The Value of Injury

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so

– Hamlet, William Shakespeare

If you’re naive enough to believe you can get the best out of your body (and, therefore, your life) without the risk of injury at some stage, you’re living in a fantasy. Either that or you’re happy to settle for never finding out just what you can do. Injury is a part of physical training, whether it be in the field of fitness, sport or art, and the more you practise the more you will expose yourself to the possibility of it.

And that’s a very good thing. Why? Because if we can shift our dialogue with the reality of injury just a little we can discover that injuries are actually powerful opportunities to become even better practitioners.

Injuries reflect the territory. If you’re a jumper – whether high, long, triple or parkour – sprained ankles and hyperflexions are going to happen on occasion. Climbers are quite likely to strain finger tendons or ligaments at some stage. Lifters might very well encounter back injuries. Rugby players are at risk of almost every injury you can imagine, and horse riding is one of the most dangerous sports out there. Acute injuries range from bumps and bruises to breaks, dislocations and sprains, and overuse injuries include chronic inflammations, cartilage damage, arthritis and ligament ruptures. The hard truth is that by using the body for any dynamic or athletic pursuit you’re at risk of encountering forces and loads that might exceed your capacity to tolerate, and if that happens then injury can occur. That’s just the way it works.

The real problem with injury, however, is not the fact that it occurs but our almost automatic negative response to it. Most people colour it as a ‘bad’ or ‘unfortunate’ experience immediately, tending to rail against it with anger, frustration and self-pity. Pain sucks, of course, but pain passes. The deeper issue is how we disassociate from it as if the injury is somehow unrelated to our choices and actions in our training, some kind of random and unwanted demon that just decided to inflict itself upon us for its own evil shits and giggles. And our friends and colleagues will reinforce that view with sympathetic commentary like ‘Oh, that’s such tough luck!’ or ‘Wow, that’s really unfortunate for you’. We’re conditioned to think that injury is an unnatural and unnecessary blight on what would otherwise be a perfectly healthy training career or fitness lifestyle.

Not true.

Injury as Feedback

Injury is neither good nor bad, and it’s almost never random. Injury is simply feedback, that’s all. It’s your body’s way of telling you, in a manner that you cannot ignore, that you are doing something wrong. Now, what that ‘wrong thing’ might be has almost infinite variation, of course, and it’s up to the injured party to find a way of identifying exactly what went/is going wrong in their training to have led to the injury, whether acute or chronic. But what’s certain is that every injury is telling us something important about what we’re doing: Perhaps that we tried something beyond our current level of skill or strength? Perhaps that we were pushing too hard for too long? Perhaps that we didn’t warm up properly? Perhaps that our training is creating movement blocks and imbalances and therefore increasing the chance of injury? Perhaps we were too distracted to maintain sufficient focus to complete a particular movement safely?

What’s for sure is that there are no injury demons out there running amok looking to strike us down out of the blue. It’s not just bad luck or random occurrence, and injuries aren’t malignant forces that exist to ruin our otherwise happy lives. They are the natural result of sub-optimal performance, and that’s all. They aren’t good or bad, they’re just raw, objective feedback, plain and simple. And that’s where their true value comes in – because if we learn to put aside our negative emotional response to injury, and stop trying to blast through them (or, worse, ignore them) through sheer willpower, we can see them as incredibly powerful teaching tools specifically engineered for our own personal growth and improvement.

Every injury carries within it the recipe for its own antidote and, further, the seed of your own development. Think about it: a sprained ankle is just feedback that the connective tissue structure of the joint was unable to bear the forces being tolerated by the joint – this could be caused by insufficient mobility, strength, flexibility or coordination in either the ankle or some other part of the body or by something as simple as a poorly chosen shoe for complex movement training. Whatever the reason, you now have the opportunity and the motivation to identify that insufficiency and work on it so that not only do you recover but you go on to improve your body’s capacity to deal with those forces and therefore improve as an athlete. Without that injury you may never have learned about that weak link in your training, and so might never have addressed it, remaining sub-optimal as an athlete, performer, traceur, whatever. The injury is a sign-post to the path we need to take in order to become a better version of ourselves.

