall the hard way, dislocating the student’s shoulder but it was worth it. The dislocated finger would heal, it was all the student’s fault for not falling this way instead of that way when the sensei wrenched the fingers. So on and so on. No, he began to think, something was wrong. The teacher was a sadist.

Sure, the training was often the way he liked it: hard and tough, my friend said, but eventually, he realized he had to get out. It was veering from hard and tough to just plain sick. Worse, he was afraid he would turn into someone like the sensei, getting his jollies out of deliberately hurting people. In addition, bad behavior of all sorts go hand in hand. He packed his bags and left the dojo for good when the sensei, who was married and with a family, began to openly sleep around with some of his female students. No amount of self-serving excuses would cover up the litany of bad behavior he saw, and he left, and he was glad he did. He ended up finding other teachers with much better technical expertise and definitely better moral and social values.

Allowing a teacher or sempai to rain injuries on juniors is a kind of institutionalized bullying, in a way. It should not be tolerated.

Of the second cause of needless injuries, the inattentiveness or clumsiness of juniors upon other students; this is less easily mitigated, but should also be addressed, over and over again. A junior student is often paired with a senior in koryu training because the senior can pace the level of training so as not to cause injury to himself or the junior. Sometimes, however, the best-laid plans often go astray. Junior students will stumble and fall when they have your wrist in a kote gaeshi grip, perhaps, injuring you because of their clumsiness. They will not pay enough attention to stopping their bokken at the right moment, bopping you on the head, or go thataway instead of thisaway and stab you in the gut when you should have been attacked in the head. I always think beginners are the most dangerous people to work with because their movements often make no sense and they don’t have enough control over their own bodies to stop a disastrous motion.

The only thing I can say about this is that teachers and seniors have to gauge the level of readiness of a junior student with regards to how much advanced work they can do. I do believe, however, that the juniors have to also realize that the mindset of a koryu art is not like playing Chinese checkers. It’s not playtime. It’s a deadly serious art. Their inattentiveness can cause serious injury to other people.

I’ve said this before and I keep repeating it to my own students: the forms of respect, the reishiki, in koryu martial arts is not about some kind of fancy secret esoteric ritual that makes them “special.” The reishiki are meant to bring the practitioner to an extreme focus with regards to the seriousness of the training.

Sure, koryu training for me is fun. Sometimes I just literally jump with joy when I can get to train in martial arts at the end of a busy work week. But the actual performance of a kata is serious stuff. Reishiki is serious stuff. You are paying respect to your weapons and to your training partner to get you into the proper mindset because if you don’t pay enough attention and focus during the kata, you will be injured or you will injure your partner. It’s not a silly game, a senseless ritual. It’s a reminder that you need to have mutual respect because you are going to engage in practicing something potentially full of danger.

This edge between safety and danger is something I thought about in relationship to woodworking. I’ve done a bit of it with power tools, and you always pay attention when you are working with power tools.  I’ve seen and experienced my own fair share of minor injuries working with hand and power tools. You are always going to get splinters, nicks and bruises, but only by being very attentive and diligent, and very respectful (I myself, while I use power tools to great advantage, have a healthy FEAR of them until I turn off the power) will you manage to avoid life-threatening injuries.

The table saw, especially, causes a huge amount of injuries yearly to woodworkers, yet it’s the most used power tool in the United States. I remember being asked by a student in my art history class if he had to take a lot of notes. He showed me his right hand. It looked normal. But he said that four of the fingers had limited mobility because he used to be a professional cabinetmaker. He was cutting a piece of wood with a table saw when he was momentarily distracted. That moment was all it took for the table saw to cut off four of his fingers. His fellow workers found his digits, put them in a plastic Ziplock bag, and had him evacuated to a hospital where the surgeons managed to reattach them to his hand. But the nerves in his fingers were never the same again. He could barely use his hand to sribble out notes.

That horror story, plus my own experiences and other stories, give me a healthy respect for the dangers of power tools. I go through my own reishiki with power tools because they scare the shit out of me. I don eye and ear protection. If I make minor adjustments, I turn off the power and wait until everything stops spinning. If I make major adjustments, I turn off the power and I also unplug the power cord. I don’t wear loose clothing. I don’t even chew gum when I use the table saw.  I measure more than once, and I preconceive what will happen when I make a cut or chop or saw and I position myself to stay out of the way of any possible kickback. Knock on wood, but I hope to never get injured needlessly when I’m working in wood.

While martial arts training may not seem to be as dangerous as a woodworking power tool, the same attitude should prevail. Doing a throw on someone but being badly balanced may cause you to stumble and fall on the person, causing avoidable injury. Not paying attention in weapons work may cause you to bop someone and cause pain and suffering. So we all have to pay attention.

