Flirt With Pain
Updated: Jan 26
“Things get bad for all of us, almost continually, and what we do under the constant stress reveals who/what we are.” ― Charles Bukowski, What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire
At the end of June I received a text message from a long time student, and friend, named Jake. He said something had happened, needed to talk, and would drive to my apartment if I was available. Moments later he arrived. When he stepped out of his car, I noticed his arm was in a sling. With a shell-shocked look on his face, he proceeded to tell me that he'd torn his bicep while playing with a large beach ball at a child's birthday party. How could someone who'd been doing advanced ring skills a few days prior tear their bicep throwing a beach ball? I've learned recently that trying to figure out how an event like this happens is a wasted effort. A multitude of causes, ranging from Jake's past and recent activities, body type, demeanor, childhood development, and etc culminated in this random event.
At the time, Jake had a number of goals he was focused on and was looking forward to extra time to train in the mornings as his kids would be out of school for the summer. He said it would be the "Summer of Jake". Now, just days before the 4th of July, I'm looking at his discolored arm and limp bicep in a sling. He said he'd need surgery and was hoping to have it done within days. It appeared he had resigned himself to not training until after the surgery and rehab. He asked for my thoughts. I said, "Just come to class...come tomorrow." I explained to him that there was plenty of training he could do and we'd work around the injury.
Jake, being one of the hardest working people I've ever known, and despite being heartbroken by the injury, showed up for 6am class the following day. He went on to train right up to the day of the surgery. After the procedure he continued taking class in collaboration with regular visits to a physical therapist and private sessions with me. Some material he could do, some had to be scaled, and in some scenarios he was given work to do on his own. The limitations on the arm gave him time to focus on many weaknesses; footwork, coordination, and spine articulation. He stayed moving! And, in some ways worked harder than everyone else. It has now been 20 weeks since the injury and 18 weeks since the surgery. Today Jake performed muscle-ups.
I am not taking credit for Jake's recovery. He obviously had a gifted surgeon and an incredible physical therapist. Not to mention his own passion, perseverance and dedication to the rehab protocols laid out by the doctor. What I love about his story is that he had a real injury that actually required surgery, and he kept training. There are people who stop training for much less.
Pain, failure, and injury are part of the games worth playing. If you want to have a relationship, you're going to get hurt. If you want to learn chess, you're going to lose. If you want to learn physical skills, you're going to get bumps and bruises. Ask any surfer, rock climber, dancer, fighter, or mover and they will all have a short list of issues they're tackling at any given moment. They don't use these issues as excuses not to play. They use them as opportunities to research, grow, and sometimes play differently.
As a teacher I often hear, "I have a thing." Or, "_____ is tweaked." Good! This is feedback from your body, and an opportunity to explore what it is telling you. We aren't pro athletes with $30M dollars on the line, so we don't need to fight through the pain. But we can move around it, research it, and figure out where the the edges are. This allows the body to heal and adapt though movement. WebMD can be a valuable resource, but it isn't in my body. Words and definitions have a tendency to make us feel like we're in more control than we actually are. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in The Black Swan, "We tend to use knowledge as therapy." Pain pills and cortisone shots will mask the valuable feedback my body is giving me, limiting research and awareness. Therefore, they are last resorts, not first destinations.
Through my lens, surgery is not always the answer. In fact, there appear to be a lot of people who have unnecessary surgery. A PT friend told me that in his opinion close to 80% of the post-op patients he sees have had unnecessary surgery. The truth is that the body has a remarkable way of healing and/or adapting. John Elway played his entire career with a torn ACL, Johnny Sapinoso recovered from a rupture to one head of the pec without getting surgery, and I once saw someone perform a one arm chin-up with what appeared to be half of their lat missing. This requires real work. Unfortunately we live in a society of instant gratification. A good number of people will pay and take the risks of surgery in an effort to fast track their trip to the top of Recovery Everest, rather than learning to climb on their own.
Please read my words clearly, I am not a doctor and I am not saying all surgery is unwarranted. What I am saying is that an injury is not always a reason to stop moving, and recovery is not transactional. A quick fix is not always a fix at all, in fact it may be a landmine of unintended consequences. As another PT friend of mine said, "If you go looking, you will find something." And if you live in a country with for-profit health care, you are just as much a customer as you are a patient. There is always room for skepticism.
In 2015 I took Ido Portal's Corset Workshop which is focussed on joint prep and joint mobility. It was being lead by Odelia Goldschmidt. At one point an attendee asked Odelia about training with pain and injuries. Her response was simple, " My rule of thumb is to flirt with pain, not go to bed with it." This resonated with me, and is how I've approached training ever since. I've accepted that injuries are part of the game. Some are big, and some are small. Some last months, and some last days. When I feel pain, I research it. I move around the pain and find where I can work.