Faced with the prospect of having to sit on the sidelines with yet another injury (fractured thumb), another several weeks’ frustration, of my middle-aged body softening around the edges, of knowing that my cardio is about to slip back into the realm of the average (gasp), I am reminded of a somewhat forcefully-delivered piece of advice that I received earlier this year from one of my favorite coaches. We’ll call him Coach Dieter Strobe (you’ll never guess his real name, don’t bother trying).
I had torn my ACL about 6 or 7 weeks prior. I had also sprained my wrist on the same day. My doc told me to rest for 6-8 weeks for the wrist and a minimum 8 for the knee, upon which I had decided not to receive a surgical consult. At 6 weeks, I decided to “forget” how many weeks it had been since the injury…which I am acutely aware occurred on April 21st.
Man, I was so happy to be back out there. I limped and I smiled through a noon class where I was hosting a friend who wanted to check out BJJ (I’m like a jiu jitsu missionary out there, team). It didn’t feel great and I told myself that I would “take it easy,” which I knew was going to turn out to be another lie that was telling myself.
After that class, Coach Dieter said something to me in the locker room with the straightest of faces (and hairiest), “We all know that you’re mentally tough.”
Cool. Thanks, coach.
“You’re not mentally strong, though.”
Oh, damn. What could that mean, I wondered.
Luckily, Coach Dieter does not mince words and I didn’t have to wait long before he went right for the finish line.
“The difference between being mentally tough and being mentally strong is the difference between fighting through an injury, which we all know that you can do, and knowing when it’s time to shut it down and let yourself heal. You are mentally tough, but you’re mentally weak.”
That hurt a little bit…but I knew that he was right.
The Struggle Within
I am the worst at letting things heal before I unravel a roll of cloth-tape around the swelling in question and head back out there. It’s just: I’m 41. Things hurt all the time. I hear 6-10 cracks from various regions of my body every morning before I’m all the way standing. When do you know? This is the dilemma of men everywhere: “Me not weak! Me strong! Me fight till me dead!”
On top of not wanting to fall on the wrong side of the weak/strong line (which, by the way, literally nobody can see or objectively judge), is the fact that without vigorous and regular exercise, my mood tends to slip precipitously toward anger and depression (exercise regularly outperforms antidepressant drugs in clinical trials). I can get short-tempered and feel unappreciated at home with my wife and kids. My attention becomes scattered and I have a hard time completing tasks.
Mental Strength, it turns out, is not something that you just “tap into.” It is something that you must develop. Not very long ago, I had a daily practice of breathing and meditation that, though I sucked at it for a long time, started to become a clear and undeniable contributor to an improved state of mental well-being; of positivity; of focus and clarity. All of these things are contributors to and facets of-you guessed it-mental strength.
Looks like it’s time to devote a little of what would have been jiu jitsu time to re-establishing some of those habits that I have absently allowed to drop away into my busy wake. This will take some fortitude, maybe some scheduling, perhaps some…..mental strength.
I took Coach Dieter’s advice and sat out another couple of weeks after that class (which wasn’t too hard as I tweaked my back-probably because I was favoring the bad knee). I have already found myself, less than one week into this particular recovery, trying to figure out the best way to tape up this thumb and bargain my way back to work on the mats. “It really doesn’t hurt that bad,” I say to my wife who gives me silent angry admonishments with her beautiful eyes. She knows from almost 20 years of watching me limp through martial arts classes that once I decide that I’m back, only further damage can make me decide otherwise.
Now, thanks to Coach Dieter’s words echoing in the back of my mind…the emptiest part…that I am not only not serving myself physically, but that I am displaying a new kind of weakness-a kind that I didn’t even know existed, but that I now realize has always been one of my biggest.
The newest obstacle on my journey: Mental Strength vs. Mental Toughness.
I have some work to do.