Never Waste An Injury: The Psychology of Setbacks in Combat Sports

In All Articles, Blog Posts by Danny Lennon4 Comments


You are progressing on your martial arts journey and greatly enjoying the process.

All the pieces are falling into place. Your growth curve is beautiful. Every day at training you are picking up new skills and identifying new areas to work on. You have the momentum of a boulder rolling down a hill and you are excited about your progression.

With the rate at which you are improving, you see the sky as the limit for your skills. Life is good. Then…


Some body part, that just seconds before in your mind was as indestructible as steel cables wrapped around stone, gets just plain old fucked up. The reality of injury now hits you like that mile-wide piece of iron and rock that made acquaintance with the dinosaurs.

Maybe you got an elbow popped in an arm bar. Or got your ribs banged up from a body shot in sparring. Or caught a guys elbow with your foot while throwing a liver kick. Or you even could simply have been unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of a pair of exhausted guys accidentally falling onto your leg while rolling, resulting in you knee getting smashed to bits.

In combat sports, injuries are inevitable.

If you partake in combat sports to any kind of serious extent, you will get fucking hurt. The reality of engaging in full-contact combat sport is that it is not a matter of if you get hurt, but when.

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There is of course a scale to this. Some injuries will be worse than others. Similarly, there are smarter ways to train and less smart ways to train. However, regardless of training experience, precautions you and your team take, equipment worn, sessions planned, or genetic robustness: injury will come knocking on your door eventually. The meat wagons we operate, after all, are just made of bones wrapped in muscles and skin and contain a whole load of other squishy organic material. The fragile structures which we call “bodies”, that belong to even the best of the best fighters, with the smartest coaches, and with the best genetics, still eventually hit a brick wall and break at some point (consider the rate of fighter pull-outs in the UFC due to injury as a clear example).

So what happens when you do get hurt?


Pretty much as soon I began hard physical training as a 15 year old, I quickly realized the benefits it provided with regards to health and self-discipline. As such I have always trained around injuries and have literally never been sedentary for any period longer that a few days after injuries or even surgeries. Even if my activity was just to spend hours a day slowly walking my dog when nothing else was medically safe.

I always did something.

My mentality is summed up in the perfect Lewie West phrase “never waste an injury”.

“Never waste an injury” – Lewie West

Scientists refer to this acquisition of growth from adversity as “adversarial growth”. In research it is defined as:

“These positive changes share the common factor of struggling with adversity, hence we refer to them collectively as adversarial growth. It is through this process of struggling with adversity that changes may arise that propel the individual to a higher level of functioning than that which existed prior to the event. These positive changes have been labelled post-traumatic growth, stress-related growth, perceived benefits, thriving, blessings, positive by-products, positive adjustment, and positive adaptation.” – Alex Linley & Stephen Joseph 2004

Perception is Everything

It is up to you if you perceive an injury as a problem, or as an opportunity.

You got hurt, and so presuming you do not have the ability to hop into a time machine to go back and change history, let’s just be rational here. There is fuck all we can do to change the injury once it happens. But there are an infinite number of ways we can use the injury to our advantage simply by choosing to look at it that way.

I honestly see every injury as a chance to work on some aspect of my game that had been neglected due to the time and energy demands of being in full training. So as we are unable to change the fact that we got hurt, the only rational outlook to hold is looking at injuries as  a prime chance for growth.

Aggressive Patience

Assuming you are doing all the right things medically, injuries are going to take as long as they are going to take to heal. To be more mechanistically specific, the protein synthesis and/or collagen remodelling and/or bone ossification that needs to take place will take as long as it takes. We can’t force it to heal faster. We cannot rush. Thus, we need to be patient.

However, there is a thin line to toe when it comes to patience. By thinking all we need to do is practice “patience” may allow for passivity to creep into our mentality, thereby causing us to fall into the trap of doing nothing (the art of faffing about). It is for the purposes of avoiding this potential passivity that I want to introduce you to a special type of patience: Aggressive Patience.

Having aggressive patience in the course of an injury rehab period, involves being patient enough to allow the injury time to heal, but being aggressive in what we do with ourselves while we are waiting for our body to take its course. This will ensure we do not to waste the most valuable resource any person has: time.

So what can we do while injured to practice this concept of aggressive patience?

Review The Circumstances

The first step to making the most of our time injured is to review what actually happened to cause the damage.

  1. If we re-injured a place we hurt before we need to take an honest look at what we could have done to avoid this. Did we do the exercises the physiotherapist gave us for as long as we were supposed to do them? Did we rush back too early before fully healed?
  2. If we got hurt in sparring/rolling due to how hard we went, we need to take an honest look at how we train and who we train with. Do we go too hard when we do not need to? Are we training with the kind of training partners who are skilled enough to get good work in without turning spars into fights or taking liberties with the finishing actions of submission attempts?
  3. If we have a chronic issue that came on over time we need to look at our attitude to training. Do we over do it and neglect to take sufficient recovery and rest between sessions? Do we simply ignore niggles with the hope they will go away like an ostrich who buries his head in the sand?
  4. If we were hurt by a fluke occurrence like 2 guys landing on you during rolling we need to look at our training environment and etiquette. Are there too many guys on the mats at one time? Are the newer, less experienced training partners aware of the etiquette in the gym? Could anything be done like getting guys not rolling to stand around keeping an eye out to keep pairs of people grappling separate from each other like I have seen done in certain wrestling rooms.

