Hurt, Pain, Agony

My older brother and I were on a swim team when we were kids. One year, someone gave him a book for his birthday: The Science of Swimming, by James Counsilman, the renowned college and Olympic swimming coach. Never wanting to be left out, I read over my big brother’s shoulder, long enough to see the famous “hurt, pain, agony” scale. scienceofswimming What I got from it was that top-level competitive swimmers— and maybe we could generalize to other athletes— were those who were willing, under the guidance of a good coach, to endure increasing levels of hurt, pain, and finally agony, in order to complete their training exercises in the desired time or at the desired level of intensity.

Turns out I wasn’t willing to endure the agony of jumping into the 60-degree Fahrenheit spring-fed municipal pool at 7 a.m., for a coach who took no notice of the younger kids. But years later when I discovered martial arts, I loved working out so much, I would have endured just about anything.

I was scrawny and out of shape when I started, so I was in for some serious pain. After hundreds of kicking reps— especially side thrust kicks, which I really wanted to master— I developed an intense aching in my hip joints. One morning I woke up barely able to walk. I hobbled around a bit, and as the joints warmed up I felt better, so I got on my bike for an easy ride. Riding took the pain away completely. I enjoyed a good cruise, but when I slowed down and came to a stop in front of my dorm, my joints seized up and I was unable to get off my bike. Literally: I could not move. I could not lift one leg. All I could do was balance there stiffly with one foot on the ground, hoping not to wobble and be zapped by severe pain.

Inwardly, I was near panic, fearing I’d have to be hauled away in an ambulance and be unable to work out again. Outwardly, not wanting to let on, I nodded at passers-by and hoped they assumed I was waiting for someone. And I was— hoping against hope one of my close buddies would come by so I could ask for a bit of help. Thankfully this did finally happen. I took a delivery of aspirin, chatted a few minutes, and eventually was able to get off the bike and hobble back to bed. The pain decreased over the next week, and I came through the experience with the conviction (perhaps an unwise one) that no amount of pain should ever stop me.

Over the years I endured all manner of pain and injury, as I believe all serious martial artists of my generation have done. But that brings me to the point of this post, which is to ask, What is required of the modern-day amateur martial artist?

People join nowadays for a variety of reasons, and come in at all ages. I run a community dojo, not a college club; I welcome anyone who comes with a sincere desire to try. I know that few of them will be willing to endure the kind of abuse my buddies and I took. (In retrospect, I don’t think everything we did was altogether wise.) The majority, I suspect, are people who would not return to class if they suffered the kind of hip pain I initially endured.

On the other hand, it’s a rough activity, and it’s meant to push one’s limits. So…

How do we push people without requiring that they be maniacs like ourselves? How do we convey the difference between necessary discomfort and needless injury? How do we manage classes that may include both young, athletic types ready to go hard, and older bodies whose maximum capacity might not match up? How do we deal with students who back off at the first sign of any pain; or, on the other hand, with students who try to continue no matter the injury?

We instructors deal with these questions, one way or another, as we must; but we’re sometimes ambivalent, and not always happy with the results. Any thoughts?


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