As I alluded to in my last Digital Humanities blog post, I broke my foot a couple weeks ago during Tae Kwon Do practice. It was the first night I was back from my conferences in Pittsburgh, and it was the first day I had really done any meaningful exercise in nearly a week. I was excited, had a good day of teaching the younger students, and felt fresh for my workout. After we complete our usual calisthenic warm ups and stretching routine, we always run through a series of basic kicks to sharpen our foundational techniques. Usually we stand in place and kick in the air at imaginary targets, but this was a night when we got the pads out. I don’t know how to explain why, but for many students (including myself) kicking a target is so much more satisfying than executing a technique in the air. The sound, the feeling of power, the proof of your accuracy--all of it validates a practitioner in a way that can be quite motivating. After the usual sets of stretch kicks, front, side, and roundhouse kicks, we started working on more advanced techniques. Tornadoes. Back sweeps (or spinning hook kicks depending on your terminology). And then, finally, students were asked to practice a kick corresponding to their rank. I was working on the “running back sweep” or the 360 jump spinning hook--a technique I successfully broke a board with at my second Dan testing last year.
We were supposed to do a set of ten. Nine of mine looked exactly like the video above. For whatever reason, the tenth one did not. When my left foot landed, it felt like the pinky-toe rolled over and the blade side of my foot twisted. I heard a “pop” and fell flat on my back. I was sure that I had sprained my ankle. Not wanting to cause a scene, I quietly scooted back away from the mat without attempting to stand. I’d been in this position before, one of shock, one of embarrassment, one where you weren’t sure how your world might change when you finally made the attempt to get to your feet. I panicked in my own way--something that, as I type it now, I realize, is an important theme for this kind of work--so many types of trauma manifest personally, and uniquely in a given individual. My response to the shooting pain on the edge of my foot was to joke. “Thanks for the ice pack, but I think the class has taken a long enough break. Don’t let them catch their breath for too long on my account!”
Mom always told me she often felt like a bad parent because she could never tell when I was sick as a kid. I never complained or whined about pain, and if I ever did, it was time to go to the hospital. I’m not sure why I default to that kind of reaction, why even in moments of stress I’m trying to protect those around me, and that’s not really the point here. What’s important, is to realize that any single person could have broken their foot that way, and every single one of them could have reacted differently. What’s more, any individual faced with this situation could react a number of different ways to what happened in the next week: a doctor’s diagnosis, learning to walk on crutches for the first time, strapping on a boot and being told to not put ANY weight on that foot for a month at the risk of surgery…
This is an important lesson in empathy for me in many ways. And it’s something I think is worth sharing for teachers, practitioners, parents, and anyone who has friends in combat sports. Perhaps surprisingly, this is my first broken bone in my life and the first “serious” injury stemming from my martial arts practice of the last fourteen years. After it happened, my martial arts family rallied around me in different ways. Some offered the more traditional tough guy props by saying that my injury is a sort of badge of honor or rite of passage. This kind of light-hearted praise really only goes so far.
Others, like my local training group, made sure to check on me every day, to encourage me to come to class even if I couldn’t do much in the way of working out. I can’t stress how important this is for a person like me, someone who psychologists often label as an “obliger” or “caretaker.” I’m much more motivated to act if I feel like it’s for the benefit of people I trust, love, or feel the need to protect.
Then there are the members of what I call my Tae Kwon Do family...these are people I’ve known, trained with, taught, learned from, and lived with for years. They’ve seen me at my lowest and always helped me stand up taller than before. I can’t say enough how near and dear these people are to my heart and how much my bond with each of them informs my belief in martial arts as an instrument of peace. One such member is my good friend Bill, who, shortly after he first started training, suffered a similar injury.
“At yellow belt in Taekwondo I rolled my ankle and broke my leg. I was 39 years old at the time,” Bill remembers.
I wasn’t there on this particular day, but I remember the time vividly. Bill and his son had started taking classes at the dojang I was training at less than 6 months before this incident. He quickly became one of my first “out of class” friends which, is something pretty significant to me. At this point in my journey, I was working on my Master’s degree at Radford University and was coming back to organized Tae Kwon Do after a fairly long break from regular training. The way I compartmentalized my life, and still do to some extent, was that I treated Tae Kwon Do like church. My reverence always made me seem arrogant, uptight, standoffish, or just plain unfriendly in many cases. I never knew that until years later when people who’d come to be some of my best friends let me know so we could laugh about it over rum drinks we’d given silly names to. The point is, Bill was one of the first people to see past that facade, that straight face that I tried to affect in class. He could see who I was beyond the belt and kept pressing me until I opened up more. That was the first time since I was a teenager that I was able to combine the two worlds of Tae Kwon Do and my personal life to good effect.
