One thing that intense athletes of all types experience at one time or another is an injury -whether it is just a minor muscle strain or a complete Achilles tendon rupture. The less severe ones are usually easily overcome. But, as the magnitude of the injury increases, the more critical it is for the athlete to maintain the correct mind set and training routine in order to recover effectively. I am writing this based on everything that I have gathered from my own experience as a Wushu practitioner for 15 years. Hopefully you can find my stories and statements useful and relate them to your own life's experience. Please do not perceive myself as an expert on this subject. Dealing with injuries is something I am still trying to master.

Imagine you just pulled a muscle during class. You decide to sit out for a while - but then watching your classmates training with intense spirit, you ignore strain and jump back in to resume training. 15 minutes later, you end up tearing the muscle. This is a common example of how we all have the ability to push ourselves beyond the limits of our body. The human mind can be extremely powerful, yet very dangerous. Learning where your limits are is important. You need to define the fine line between destroying your body and not using it to its fullest potential. A smart athlete will be more durable and, in the long run, more efficient.

In late February of 2000, I encountered one of the most difficult times of my life. I completely ruptured my left Achilles tendon in the middle of jumping exercises during Shaolin class. I was immediately rushed to the emergency room where I was told what happened to my leg and that it would require about 2 years to fully recover. Right before this injury had occurred, my body never felt stronger or healthier. It felt as if I just hit a brick wall traveling at 100 mph. I remember telling my doctor that the pain I was feeling in my leg was nothing compared to the pain that was in my mind.

I spent the next few months pretty much immobile on my living room couch. I must say adjusting to the immediate transition - from being extremely active to being so motionless - had to be one of the hardest things that I had ever done in my life. I don't think I ever learned to adjust. During my first week, I laid still and silent in complete disbelief with some occasional sobbing. It felt like all my life's dreams and pursuits had been taken away from me beyond my reach. Because Wushu played such a significant role in my life, my life lost its spirit and passion.

After about two weeks, I finally "woke up." I was not going to let 1 or 2 years get in my way of accomplishing what I wanted to do. I recalled telling myself that once my ankle healed, I was going to come back twice as strong. I became more and more eager and impatient to get started on my rehabilitation process. I started talking to numerous athletes, including other Wushu practitioners, basketball players, and gymnasts, whom have experienced a similar or the same injury. I also performed extensive research over the Internet learning about the actual procedures involved in rehabilitation and reading feedback, suggestions, and stories from others who has had the injury.

One piece of information that I had learned struck me in particular. I found that the people who have had an Achilles tendon rupture have a significantly greater chance of re-rupturing it again since the wound would never be as strong as new. I quickly realized that my "comeback" would not be as ambitious as I once thought it would be. I also was grateful that I didn't recover sooner or else I would have carelessly jumped into vigorous training immediately - and most likely rupturing my tendon once again. Very scared of that consequence, I decided that a more conservative approach was probably the best way for me to regain my strength and mobility.

These are some of the most valuable lessons I have learned during my recovery process that might be of use to you:

  1. Patience: Even though this is common knowledge, many people still choose to be ignorant to it. This is one of the hardest to have control over. Especially if you have been out of practice for quite some time and cannot wait to get back into routine. However, jumping back so soon will greatly increase your chance of re-injury. Like Zen, one should remain neutral and look at the situation in a rational way. Even though you are taking it slow now, in the long run, your rehab will actually be faster.
  2. Learn to listen to your body: Again, this is very important during your rehabilitation so that you do not re-injure yourself. When you train normally, you are usually less conscious of your body. Your mind is usually more focused on training hard and finishing the exercise. That is why it is normally after class you realize that you have discomforts in your body. But, now that you are injured, you need to create that mental awareness that didn't exist before. During each exercise, you need to be extra careful on your injured areas. If you notice any slight discomfort, it would be advisable to take it easy and not push the injured body part further.
  3. Improve other areas: This is a genuine opportunity to improve upon other areas of your body other than the area of the injury. Many people get dismayed once they are injured and stop training completely. But they could be wasting time since there is always room for improvement in other areas. For example, because my leg was injured, I started to train my upper body. Now, my upper body strength, speed, and reaction are significantly better than before I hurt my leg.

To this very day*, I am still in the process of rehabilitating my leg. Through your own and other's experiences, you can learn more efficient ways to get better in martial arts without it being detrimental to your existing injuries.

*This article was written by James Yang in 2003.