Size Does Matter

I had the good fortune to sustain a minor rupture of the medial deltoid in my right shoulder last week, and the fun just hasn’t stopped since. One of the young men in the Ferrum College club, who we’ll call Nelson, is rather big; side by side we compare like Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno (minus the green body paint). He’s fun to engage in randori and grappling drills with, precisely because he is so heavy and solid and I am not. For those of you who may not do randori, it’s a borrowing from the Judo folks- think free wrestling from a standing position, with the basic goal being to off-balance the other person and put them on the ground.

The deltoid rupture came after I maneuvered both Nelson and myself into position for a leg reap. I rode a heavy shove back into him, slammed in shoulder first, hooked the leg and cranked away. He started to topple and it felt like a great takedown, until Nelson sat down in the middle of it. With someone my own size, this would have been an opportunity to transition into choking him out or mangling the arm that I had a hold on. But with his bulk, it meant that my shoulder suddenly had to support my body weight and his, all while twisting and dropping. Ow. I can support my own body weight on any limb, but not a combined 400 pounds of what climbers refer to as “shock” weight. Ow. I found out next that grappling a large person on the ground with my shoulder in this state was not particularly effective. My ego may have been kept firmly in check, but the shoulder did not fare so well. Fortunately it turned out to be a relatively minor injury, and Nelson is a very gentle guy who is afraid of hurting anybody. But in the context of the engagement, it was enough to take that arm out of the fight. Not good when someone who far outweighs you is on top of you.

One of the first things that people tend to solemnly inform me of when they ask me about karate is: “size doesn’t matter in the martial arts.” Oh, yes it does. Size matters a lot. Someone Nelson’s size (250+lbs., former High School/College linebacker, with arms the size of my thighs) has one hell of an advantage against anyone he faces, even someone who has trained. Being at least one hundred pounds lighter and 6 inches shorter than Nelson, I am at an obvious disadvantage from the outset. Yes, for argument’s sake, I know that if the encounter described above were to happen in a real conflict, I would be smashing an elbow into his face or locking my grip on his larynx or attempting to cause damage to the knee as soon as he was close enough for a throw. Throws and chokes work best if preceded/accompanied/followed by strikes to delicate areas and joints.

But I’m his teacher, and during this type of training we’re partners- so it wouldn’t do well for me to kick out one of his kneecaps and then extol the virtues of this technique for taking out larger people. We’re also more or less sane individuals- no one that I train with wants to spend six months to a year in rehab because I just had to make a point about “real” stopping power- and I have no desire to ever injure someone to that extent for any reason that I can avoid. I got hurt because of where I had put myself, and what I tried to do once there. It almost worked- most of the time I can get this sort of technique on him, exploiting his mass to drop him. But in this case, he didn’t even have to try to resist- his sheer size and weight did the work, and my stubbornness did the rest.

So what do I take from this experience? Move, dammit! The aforementioned stubbornness often inspires me to wade into larger people and trade shots, work the inside and look for ways to shut them down at their own game. Sometimes that works- and I like to think that it is good training for inside fighting skills, as well as the reality that most people who are a threat to me are probably also larger and more powerful. Empirical observation has borne this out- in most of the unfortunate instances where I have been attacked, it came from the front, and it stayed tight and up-close, and I got hit just as much as I gave. It’s important for martial artists to be able to handle someone who is much larger than themselves in less than ideal circumstances, and a good karate education must address this. But here we have another learning outcome: sometimes you just have to get the hell out of the way (I’m sure when my teacher comes across this he’ll think, “Finally! I’ve only been telling him that forever!” and he has). You might have to move outside to get to the inside. Not very complicated or mystical sounding, but that is the counterpoint to the sadly popular maxim that “size doesn’t matter in the martial arts.” The best technique in the world can still fail in the face of a larger and stronger opponent.

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6 responses to “Size Does Matter

  1. Ah, excellent! A TKRI injury thread; I think we might be here all day.

    Really sorry to hear about your shoulder, Randy, that sucks, and I hope it heals quickly and well. (And I’ll be coming to Virginia to give it a few ikkyos in November!)

    I think it might be worth mentioning that it’s not just the small that are injury prone, but also the unconditioned, the hyper-flexible, the getting-a-bit-older, the tired and the stressed. I always used to think of myself as distinctly NON-injury prone and I was fairly (though perhaps not quite rationally) proud of that. I think my explanation went something along the lines of i) I’m a bit stronger than I look and ii) I’m extremely risk averse. But I’ve been getting too many minor injuries over the last year or so to really make that story work any more….a smashed nose there, a hyper-extended elbow here, a bit of bursitis, a stress fracture, even a broken finger at one point.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that it isn’t always the injuries that seem bad to other people that seem bad from your own perspective. The bursitis in the elbow was nothing much to look at, but it made leaning on my elbow searingly painful … and you might be surprised how many times a day you can unwittingly lean on your elbow.

