Black Belt Brain

Musings on movement and the mind.

Without Respect, It's Just Violence

What should football, hockey, and karate have in common?

My experiences in martial arts have had a huge influence on me. The concepts of self-discipline, focus, body awareness and respect for others, along with the overall health benefits have been usefully applied in many aspects of my life. This influence began back when I was 13 for no better reason than my older brother did karate. I'd like to say there were more lofty reasons, but really it was just because it seemed like a cool thing to do at the time and I thought I would give it a try. For the past 30 years I've just kept on trying to improve myself through daily training. I have studied several styles of karate (initially Chito-ryu, now Yuishinkai) as well as weapons-based martial arts (Ryukyu Kobujutsu). While in my teen years and early 20s I used to participate in sport karate but about 20 years ago I shifted focus away from sport martial arts and fully onto training for self-defence and improvement.

I bring all this up as a kind of background on me and my martial arts experience because it relates to the main focus of this post: respect and the relation to avoidable injury in sport. Despite doing martial arts for over 3 decades (including full contact fighting with protection) I have never been seriously injured or concussed. A lot of that has to do with the kind of protection we used to use for sport fighting: a kind of modified kendo armor with face grill, chest protectors, and modest hand pads. It also had a lot to do with attitude. There were 2 well understood things about the modest padding we used. It wasn't going to be safe or effective for reckless techniques and it was meant to protect THE OTHER PERSON. Sure, it's obviously a two-way street and something that you wear that protects your opponent will also protect you. But it's more than that, it's a frame of reference based upon mutual respect.

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Which brings me to concussions in contact sports like football and hockey. I love watching NFL football and NHL hockey. They are both massively entertaining sports with lots of speed and skill on display mixed in with ferocious physical power. And sometimes a complete disregard for safety showing no regard or respect for the opponent. I think that the safety equipment in both those sports, most notably the helmet in football and the elbow pads in hockey, have now become things that are now offensive equipment, not equipment to protect. A mind set which includes mutual respect could help offset so many problems. Yet, this is not the case as many hits in both football and hockey are clearly occurring when opponents are in very vulnerable positions. Significant injuries-including many concussions-have been common outcomes.

Concussion is a serious occupational hazard in contact sports like hockey and football. In the NHL it seems like we read about another concussion almost every week. In 2011 the star player Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins received a strong shoulder-to-head impact (helped along by the hard plastic shoulder pad worn by the other player) in a blind-side hit. He looked pretty unsteady-concussed let's say-when he got up and skated back to the bench after the hit. But he was cleared to return to play. Unfortunately, less than a week later he was hit again, this time against the boards. He clearly had another concussive incident, was knocked out of playing for the entire season including playoffs. He has yet to return to full game action. In football, concussion is also a huge issue. In 2009, the Associated Press did an informal survey of 160 NFL players about their experiences with concussion. Just under 20% of them said that they had played down the severity or not disclosed their own concussions to their teams. A staggering half of the players indicated they had experienced a concussion, a result that matches an earlier report from the Canadian Football League in 2000.

Head impact that produces a concussion involves a cascade of events in the brain that leads to a problem of energy supply and demand. This can causes the neurons in the brain to fail. An increase in energy demand occurring along with reductions in blood flow can lead to death of brain cells. The majority of neurons that survive take days to recover from this massive disruption and problems with memory and overall "fuzziness" are outcomes of what is going on down at the cellular level. Several weeks can be needed before the neurons return to their normal levels of activity. I can personally vouch for these effects due to an accident last year. I had a freak accident tripping over an uneven surface in a darkened movie theatre and crashed headfirst into a concrete wall. For the first time in my life I was knocked completely unconscious and suffered a "mild" concussion. During the next 10 days I felt like I was 2 steps behind everything that was happening to me and was just kind of muddling through everything. I was tired all the time and had difficulty concentrating. Very slowly it went away, but upon reflection I realized later that about 2 months of my life were a bit fuzzy and I have difficulty recalling clearly many events during that time.

While my concussion came from a freak accident, many of the sports related concussions can't really be called accidents. A lot could be avoided with less reckless play. With fewer instances of "finishing the check" or "intimidation hits". This is the big problem for me when it comes to sports and logical consistency. Sports have rules. In fact, the very existence of the rules defines them as sports. In martial arts contests-the sports aspects-there are rules too. But traditional martial arts has a kind of code of conduct related to respect and courtesy. In Japanese martial arts traditions respect and courtesy are included together in a principle called "rei". In 1938 martial arts icon Gichin Funakoshi wrote "...combat methods that lack rei are not martial arts but merely contemptible violence..." I suggest including all contact sports under this umbrella of courtesy and respect. If we could possibly extend this idea of respect and courtesy to all aspects of our lives as human beings, I don't think we'd have too much to regret and an awful lot to appreciate and celebrate.

© E. Paul Zehr (2011)

E. Paul Zehr, Ph.D., is professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria and author of "Becoming Batman" and "Inventing Iron Man."

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