Martial Arts Instructors Shocking Response To Student’s Injury

Martial Arts Instructors Shocking Response To Student’s Injury

One of the things I’m most proud of with MATA is how students and staff reach out to us for help on a variety of topics.

Last week, we were contacted by an adult student who was injured by another student. The injured student’s attempt to engage the manager in a follow-up conversation about the incident was resisted, and when the student complained about this treatment, she was expelled from the school.

The student has incurred medical expenses, expulsion from the school, and emotional and psychological distress leading to life-threatening serious consequences.

Below is the story from the student. I’ve edited portions in order to protect the identity of those involved. Following the story is an expert liability analysis of what happened from Sports & Fitness Insurance Corp. (SFIC) National Director, Jennifer Urmston.

We recognize that we do not have the instructor’s side of the story. Our goal is not to mediate for the student, but to use this to educate instructors. Most instructors would probably deny the student’s version, but that becomes just another part of the story because your word against a student’s word is an expensive, uphill battle to win without proof.

Stories like this are why the MATA Certification Program includes:

Module 19: How to Teach Self-Defense Safely

Module 21: How to Avoid Negligence and Liability

Module 25: The Proper Use of Injury Waivers

Clearly, this story describes actions that do not follow the MATA Certification Curriculum.


The Story

Dear Mr. Graden,

I have been through a devastating experience with my former martial arts school. As a gold belt last summer, I was in an evening grappling class and paired with a student who had verbally bullied me in a previous class in front of the chief instructor. I was not comfortable with her, but I did not complain.

The instructor gave us a grappling drill and left the floor. As we ran through the drill, my partner sat heavily on my ribcage, dislocating one of the ribs from my spine. The pain grew over the next four hours until it was debilitating. I went to an urgent care center the next morning and was diagnosed later by an orthopedist and chiropractor.

During my recovery, the instructor checked in with me via email. However, there was no word about how the accident would be documented, how such an incident might be avoided in the future, or if anyone had spoken to the student who had injured me.

I had to insist on a meeting with all the concerned parties. In this meeting, I explained how I had been worried about the lack of attention to the incident. The manager dismissed my concerns and ended the meeting before anyone else could chime in. There were no questions asked or other perspectives encouraged. Everyone seemed afraid to speak honestly and openly. I left feeling confused and discouraged.

Frustrated by this situation, I posted about it on my social media feed (not using names of course). Sharing with others outside the school helped me finally accept the fact that I was not going to get the kind of communication I’d hoped for in the school. So I scaled back my expectations while focusing on recovery.

However, within a couple of weeks, I received the dreadful news that a close family member had died. After many days of intense grieving, I needed community and healthy activity again. So I went to the school to tell them that I was ready to return to classes. They asked me into the office, where I sat in the same chair I had sat in when I first came to the school, gazing up at an image on the wall of Bodhisattva Kwan Yin, goddess of compassion.

The manager brandished a printout of my social media post and accused me of libel. I was told that no apology would suffice, meaning, I inferred, that I had to be punished. I was also criticized on personal grounds for having family problems (PTSD from childhood abuse). I was told I would never be allowed to return to classes. I told the manager that the school was all I had — it was my community and my life — and pleaded for a probationary period. She refused.

A lifelong athlete, I had been drawn from competitive endurance sports to martial arts and had found it to be a beautiful, powerful, and fun experience. It was deeply healing to the sense of powerlessness I had experienced as an abused child.

I had embraced the art as a mental, physical and spiritual discipline, and as a lifestyle. I was a devoted student, donating much of my spare time to participate in demos and to help promote the school. I had been friendly and helpful to everyone there. And I had enjoyed a sense of belonging that I had not known before.

When they expelled me right after the loss of a close family member, they took away the social support and structure that I had come to depend on. The distress of the situation piggybacked on my PTSD to overwhelm my coping mechanisms. I had a nervous breakdown. For weeks on end, I fought overpowering urges to harm myself until it became necessary to leave my home and my children for a month to get help at a residential trauma treatment center.

I am still piecing my life back together. I don’t blame the school for my situation, but I often wonder why the resorted unnecessarily to such harsh measures.

There didn’t seem to be any established processes and policies in place for injuries, conflicts, disciplinary actions, etc.  Their official code of conduct consisted of a general assertion that students were expected to behave honorably, to participate in all demos and to show respectful deference to the chief instructor. I’d seen numerous and frequent violations of all of these guidelines, with no reprimands or harsh consequences whatsoever. So there are no answers.

The incidents at the school are in the past, and I am making my peace with that. Still, I sometimes struggle to reconcile the teacher I so admired with the choices made around this incident.

And though I have grown tremendously through this challenge personally and spiritually, PTSD makes the recovery a slow process. With PTSD, you cannot simply decide to “get over” something … traumatic experiences remain like shrapnel deep in the limbic system and can be reawakened by new experiences… these have to be processed on many levels and in many ways until they are integrated into different areas of the brain for safe storage as empowering narratives of deep compassion.  

Being heard, understood, respected and accepted is essential to this process. So I thank you for reading my story.

It saddens me that my sincere attempts to communicate around this difficult situation were met with fear and rejection. Every time I drive past the mall where the school is housed, I feel a pang of pain and sadness. I wish there were some way that I could make them understand how much the school would thrive if they would only embrace open communication and learn some basic principles of conflict resolution… if they only knew how much of a difference they could make…

Is there anything like… A standard conflict resolution guideline? A guideline for working with students recovering from trauma? A communications ethics audit process? An advocacy program? A forum or venue for an article that can help raise awareness?

Is there any way for me to use my voice in this situation to make a positive difference?

Read the responses from Mr. John Graden and SFIC’s Jennifer Urmston.