An honest review of what happened and what caused it may shed light on an area thereby limiting the likelihood of it happening again.


Modified Physical Training

The next step is to look at our physical training. As fighters we are competitive with other people as well as ourselves. We are constantly seeking to improve our skills and approach our training with the goal of improving our performance.

We look to get better striking mechanics and fluidity so we spend hours hitting pads, bags and shadow boxing with definite focus. We want to get our takedowns and submissions tighter and tighter so we drill and drill (and drill and drill and drill) in order to burn the movement sequences into our nervous system. Therefore, in order to maximize our training while injured and get the most out of it, while also keeping it fun, we need to look at keeping this performance-orientated mentality in place.

This ‘performance mentality’ may include things like beating certain running times of ours. It may mean hitting PB’s in the weights room.  Or it may even simply mean gaining more range of motion in a particular position. Whatever we are actually able to do that will benefit our sport once we get back to full health (without aggravating the injury),  we need to get better at it.

Here are some examples of physical things that I have worked on in my own training when banged up, and also with clients who were injured but wanted to keep training:

(DISCLAIMER: Every injury is different and every injury workaround is going to be specific to your own unique situation. These are just examples that have worked for me and my clients who have gotten approval from their physiotherapists/doctors to proceed with modified physical training. It must be made clear however that I do this kind of thing for a living, and so, I probably know a little more than most fighters about how to design modified training programs. As such, if you are serious about your desire to train around your injury without further aggravating it and you have the means, hire a good professional to help you figure it out in order to maximize not just your training but your safety.)

  1. Upper Body Strength: Lower body injuries are simply prime opportunities for us to develop appropriate upper body strength characteristics for our sports. This way when full function is regained and we get back to full training, we will have things in our repertoire like improved grip strength, improved joint health, improved bullet-proofing of the shoulders etc. Both myself and clients of mine have had lower body injuries that allowed us to still do things like modified upper-body strength work with various modalities. I’m talking upper-body weights sessions, training with gymnastic rings, doing extra torso/core work, work specific to increasing neck strength, and unilateral strength-work on the non-injured leg.
  2. Lower Body Strength: Both myself and clients of mine have had upper body injuries that have still allowed us to do things like suitable lower body strength and power work like safety bar squats/lunges/good morning, leg press, machine hack squats.
  3. Energy Systems Development (Conditioning): Energy systems development can also be worked on for the upper-body (i.e. when there is a lower-body injury) through using methods like swimming with a float between the thighs so as to remove the need for kicking (if kicking is problematic), upper body only rowing on the rowing machine, the UBE machine (which is like a seated upper body bike), and upper body/upper body + 1 leg on the Airdyne bike etc. For the lower-body (i.e. when we have an upper body injury) we have also done things to work on energy system development to “build the gas tank” through suitable modalities like the exercise bike and running. On top of developing strength, power, and conditioning we have used upper body knocks to spend time on lower body mobility and flexibility which may benefit a guard game and/or kicking game.
  4. Non-Injured Unilateral Training: On top of all this, there are benefits to simply continue strength training the non-injured arm or leg. Examples of training a non-injured arm would be things like; single arm dumbell bench/floor press, single arm standing cable rows, single arm lat pulldowns etc. We may end up looking like Hellboy with one huge arm and one skinny one but I personally would rather have just one weak side than 2 weak sides. Another bonus to this way of training may come from a strength carryover to the injured arm due to neural adaptations. Carrol et al. (2006) showed a strength gain in the untrained side of 1/4 that of the trained arm when only one arm is trained. This is due to potential improvements in motor neuron output. This basically indicates that it is still possible to make strength gains in the injured side even if we do not train it, simply by training the non-injured side.


The Mental Game

Even if we end up with 2 broken arms, 2 broken legs and in a neck brace there is no fucking reason that we cannot work on our mental game. Here are just 3 aspects of the mental game that we can work on regardless of the injury:

1. Video Analysis Work

Injury means we are going to be spending less time on the mats and in the gym in general. The new found free time may allow us to invest in our ‘video analysis game’. Fighters at every level watch fights, but not every fighter really watches fights. By “really” I am referring to not just seeing a fight as entertainment from which we pick up the odd movement or trick by pure chance, but I am referring to really studying a fight. Treat this as part of you “job” as a figher. While watching fights between elite level guys, we could be taking notes on things like:

  • the way each guy starts the fight with regards to pace and shot selection
  • the shots or feints that they establish early on only to use them to set up traps later on
  • the angles and rhythm changes guys use to manipulate their opponents
  • etc.

There is so much for us to learn from the movement and ring craft of elite level guys, there is a lot we could gain by putting the effort into deep analysis. A big benefit from really studying video may come from our “mirror neurons” which are super interesting to look into if you are also a science goon like me. (Wikipedia will tell you that a mirror neuron is “a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.”)

