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Developing Physical Self-Awareness in Martial Arts

Updated: Sep 24, 2019

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One of our professors has been overheard to say this in our Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) Basics class: “The White Belt is the most dangerous person on the mat." This is not meant to discriminate or look down on White Belts. The truth is, one of the common reasons why people get hurt is due to lack of understanding and awareness of oneself and what the human body is capable of.

For example, our FaMA Fit coach, Kirstie Gannaway, once injured her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) years ago, while going through intense wrestling technique drills. “That morning (before the injury), my knee had been feeling stiff. This stiffness was caused by a tight iliotibial (IT) band, but I didn’t know it at that time. In fact, I didn’t even know what an ACL was at that time either! Unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way.” Given enough understanding about how to mobilise and warm up a tight IT band, Kirstie could have prevented the injury.

True enough, it is hard to be aware of how your body works and what it needs to stay safe, especially if you are new to fitness and martial arts. So how do you get started?

1. Learn to identify what your body is not comfortable with

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Candy Heng - FaMA Purple Belt and Kids BJJ Assistant Instructor

You may be blessed with hyper-mobile joints. Or you may not. Either way, don’t find out the hard way by not tapping! “Not knowing your limits can be very dangerous,” says our Kids BJJ Assistant Instructor and BJJ Purple Belt, Candy Heng. Don’t wait till you are in pain, or hear an unpleasant sound in your limbs, to tap - it might be too late.

Our professors often advise new students to tap whenever they find themselves in a position that is too uncomfortable for them. This is not limited to tapping to submissions. New practitioners can find certain positions unfamiliar, and start to feel hyper-stress or anxiety at that moment (having someone sit on your chest or hug you tightly, for instance, is not considered ’normal’ outside of combat sports).

During circumstances like these, tapping out is perfectly okay. Doing so is a mindful practice of identifying bad situations, and taking the initiative to ask for help or get yourself out of it. This is a great application for many areas of life, not just for martial arts training.

2. Work on strength and conditioning

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Nevash Nair - FaMA Purple Belt and Kids BJJ Assistant Coach

Nevash Nair, another Kids BJJ Assistant Instructor and BJJ Purple Belt, was fortunate enough to rehabilitate his own injuries under knowledgable strength and conditioning coaches. It was through these experiences that he was able to understand the right way to warm up for any sport, fix movement issues, and get stronger without getting tired. “A proper strength and conditioning program reduces injury,” he adds. 

Be sure to work with a strength and conditioning coach who has your best interests in mind, and will help you meet your goals in a safe and consistent way. A good place to get started on strength and conditioning is at our FaMA Fit classes.

3. Have a safe training etiquette

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Charles Mak - FaMA BJJ Brown Belt - rolling with BJJ World Champion, Bruno Malfacine.

What does this mean? It means not attempting techniques which could be risky to not only yourself, but also your training partner. Our BJJ Brown Belt, Charles Mak, recalls an incident many years ago at another gym, when a training partner pulled a dangerous standing submission on him, causing him to sustain a neck injury. “Leave the risky stuff for competition,” he advises, “Prioritise your partner’s safety - and yours - during training.”

4. Help each other out

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Scott Calver - FaMA BJJ Black Belt

Building a mutually respectful training relationship with your classmates can also help each other grow in the sport together, in a safe and pleasant way. Martial arts can seem like a competitive, aggressive, and individual-focused sport when you are focused on the tournament or fight aspect. In reality, “It is a team activity,” says our FaMA Black Belt and Scott Calver, who has trained in judo, rugby, and BJJ for over two decades.

“You can never be physically or mentally defeated in training if you regard your training partners as teammates helping one another to achieve your goals, and not as opponents you are competing against,” he adds.

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Birds of a feather flock together. Scott and Professor Thiago being silly geese.

Friendly intensity in sparring is always good, but look out for one another and don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel like something is not right, or too much. Great training partners can respect that and will take the necessary actions to make the training experience more enjoyable for both of you.

5. Rest when you need to

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Not feeling up for training due to exhaustion? Find out why, and listen to your body by making necessary adjustments to your activities.

"Some of the major causes (for exhaustion) are overtraining, lack of quality sleep and a poor diet,” says Kirstie, “If you have a hectic work or school week, then think about cutting your training sessions down from five days a week to three.”

“If you have average genetics and a lot of life responsibilities, you have to adjust expectations and train accordingly,” adds Charles, who is also a father of two with a full-time job.

“Don’t be afraid to take rest days,” concludes Nevash, "It is better to take a week off than a year.”

Having self-awareness is not a skill that is limited to your martial arts training. When you practice self-awareness in all aspects of your life - from exercise, to work-life balance, to community and relationships - you are able to manage challenging moments in healthy ways, minimise situations where you can get hurt, and enjoy the journey for the long run. We at FaMA - Fitness and Martial Arts are fortunate that we get to practice this together, on and off the mats!


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FaMA - Fitness and Martial Arts Established in 2016, FaMA is a world-class martial arts training facility located in the heart of the Central Business District in Singapore. Walking distance from Clarke Quay and Fort Canning MRT stations, FaMA’s main goal is to help people improve their lives through martial arts regardless of age or athletic capability. Our Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), Muay Thai, Fitness and Kids Martial Arts programs are led by experts in their respective fields. Whether it is weight loss, a fun workout, camaraderie, competition training, or just to break a sweat, FaMA has something for everyone.

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