Several years ago, I stood up from one of our computer desks at home, and noticed that my left leg was a little sore. The next day, after flying out to Vegas for a family wedding, my leg was in excruciating pain. After a week of or two of attempting to work through it, I finally went and sought out a physical therapist, who diagnosed me with piriformis syndrome. That diagnosis entitled me to several months of deep tissue massage (the kind that leaves you sweating in agony on the table, not the nice kind), a long road to being able to move any kind of real weight or train, and an on-going dysfunctional relationship with chairs. And an inability to run distances without pain, but I hate running, so I count it as a win.
During my initial meeting with my PT, he asked me if I had experienced any acute pains prior to this injury. I said I hadn't. He nodded and said "Actually, you probably did. But you're an athlete, so you probably ignored it or just pushed through it. If you were a normal person, you would have said 'ow, that hurt', stopped what you were doing, taken a couple of days off, and we wouldn't be having this conversation."
I got to thinking about this some time after seeing my eight millionth (roughly) "Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body" t-shirt. Or maybe it was a Facebook post. Who knows? Either way, I've come to the conclusion that there's something deeply wrong with the way we approach pain as athletes, particularly in the martial arts.
Don't get me wrong. I understand that there is a degree of pain tolerance and pain management that is required to train in the martial arts. We are, ostensibly, learning to fight. To paraphrase the Princess Bride, fighting is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
So yes, learning to persevere through pain is a necessary skill to succeed in the martial arts. I get and appreciate that. I really do. Even in other forms of physical training, there is a level of discomfort that must be accepted in order to achieve great heights. You don't get to a thousand pound deadlift without breaking a sweat, and experiencing some serious discomfort along the way.
I am not suggesting we should avoid all pain, nor that training should never be uncomfortable. That way lies madness and tae bo, both to be avoided.
On the flip side--I have experienced to many issues with both body and soul as a result of my training to be convinced that the methods we teach for pain management are entirely productive or healthy for long term individual growth. When we teach people to just "shut out" or "push through" the pain, what we are really teaching is to ignore the signals that their body is sending out. Now, sometimes those signals might just say "hey, this is kinda hard", but sometimes they might say "hey, your arm is no longer attached to your shoulder, and you might wanna do something about that..."
I think more and more lately about the martial arts and strength training as vehicles for growth and development, and I find that I'm questioning some of the value of what we're teaching. How valuable is all of this tough guy imagery? Where's the balance between coddling people and teaching them a seriously unhealthy mindset?
No answers yet, but I like having questions.