    Another thing is that there’s the physical damage, and then there’s the psychological effects. A broken finger can sound kind of bad, but honestly, I actually didn’t notice at the time. It started to hurt during class, and when it still hurt at the end, I iced it, taped it and tried to forget it. It became a beautifully swollen and discoloured zombie finger the next day, but quickly recovered and by the end of the week, there was just some residual swelling and pain around the distal joint, which restricted the range of motion, and tended to get inflamed again whenever I punched something soft, or did a lot of randori. But then it stopped improving. I eventually had it x-rayed a few months later and only found out about the break then. But all in all, it’s the first time I’ve ever broken a bone, and honestly, I would have expected it to hurt more.

    On the other hand, getting my nose smashed (with an accidental headbutt) was pretty devastating psychologically, even though it healed up much faster than my finger. For a start, getting it was pretty traumatic. My partner was a 230ish-lb guy whose forehead accidentally collided with my nose, which pretty much felt like my nose got hit by a bullet train, and my first thoughts were i) that my nose was completely flattened across my face ii) that f**K that hurt iii) that I was going to be deformed for life, and – and this is maybe something that’s worth saying though it’s sort of worrying and might surprise a lot of people, and I don’t quite understand it myself, but iv) that this was somehow payback for thinking that I could compete with the guys on their own terms..

    So then physically, there was a lot of blood, and when I finally dared to touch the end of my nose, it turned out that it wasn’t distributed across my face as I’d assumed, but more or less the same shape as I’d remembered. For the next week I had a faint black eye and had to be extremely careful pulling on sweaters but, honestly, the physical effects turned out not to be that bad. But psychologically, I was gun shy for at least a couple of months after that and I went from being someone who felt more or less confident and safe in the dojo, to someone who felt completely the opposite.

    I’ve seen similar things before, but this was really the first time it had happened to me. I remember doing some very light free sparing with a beginner girl when I first joined the club at Wash U. She’d been training for a couple of months when I turned up, and had sort of become used to being the fittest, strongest woman in the dojo; she was confident, she felt safe, and she was enjoying the training. But during the sparring I tapped her on the temple with a roundhouse kick. Though I say so myself (and as she said later) it was very light sparring and it was a very controlled kick and didn’t hurt her physically at all—it didn’t even move her head. But I remember that she burst into tears on the spot. The senior student watching assumed that she’d been hurt and immediately went to check on her, but it quickly became apparent that what she really was was kind of in shock. What she eventually got out was more or less “no, it’s ok, I’m ok, I’m not hurt, but she just kicked me in the head“. She came back to a few classes after that, but not many, and she wasn’t the same.

    Maybe a year or so later I can look back on my own nose-smashing as a useful experience. It’s not good to be sanguine about the consequences of violence; violence is a vicious, nasty, unpredictable, unfair bitch, and it’s good to know that, and know it well, so that you don’t get seduced by the power and the romance of it. But also I hope it might help me as a teacher to recognise that the consequences of my students’ injuries might not be just physical.

  2. “But all in all, it’s the first time I’ve ever broken a bone, and honestly, I would have expected it to hurt more. ”

    You just haven’t broken the right one(s) yet-fingers are just an appetizer on that menu!

  3. There’s also the issue of what an injury does to you in the psycho somatic sense- the body will quickly adapt to restricting movements so as not to cause pain to an affected limb or area, and the mind immediately becomes hyper-alert for situations that will cause more pain/injury. If it is something like a broken long bone in the arm or leg, this might go on for weeks. A broken collarbone (the absolute WORST) or rib will affect any movement you make period, even breathing. Suddenly movement and willingness to commit to movements becomes very restricted.

    So after a student heals from such an injury, there are new habits to overcome. The mind will still restrict the body and send up red flags for movements that might not be problematic any longer. One of the things that nocioception (pain) does in the brain is wire new circuits of information for pain signals- the longer it goes on, the stronger those connections become, and the harder they are to ignore during healing. The student might have a period of discomfort because he/she is getting impulses in the brain that say “stop!!” while the body is saying “no, we’re OK, things are working again.” The complimentary process is emotional- “that really hurt/was shocking to me, I don’t want to ever experience that again, I cannot commit to this movement/activity any more.”

    My habit has always been to train through injuries, which in some cases may not have been the safest or sanest thing to do, but I found it helpful. As long as that is done with common sense, it helps to keep some of those factors from becoming entrenched.

    But getting smashed in the nose still sucks.

  4. Right, so maybe one thing for us to remember is that the sort of students who commit to training seriously (and they’re similar to athletes in this) are very determined people who are likely to try to push through injury and sickness. And we might occasionally need to point out to them that sometimes this is a good idea, but sometimes not.

  5. Planning not to venture beyond the appetisers in the menu of broken bones … but you make it sound delightful. Mmm…collar bone fracture. Yum!

  6. Adam says, Seriously, I am not Mr. Karate.

    In Basic Training in the army, although training through pain and sickness was encouraged and necessary, the First Sergeant told us to not try to be a John Wayne. In martial arts training, one must learn to endure pain and expect to get hurt if one wishes to pursue it as a sport and/or as a realistic method for self protection. Training in Budo is not a rose garden by any means.

    There is a line that needs to be drawn between babying oneself and real injury prevention. Not all of us have a job like Ramon Dekkers (world champion in Muay Thai, who went to Thailand and beat many Thai champs in their own rings), who had to keep going and going nonstop until he finally retired (even after altering his fighting stance and technique to compensate for his injuries).

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