2. Visualization Work

You may also use this free time to work on your ‘visualization game’. Just because you are unable to actually physically spar or roll, doesn’t mean that you are unable to do those things mentally.

Visualize things like:

  • the timing and rhythm of your combinations
  • the sets ups and grips for your takedowns
  • the sequencing of movements for your submissions
  • etc.

As an example in elite level sport I want to introduce you to Steve Backley. Backley was an elite level Javelin thrower, who 14 weeks out from the 1996 Olympic game ruptured his achilles tendon. This rupture meant he could not do the physical things necessary to throw at an elite level such as sprint, jump, lift, and most importantly: actually throw a javelin. To the average person this may seem like a disaster. Backley however went so deep in his mental preparation he came out of the games with a silver medal just 14 weeks after his achilles tendon rupture surgery, an astounding feat. Watch the video below to catch the full story.

3. Meditation Work

We can use our newfound free time to practice suitable forms of meditation. Meditation and mindfulness practice may improve our ability to observe our thoughts without any emotional attachment as if they were someone else’s and not ours at all. This is hugely beneficial as in today’s world we are bombarded with distraction and stimulus from the media, our phones, and just 21st century life in general. As such, with all this external shit stimulating our simple primate brains, we very seldom take the opportunity to focus our attention inward.

Over time with meditation practice we may learn how to then detach from, and observe, the irrational ape brain. This improved ability to separate from the irrational primal ape self, may then allow us to better manage what the ancient Stoics called “the passions”. The passions are basically emotions and feelings that for the most part do us no good such as anger, sadness, jealousy, and anxiety. Appropriate meditation and mindfulness practice can allow us to start separating from these negatives emotionally and deal with them on a rational, calm level. This may not just aid in improving our martial arts game, but our lives as a whole.

For more information on meditation and its benefits I highly recommend checking out an excellent book called “Waking Up” by Dr. Sam Harris.

Not-So-Obvious Extras

  1. Nutrition Game: Injuries are an opportunity to hone in our nutrition game. When injured and unable to train normally, our caloric expenditure will most likely be decreased. As such, with our energy output decreased, we will need to adjust our energy intake or we may get needlessly fat. On top of this, the newly acquired time may be a chance to learn how to cook, or to explore and experiment with the less talked about aspects of nutrition such as gut health. Our injuries, therefore, are a great chance for us to dial in our dietary manipulation strategies and create some good habits that will benefit us once we return to full training. [Danny’s side note: Perhaps even invest in hiring a performance nutritionist who works with fighters or in a guide to nutrition for fighters ;-)]
  2. Live Not Just The Sword, But By The Pen: Injuries are a chance for us to work on completely different aspects of our personalities. Such aspects are unique to you and may include things like history, science, music, art, philosophy, or wherever your own personal interests lie. Use your new free time to build up your knowledge and expertise in areas that excite you but are completely unrelated to fighting just like Miyamoto Musashi did.
    Musashi was a Japanese swordsman from the 1600’s. In the course of his illustrious career he killed 62 people in sword fights to the death. While he apparently trained like a man possessed (and advocated as much in “A Book of Five Rings”), he also allotted time towards working on his calligraphy, poetry and art skills.

    “It is said the warrior’s is the two-fold way of pen and sword, and he should have a taste for both ways.” – Miyamoto Musashi

  3. Volunteer Coaching: If you are more advanced and experienced in your skills, consider volunteering at your martial arts school to help your instructors teach the kids or beginner classes. Doing so may not only assist your instructors who have given you so much of their time and energy over the years, it may also help you improve your own game as it will remind you of the importance and intricacies of the fundamentals. On top of these benefits, the kids/beginners may hugely appreciate the attention and guidance from someone of experience and so you may end up being a hugely positive influence on someone – you never know what kind of positive impact this may have on somebody’s life.

Maximizing the Enevitable

Roadblocks will be encountered; but it is how we navigate around them. Trips will happen,;but it is about how we stop ourselves from falling over.

Basically, when we get hurt, let’s not adopt a useless “woe is me” victim mentality and let the injuries crush us. Instead, we can use the injury as a chance for self-development. When we get hurt we can simply accept the situation has occurred, and seek adversarial growth by adopting aggressive patience. Overcoming setbacks in combat sports, and life in general for that matter, is about how we use the setbacks to our advantage.

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” – Marcus Aurelius.

- Article written by Ciaran "The Quarrelsome" O'Regan

Ciaran O’ Regan has an extensive background in combat sport; many years of boxing has been followed in more recent times by ventures in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and MMA. Ciaran has a BSc. degree in Sport & Exercise Science from the University of Limerick. He is currently based in the States, training out of Mark Dellagrotte’s Sityodtong gym in Boston when on the east coast or more recently in El Nino Training Centre (home of Gilbert Melendez and Jake Shields) when on the west coast (photo below).


For more ramblings of this nature see Ciaran’s site Quarrelsome Life. You can follow him on social media too:

Click here for details of the Sigma Weight Cutting System for MMA & Boxing.



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