Bill echoes a similar sentiment when he describes how “Taekwondo came into my life at exact moment I needed it. The sport, the challenge and the people. I love them all. My motivation to keep coming to class was that I started the journey with my teenage son.”
Just as I found great joy in the sport and the people who constitute it, Bill and his son were expanding their own social sphere through Taekwondo. In addition, Bill keys in to this idea of personal motivation, one that I can’t stress enough as being important to this whole injury journey.
“I continued to bring [my son] to every class,” Bill says. “I donned my uniform and did whatever I could do. It wasn't much but I had to show my son that you cant quit because of a set back. I even had to ask the Master to not cater to me and my injury. I told him I didn't want to hinder the rest of the class. Be mindful if you are in a leadership position. These types of setbacks for colored belts can stop them in their tracks if you don't either find or create some form of motivation for them.”
For Bill and for me, the motivation of putting on a brave face for others rings true. He’s a father, I’m a teacher, it just makes sense that our brains would be wired to think that way. But for other students, especially those less experienced, it may not be so easy to keep them in the class, to make them feel like they’re still a part of the community. What’s more, it may not be easy to see the kinds of struggles they’re going through.
“The last part of my recovery was a battle I created for myself. My ankle was weak and my confidence was heavily shaken. The caution I gave definitely did keep me from injuring that leg again, but it also became a sort of crutch. It was an easy excuse to hold back. Even now I'm a little ashamed to admit that the pain of the injury and the healing process created a fear that continues to follow me.”
This fear, hesitance, and shame that Bill discusses is all too common reactions for sports related injuries. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers for this kinds of lingering problems. It doesn’t matter how many sets of sit-ups you do, fear, like stubborn belly fat, doesn’t disappear overnight.
Bill’s phrase “a battle I created for myself” resonates all too well with my own recovery narrative. As I discovered a couple years back after a bike wreck, I tend to use the pain and immobility of an injury as an excuse to disassociate myself. I become a shut-in, usually one who finds ways to “turn my brain off.” The longer this goes on, the more I become accustomed to unhealthy habits and the less I feel motivated to get back on any kind of productive path. I struggled a lot with the filming of “Fourth: Meaning Thunder” for this very reason--my biggest threats are those I imagine.
This is something that I’ve seen happen to even the most mentally strong people I know. Even Bill wasn’t always himself during this period because, like all of us, he was battling his own invisible demons. My Dad is another case like this. In the past five years, I’ve seen him go through boots, crutches, chairs, you name it. Through most of it, he was cracking jokes and being his typical gregarious self. But there were moments, even with him, when I could see the darkness slip into his consciousness, when he let the fear, sadness, and self-pity accompanying limited mobility manifest in his interactions with others. And yet, after the diabetes complications, the degenerative bone disease in his feet, the stroke, the heart attack, the amputations, he’s still giving it his all to be self-sufficient, motivated, and healthy.
So what’s my excuse?
Today, in posting this, I’m resolving to correct this behavior. I will leave my house every morning, I will work in my office, I will exercise to the best of my ability every day, and I will be available for my friends, family, and loved ones. I won’t let this injury defeat me.
Bill reminds us that the most important thing to focus on is the “healing process. Doctors recommend things that are best for your long term health and healing. I can’t stress enough how important it is to follow these guidelines. We don't want to stop training so we push ourselves. When we ignore the doctors advise, it can have long term effects on our body or even slow or stop the ability to fully heal from our injury. Talk to the doctor about ways to continue training safely.”
He then jokes that “Taekwondo and safety aren't synonymous.”
I agree with Bill and with my Dad about taking it slowly, being systematic with the way you reintroduce your body to certain movements and exercises, and taking advantage of the expert medical professionals near you. But I also think that there’s something more important to focus on. Just as I mentioned at the beginning of this post about individual reactions to injury, there are lessons just as personal to be learned from these experiences.
As Bill says, “my injuries have taught me how to train more effectively. I have learned how to take instruction and criticism. I now have clear lines of how hard I can push myself without going too far. The best lessons are the hardest ones. After all, one can’t experience indomitable spirit with some adversity.”
As for me, I’m learning to see differently. Everyone is going through some kind of struggle and until you walk a mile in their crutches you really have no idea what it’s like. I’m learning what it means to be a more empathetic instructor, how to help students (in all types of classrooms) motivated to stay on their path. And, as much as I hate to admit it, I’m learning to ask for help. I don’t like to appear weak and I ESPECIALLY don’t like to be any kind of burden. But, that’s what real friends are for, to remind you that you must find balance in the giving and receiving of social grace.
That’s probably enough rambling for one day. Thanks for listening.
The next time I post in this category I plan on recounting how I got to this point in my training one article at a time. This will also serve as a space for me to ramp up to my 3rd Dan test next year so buckle up!