An Aging Martial Artist Returns to the Fray

After a multi-year time-out from training in the martial art of aikido, I returned to the  dojo a few weeks ago. I will confess to some anxiety about resuming training, as I am no longer the young, seemingly indestructible force of nature that I was when I began training in earnestness 20-odd years ago. As one of one of my older dojo mates told me several years ago, at 50 years you have reached the age when if you wake up in the morning and nothing hurts, something is seriously wrong.

Between my last visit to the dojo and this one, I crossed that cryptic half-century borderline, and in addition to the miraculous and immediate attainment of great wisdom, I also acquired the aforementioned aches and pains. I think, in general, these are the dues paid by anyone who has led a fairly active life -- and, of course, the gains in terms of health, longevity and mental outlook far and away offset the intermittently achy knee or shoulder which will never be exactly pain-free.

But my prior years of training had left their mark. While aikido is generally considered one of the "softer" martial arts, anyone who has watched or participated in an aikido class can understand how injuries might arise. At any given point in time, you can be thrown in the air,  have joints torqued in entirely unnatural directions or get whacked upside the head by failing to correctly implement a technique. While largely safe, aikido remains an effective martial art, and a certain level of injury must be tolerated, just as with any other martial art, or many sports, for that matter.

Which is not to deny that my tenure on the training mat has been a little more injury-prone than most. I count among the dents I accumulated over the years a broken rib, a separated shoulder, two concussions, a broken toe and a nose so thoroughly smashed that for a time I resembled a cubist painting. All of which led me, some time after I had been awarded my shodan (first level black belt) degree, to take a break (so to speak) from training. I was just too dinged up to continue, and a few off-the-mat injuries thoroughly doused whatever remaining fire I had for training.

But the call of the dojo never fully left me, and has gradually been growing stronger. So I decided it was time to put feet to mat, but before I went, I wanted to know what -- if any -- research had been done on injured athletes returning to their sports. There is, in fact, not much.

One article in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine had this to say:

"Sport psychology research, however, reveals that athletes may be physically healed and rehabilitated but not necessarily psychologically prepared to return to competition. Discussing his return from injury, Earvin Magic Johnson commented, 'But I had lost a lot of confidence during the long layoff. And for a long time after I returned, I still held back. All I could think about was protecting my knee from another injury.' As Johnson's comment suggests, making the transition from rehabilitation to training and competition may not be an easy one for injured athletes. Until recently, the psychologic aspects of returning to sport from injury have unfortunately been largely neglected."

What little research does exist, shows that there are typically four major concerns of returning athletes: Competency, autonomy, relatedness and re-injury.

Competency is your ability to perform, and for any athletic person -- even when you are in a non-competitive environment, such as an aikido dojo -- one's abilities are going to be paramount. I know that I questioned whether I would have the cardiovascular stamina to participate in a hard class and the flexibility needed to perform the techniques fluidly and with less risk of injury. While my time away from the dojo had included a lot of miles on the bicycle, I knew that aikido would tax my systems in a different way.

Autonomy was not so much an issue for me, as I had no coaches or sponsors pushing me into returning. Nonetheless, this is a very real issue that many athletes do face, and not just in the pro leagues, either. For youth athletes, one's parents can be considered as your sponsors, and the pressure from parents and family to return to play can be forceful and unrelenting.

Relatedness is an important factor, for even those involved in solo pursuits. Athletes sidelined by injury may acutely feel their disengagement from their team or the rest of their sporting fraternity. Loss of membership in that group, and alienation from it, can serve as both a spur and a hurdle to returning. One may seek to become part of that elite group again -- yet fear that you will no longer be accepted because of your absence, or your impaired competency.

A final concern is the fear of re-injury. Particularly when a severe injury takes one out of participation, the fear of being injured again can cripple an athlete's ability to perform, regardless of their physical state.

So how can these handicaps be overcome?

First, if you have a coach, good communications about what you both see in store for the future is necessary. In my case, I had a discussion with my sensei of the past dozen years. We talked about why I left, and what some of my concerns were in returning. I was reassured by this conversation that a return would be possible -- though it was equally clear that the nature of my practice would have to change.

A second task is to find a role model. Search out other athletes who have done the same thing you are attempting, and learn from their experiences. Love him or hate him, cyclists have a phenomenal role model in the form of Lance Armstrong. In the martial arts, one cannot ignore the story of George Foreman, who returned to boxing after retirement, and captured the world heavyweight title for the second time nearly 20 years after he first won the belt.

Another important step to take is to get very, very clear on your motivations for returning. If it is to regain a championship or title, or match an older personal best, an honest personal inventory may save you from re-injury. It is best to be clear in your understanding, as I was, that you will be bringing a different game than you had before.

For my part, such introspection proved invaluable, as it gave me a good understanding of how my practice would change, and what I could expect from myself.

So far, this approach has worked well. I was -- shall we say -- a bit tender after my first class, but I quickly got used to the aches and pains of regular training. There have been a couple of interesting surprises, though.

First was the recognition that I hadn't lost as much as I thought I had, mentally, at least. The throws and other techniques still flow nearly naturally, to the extent that they ever did. Interestingly, a few times, my brain kicked into a weird overdrive where, instead of doing the throw that I intended, or was instructed to do, I went into an entirely different technique without consciously intending to. Perhaps I was responding to some subtle variation in the attack which made the alternative technique more attractive; or, perhaps, my mind just slipped a cog. The jury is still out on that one.

More expected was the sensation of trying to do things that my mind knew how to do, but that my body had simply lost the physical capacity to perform. This is most notable when being thrown, as I knew how I wanted the roll to go -- I just couldn't get my body to do it. I know I'll get there eventually; I just need more time on the mat.

Other factors have been playing a role as well, particularly nutrition. Getting my nutrition back to spec to aid my return has also been a priority. Again, the nutritional approach that served me well before The Great Divide is not the same nutrition which is working now.

I would encourage anyone who is considering returning to their field of dreams to give me a a call. Together, we can help smooth the transition from reformed couch potato to athlete.

And if you get the sudden urge to train in Aikido -- there is no better place to go the Litchfield Hills Aikikai. It is blessed with an excellent sensei, and a helpful and welcoming group of students.

Dr. Avery Jenkins is a chiropractic physician specializing in the treatment of people with chronic disorders. He can be reached at or by calling 860-567-5727.