Mixed Martial Arts, Jiu-Jitsu, and other Combat Sports provide a unique experience for people from all walks of life. We previously featured how MMA and BJJ can help battle bipolar disorder here. In this first installment of Grappling with Disabilities, we at FightMedicine.net along with Aaron Lapointe hope to encourage other martial artists and grapplers with disabilities to find how rewarding these sports can be, and if they are already participating, to share their story.
Aaron Lapointe has been a student of the Martial Arts for close to 25 years. He currently holds black belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Judo. When Aaron was seven years old he suffered a brachial plexus injury that rendered his right arm fully paralyzed. He wrote this article hoping other people with disabilities can benefit from grappling and Martial Arts as much as he has.
Helping people with disabilities succeed in the martial arts: A guide for teachers and teammates.
By Aaron Lapointe
Anyone who trains martial arts long enough is bound to encounter someone with a physically disability. Sometimes that person is your teammate. Sometimes that person is your student. In this brief article I’ll give some insight and recommendations as to how you can assist that person in overcoming his or her disability. There are six main points I’d like to convey. Although I reference the martial arts in this article, the concepts and principles I discuss can most definitely be applied to most other sports and activities.
1. Avoid Generalizations: The first thing to keep in mind is that every person with a disability is different. Even two people who share the same disability may have drastically different personalities. Some people with disabilities are tough as nails, whereas others are extremely sensitive and fragile. Some will bring an incredible work ethic to your gym, whereas others will come across as being unmotivated and lazy. Consequently, it’s important to abandon any preconceived notions you may have about a person’s disability. Although it’s always good to use common sense, it’s rarely productive to jump to conclusions.
2. Avoid Labels: People with disabilities sometimes use words like “disabled”, “handicapped”, even “crippled”, when describing themselves. Nonetheless, they may take offense when those same labels are used by others. Consequently, I encourage you to be specific rather than categorical when describing your student or teammate. For example, instead of saying “I have a disabled student who is really good at chokes”, you could say “I have a student with one arm who is really good at chokes.” The later statement is more specific and less stigmatizing.
3. Be Creative: As an instructor it’s your job to help your student work around his or her disability and discover new ways of doing things. I kid you not when I say that my first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructor Julio “Foca” Fernandez taught me a modified one-armed version of EVERY technique he showed the rest of the class. While I don’t expect all teachers to be as passionate or innovative as Foca, I do think it’s important for teachers to be flexible and creative. If you are not interested or qualified enough to help your student overcome his or her disability, it’s probably best to be upfront and make that known as soon as possible.
4. Be Respectful: Even though you may TEACH a student differently, there’s no reason you should TREAT that student differently. Interact with him or her the same way you interact with the rest of your class and hold him or her to the same high standards. Most importantly, make that person earn rank legitimately instead of giving it away out of sympathy. When you train with that person you don’t have to try and mimic his or her disability (e.g., close your eyes, use one arm) in order to create a “more even playing field” in your mind. Doing so may help YOU improve, but it doesn’t necessarily help your partner. Of course it’s acceptable to adjust your speed, strength, and intensity when you spar with that person, but then again you should be doing that with all your training partners, not just with those who have disabilities.
5. Be Patient: Disabilities can be emotionally and physically challenging at times, so don’t expect your student to progress overnight. Some people with disabilities learn fast, whereas others need extensive practice and guidance (refer to point 1). Be prepared for your student to experience frustration and self-doubt during the early stages of training when he or she is trying to figure things out and decide whether or not it’s even possible to succeed in the art. As long as your student has a good work ethic and you promote a healthy and optimistic learning environment, everything should be just fine.
6. Be Mindful of Others: Whenever you adjust your teaching style to benefit a student who is disabled, it’s important to be mindful of how that change affects everyone else. The last thing you want to do is focus so much of your time and energy on this one student that you neglect the rest of your class. Also keep track of who you pair that student with when it’s time for sparring and technique. Unless an advanced student has expressed interest in helping out, it’s probably not a good idea to pair the student with the same person over and over again. Doing so may impede your other student’s training and promote frustration and resentment.
So there you have it. A brief guide to helping people with disabilities succeed in the martial arts. Start implementing these six tips for martial artists and other grapplers with disabilities and I guarantee you’ll make a bigger difference than you could possibly imagine.