Injuries do happen. That’s the nature of the training. Even with a high-ranking training partner, I’ve had fingers rapped, my nose poked, my ribs hit by wooden weapons in the heat of embu. I’ve also delivered my fair share of ouches to others through my own mistakes. But they’ve all been accidental, and all very minor so far. Nothing has been life-threatening.  I intend to keep it that way, and in order to do so, I think one needs to treat martial arts training like woodworking: Have a healthy dose of respect for what you are doing, pay attention and stay focused. It may be fun, it may be great fun, but it’s not a time to drop your attention and respect for the weapons and techniques involved.


10 thoughts on “65. Injuries in Martial Arts

  1. I tell people when looking for a place to train, to take a close look at the students. You will end up being about the average of that group. Do you want to be like them?

    1. Rick,
      That sort of reminds me of a Woody Allen joke sort of like, “I wouldn’t want to be part of a group that accepted me as a member.”


  2. Hmmm, my problem with that one story has nothing to do with injury, its that a senior struck a junior “in anger.”

    NO place in the dojo for that.

  3. “Allowing a teacher or sempai to rain injuries on juniors is a kind of institutionalized bullying, in a way. It should not be tolerated.”

    Allowing a teacher or sempai to rain injuries on juniors is institutionalized bullying, period.

    Another issue is neglect, if a teacher fails to recognize that one particular student is unintentionally but seriously injuring others with poor technique. I’ve seen that, too — the dangerous guy that the teacher won’t sit down.


  4. Beth and Kit,
    Yep, fully agree. I should have worded it better. I meant it as a “form of bullying.” I think “in a way” may be too wishy washy, now that I reread it.

  5. I was scheduled to teach a weekend koshukai a number of years ago on the west coast and was offered the loan of a local dojo since we had a large group attending. I was grateful but upon entering the dojo I was astounded that one corner of the area off the tatami looked like a major ER trauma center. There were all sorts of support wraps, several rolls of red duct tape for warning of injuries, and a whole cabinet of liniments and other medical treatment goodies. Quite a lot of the locals we saw when we first arrived had the red tape on their keikogi at elbow and shoulder areas.

    All of my dojo have always had a small kit for emergencies and ice in the fridge (along with the popsicles for after keiko) and a few headache pain relievers that people stored for their own use, but my goodness I’d never seen a setup like this. The waza I felt from them told the whole story, but what was most disturbing to me was… they were proud of it! Scary stuff.

    I agree with the gist of your article Wayne.

  6. Excellent post. I think the most powerful thing you said came from your anecdote about the friend who went to train with the famous Aikido instructor. You said that the students had the same mentality as those who are in any kind of abusive relationship. And that got me thinking: What IS the difference IN THE STUDENT’S PSYCHOLOGY between dojo injuries and what we might imagine when we think of classic “abuse”?

    As you point out, the students, similar to most victims of chronic abuse, blame themselves for their injuries. The two ARE different….but where?

    I’ve only been considering this for about 10 minutes so far, and I can think of one or two ways it might be different, but I am very interested to think what you and others who read your blog think.


    1. Brett, the only thing I can think of that’s different is the fact that the dojo abuse situation is voluntarily entered into and fairly limited in scope, and therefore cannot take the same sort of mental and physical toll on a person as actually living full-time in an abusive situation. You didn’t say that this is what you were thinking, so I’m not asserting that you did, but one must not fall into the trap of thinking it’s different simply because it’s The DOJO, and therefore is special and good. I’ve run into many people who *do* think that.

      It takes both extraordinary awareness and emotional strength to recognize one is in an unhealthy situation, and to break free from it. And sometimes the abuse is not easily seen from the inside, wrapped as it is in layers of authority and assumed culture.


  7. Beth,

    “…It takes both extraordinary awareness and emotional strength to recognize one is in an unhealthy situation, and to break free from it.” In a lot of different situations, this is so true, not just in overt physically abusive situations. I learned it the hard way. So hence, my warning. If it gets bad enough to see that it is truly bad, then it’s already way past time to get out. Our natural tendency is to accept things as they are because change is hard, at first, and scary.


  8. Also, regarding Brett and Beth’s thread: The situations may be different, but I think the mental attitude that allows it are very similar. And again, I’m not coming down hard on the abused victim, although it behooves them (and us) to be able to recognize a bad situation and get out of it, regardless of what you THINK you should do (“stick it out,” “gut it out,” “be a good spouse and be quiet,” etc.). The rationalization does happen, and it takes shaking up to make anyone realize that a situation that has been accepted for so long doesn’t have to continue.

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