injury rehab for those who pay to play

Yesterday I drove to Santa Barbara and back for a tantra class and went to another class in the evening. After the class I packed my bags for a trip. Around midnight I went to a local motel to sleep because I had a severe headache from the new paint on my house. I got up at 5:30am to drive to San Francisco because my travel partner wanted to arrive by 1pm.

During the drive I played tennis. I moved the seatback back and down, put a pillow under my head and mentally rehearsed my practice routine. Lanny Bassham is a world champion and Olympic gold medalist pistol shooter. He was once stationed on a military base nowhere near a firing range. He practiced dry firing – firing without bullets – five hours a day, five days a week for two years with only a handful of visits to a shooting range and managed to win a World Cup.

I’m on the injured list. Still. I have a sprained ligament in my thumb and my achilles tendon is sore. But no one is paying me five million dollars a year to play tennis or giving me 24/7 access to a trainer or flying me off to see the top orthopedic doctor in the country. So what should I do when I get an injury? Here are two examples:

I ran into a fellow player in my league at the gym. He noticed my thumb splint and started pointing to all of his injuries. They included chronic pain in his hand and shoulder. Like many, many people in this country, he doesn’t have health insurance.

I recently stopped off to visit a friend in Simi Valley who plays tennis after reluctantly and dutifully taking my sisters to see the Ronald Reagan Presidential library. My friend told me that as soon as he feels pain anywhere, he stops playing tennis until the pain goes away.

I see people make two mistakes when they get an injury: they don’t get the appropriate help for their injury and they don’t take time off from tennis to let the injury heal. And even if they do, they start up playing again as if they never stopped and injure themselves all over again.

There are two types of injuries. I sprained a ligament in my thumb because I decided that I could practice return of serve with a semi-pro tennis player. One of his serves kicked up and bent my thumb backwards. That’s an accident and I could have avoided it if I was more realistic about my tennis playing abilities. Tennis elbow is an example of the second kind of injury. It’s usually the result of a structural problem in your body or your playing technique. I got tennis elbow because my forearm is weak and because I was swinging the racket with all arm and no body.

If you have an injury, get treatment. If you don’t have health insurance or your health insurance doesn’t cover tennis injuries, make a deal with a physical therapist to pay them privately. You can probably find a physical therapist who’ll treat you for $50 or less for a half hour session. If you have inflammation and especially if you have scar tissue, a physical therapist can treat it with ultrasound. If you have tennis elbow you might well have scar tissue and the pain is not going anywhere unless you get treatment. The therapist will also give you strength and stretching exercises to strengthen the area and help the scar tissue heal.

You’re not done yet. Consider that the alternative is not playing tennis or playing with chronic injury and possibly ending up with arthritis. I like tennis but not that much. Much of the time people get tennis elbow because they think you hit the ball with your arm. Granted it’s hard to swing a racket without your arm but most of the strength comes from your leg, butt and trunk muscles. Watch most recreational players, they swing their arm and that’s it. No step into the ball, knee bend or trunk twist and not a lot of follow through.

To get help with your strokes, take tennis lessons from someone who understands body mechanics. If that doesn’t work don’t despair. It just means you need more help to get your body structure working properly. Find a trainer from the National Academy of Sports Medicine or take Alexander Technique lessons.

There’s still more. You can play tennis. Not on the court but you can play in your living room or backyard. If the injury is in your upper body, play tennis without a racket – let’s call it shadow tennis. Practice all your strokes and footwork as if you were in a practice session. This is a great opportunity to pay attention to your strokes without worrying about a ball flying at you. If you usually play tennis twice a week, play shadow tennis twice a week. You have no excuse that I can think of. Again, look at the alternative. Lets say it takes a month for your injury to heal then you go out and play your usual best of three sets Saturday morning tennis match without so much as swinging a racket over your head. That’s a great recipe for further injury.

If you have a knee or anke injury, you can still play tennis. Lie back on the couch and imagine practicing your strokes and playing a set of tennis against a regular opponent. Virtual tennis let’s call it, a tennis video game in your mind and you get to win every point if you like. This might be difficult to begin with. I often fall asleep or slide off into a fantasy world of slash fiction. But you will get much better at it and you’ll develop your ability to mentally focus. Let’s say you win a set of tennis at love and win every point in every game. That’s a minimum of 24 points. If you can’t mentally focus for that long, how good is your mental focus when you actually play a game of tennis?

This, then, is one way to deal with injury:
1. stop playing until your injury heals
2. get appropriate help for your injury – see a physical therapist and get alignment and structural help for your body
3. play shadow tennis as often as you usually play tennis each week
4. play virtual tennis

There are lots of retired athletes who have trouble walking up the stairs and are on their second set of replacement knees. You don’t need to do that. It’s quite likely that you’ll benefit from an injury – your strokes will be better, your body will be stronger and your ability to mentally focus will improve.