Rarely Random

Ok, so maybe the odd freak accident occurs during physical training, yes. In impact sports such as rugby you can’t control the actions of the other 29 people on the pitch, so there can be factors that we don’t have complete control over (of course, one could go on to argue that it is the players who choose to be on the pitch exposing themselves to those forces and so they should include that within their conditioning preparation). However, in my experience, the vast majority of injuries, whether acute or chronic, have a clearly identifiable cause and most could have been avoided had we responded to the signals earlier. Most, not all: some injuries are an almost inevitable products of years spent building certain imbalances and predispositions which then manifest when the body is asked to do something which goes against those predispositions. That ’cause’ might not be obvious to the individual who has simply done what he/she was told to do by coaches/tradition/Instagram – but it’s still the cause.

Example: Spend years deconstructing the holistic intelligence of your nervous system through endless repetition of isolated and limited movement patterns (read Nautilus machine training) and then ask that deconstructed body to complete a truly functional poly-axial complex-dynamic movement task (read parkour, acrobatics, capoeira, etc) and there’s a good chance you’re going to come unstuck at some point.

Another example: Build huge amounts of strength in sagittal plane movement and then ask that same body to explode into the frontal plane at speed and absorb the resulting force – result: goodbye knee ligaments.

The point is that most injuries have a cause that goes back to how we have developed our bodies and our movement skills over time. Resilient athletes, in my experience, tend to be those who have a broader range of movement variability and a capacity for complex-dynamic movement at speed, and those who build a balanced body through sensible, gradual exposure to holistic movement tasks. It makes perfect sense of course: the more movements your body is happy to carry out, the less likely you are to encounter a force/load that you’re unprepared for.

Emotional and Psychological Causes of Injury

In my experience there is always a deeper cause for every significant injury.  Many years ago I began delving deeper into the injuries of practitioners and athletes I encountered, and it became clear that there were underlying psychological or emotional reasons behind many injuries that may not have been so obvious in the moment or even apparent to the practitioner and/or their coach. In fact, the more I asked these questions the more it became apparent that this was incredibly commonplace.

True example:

Me: ‘Why did you bash your knee?’

Athlete: ‘Oh, I just missed the jump and came up short. Shit happens. Next time I’ll remember to use more power in the take-off.’

Me: ‘Really? How has your day been?’

Athlete: ‘Oh, I had a tough day actually. Had an argument with my girlfriend and I can’t get it out of my head. If I’m honest I wasn’t even going to train tonight because I was worried I’d be too distracted… I knew I should have sat this one out.’

Me: *Smiles

I would argue that the root cause of this injury was that the athlete was not fully focused on his training during the session and wasn’t able to meet the attention demand of that particular jump. That’s an emotional/psychological cause behind a physical injury. The injury is still feedback though, if the athlete knows how to inquire deeper of himself and realise that training complex skills without adequate focus and attention is unwise. That’s a fantastic thing to learn from that particular piece of feedback.

Some psychological reasons are even more obvious: the lifter who packs on the iron because it’s a full gym and he wants to impress the girls, then sprains his back on a huge deadlift attempt. The immediate cause of that injury was insufficient capacity for the load and maybe inadequate form, but the underlying reason was ego, plain and simple. We can all fall prey to moments in which our ego or pride wants us to push further or harder, and injury can often result in these situations – and the feedback takeaway is to learn not to be governed by such psychological forces. Obviously this rabbit hole goes a lot deeper, but for now it’s enough to be aware that the cause of an injury might not be simply physical or technical in origin.

The Value of Injury

Nobody wants to be injured, and I certainly wouldn’t wish injury on anyone. It’s far, far better to think ahead and train in such a way that you prevent or avoid injuries, managing the risks effectively and efficiently. But even the most considered training programme will still expose you to the possibility that something you do will be sub-optimal and an injury might be the result. What matters then is how you view the injury and the whole process that precedes and follows it.

Try to see injury in a larger context: identify the immediate cause and try to discover any underlying reason there might be, and then address both. It takes a shift of mindset to see injury as simply useful feedback that, if listened to and learned from, can make us not only better practitioners of whichever discipline we pursue but also more resilient human beings in general. Every injury carries a powerful lesson within it. In fact, every injury is the lesson. That’s the value it holds for us.

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