Why do some men fail to take care of their bodies?
I can’t ignore it any more. My knee is hot, swollen, rigid and extremely painful. I’ve been training through this for months, hoping it would fix itself; but it’s suddenly blown up, and I’m scared.
The osteopath is concerned, and bans ALL training of any kind for a few weeks. I’m gutted, but follow his advice. After all, I want to practice martial arts into old age; so it makes sense to keep my body in good condition.
I train at two dojos. The smaller club tends to be sensible and enlightened about things like this, with a more nuanced understanding of training around rather than through injury. No one questions my decision to take a break from training.
But the reaction of the other, larger club is interesting. These are very kind men, who help and support me to learn and grow; and generally care for me like a sister. I’m pretty sure I could even turn to most of them if I had a personal problem, and they would do their best to help.
Unless the problem is a severely injured joint which I need to rest . . . ?
In which case, to my surprise, it feels like no one really gets it; and that my choice to follow professional advice not to train for a few weeks is seen as a bit self-indulgent and over the top.
The sensei says reassuringly: just come to class anyway. You can leave out the toughest bits and practice weapons at the side of the mat. He himself has such bad knees he can’t kneel down or take low stances any more. He seems bemused and even a little hurt when I decline this suggestion.
I meet up with some of the guys while I’m off. They admire the neat, skillful workmanship of my professionally strapped-up knee; and swap “hilarious” stories about their own destroyed knees and other long-term injuries, which make me feel nauseous and sad.
I laugh along at their stories, feeling small and excluded. My injury story seems so trivial for its lack of attention-grabbing or “heroic” elements. As the only woman in the club, I’m constantly trying not to perpetuate stereotypes about women being weaker and less capable or resilient. But right now, I feel I’ve failed, and shown my true, frail colors at last.
The men are full of well-meaning advice as well as stories . . .
One black belt says: oh you should just train! These physios don’t know what they’re talking about half the time. Mine told me never to do martial arts again at one point because of my back! But he was wrong (laughs)—my back is nothing to do with martial arts!
This guy has such a bad (and worsening) back, he struggles with being thrown. Like our sensei, he can’t kneel down easily; so when we’re lined up watching a technique being demonstrated, he normally just stands instead.
Another man (young and injury-free) says brightly, Don’t worry. You always get aches and pains from a training process or sport! You’re doing so well—it’s a pity if you’re going to miss so much training.
A brown belt laughs and says: ahh you’re going to be like me now! When my knee blows up it’s so painful! There’s nothing you can do about it; just wait for it to go down each time. His bad knee and bad foot affect his whole life, not just his training. I feel sorry for him; but don’t understand why he doesn’t take a break and let them heal.
How can it be such a badge of honor to disrespect and destroy your body?
Our club is one of a group of dojos. Last year the annual group trophy went to one guy whose body is a wreck, because of his dedication and commitment to training through injury all year. I was appalled at the message this gave out.
I can’t generalize about all men, or indeed all women, based on the tiny subset of humanity I know and train with. I know many women who also abuse and damage their bodies for the love of their sport; or in other insidious ways such as following harmful diets, or ignoring serious medical symptoms.
I’m not exactly blameless myself either; otherwise my knee would never have got this bad.
Worryingly, a 2014 study by Safe Kids concluded that young sportspeople both male and female were affected by this kind of culture. It found that 42 percent of the 1,000 kids surveyed had downplayed or hidden injuries so that they could keep playing. And 53 percent of 1,000 coaches said they’d felt pressure to put injured players back in the game.
Conversely, I know plenty of men who treat their bodies well; and take a sensible approach to protecting themselves if injured. As mentioned above, I train at one dojo which seems to have a more refined understanding of how to manage injury.
But still, I train in very much of a men’s world; and I’ve seen all too much of this over the years. Good men bearing sickening pain and injury; and making it worse, because they feel some imperative to train through it. Men who affectionately encourage and inspire each other to do the same. Occasional men who can’t get onto the mat without painkillers.
I think: in the end this is supposed to be enjoyable. Where’s the fun in doing something when it’s hurting and damaging you this much?
Myriam Miedzian sees this process begin in childhood. She deplores the practice of teaching boys who do sport to endure pain and play with it without complaining:
When a high school football player […] plays with injuries that if aggravated could lead to permanent damage, he is learning much more than to withstand pain. He is learning to sacrifice his body unnecessarily and to hide all feelings of fear and vulnerability, however warranted they may be. He is also being taught to sacrifice the bodies of others. For if he is willing to risk serious injury to himself, them why shouldn’t he be willing to risk injuring others seriously? If he is not allowed to feel sympathy for himself when he is injured or justifiably frightened, why should he feel empathy for anyone else?
When boys have to hide all feelings of fear and vulnerability in order to be accepted as “real men,” they are learning to take unnecessary risks that will endanger their and others’ health and lives.—Myriam Miedzian. Boys will be Boys (2002). Lantern Books. Page 201
Is this what’s going on in my own dojo? Do these kind, caring men have some kind of emotional blind spot when it comes to injury, which prevents them from truly empathizing or caring about a dojo colleague who genuinely needs to rest or risk permanent harm?
So there seems to be a lot more at stake than just the ability to play a favorite sport without discomfort. Miedzian’s wider point about compassion for self and others brings in a whole new dimension.
This issue also links to the fact that men tend to be less willing than women to consult health professionals; which may in turn be one factor contributing to men’s shorter average life expectancy.
And as gender equality continues to flourish, unless this culture is checked, it may regrettably become an issue which increasingly affects girls and women as much as boys and men.
Also by Kai Morgan
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