pride goes before an injury

I injured my right wrist by being dumb but it’s my left wrist that hurts. Nine months ago I saw a man practicing his serve on the public courts where I play and I asked if I could return his serve. He was practicing his second serve trying to kick it as high as possible. Pretty quickly I realized that I was out of my league but I stayed out there still trying to get the ball back over the net. One of his serves kicked up and bent my right thumb backwards. Turns out he was a semipro player. Way, way out of my league.

It took about three months and many different treatments before my thumb healed. One of the treatments was acupuncture. The acupuncturist put needles in both wrists for symmetry but the needle in my left wrist accidentally hit a nerve. That is why my left wrist still hurts even though my right wrist is fine.

Last week I found myself in a similar position. This time the server was hitting the ball so hard I knew that my back would hurt if I continued to return his serves. Yet, I could not pull myself off the court? What is the problem here?

I have been taking Alexander Technique lessons since 1990. F.M. Alexander was an actor who lived in Australia at the turn of the 20th century. He liked to give solo shows of readings in Shakespeare but each time he started to perform, he would lose his voice. No one could tell him why this was happening so he embarked on a long study of observation and experimentation to find the cause of the problem.

It turns out that just as he was about to open his mouth and speak on stage, he would pull his head back, depress his larynx and suck in breath. These movement were present whenever he spoke but they were magnified when he performed. Sitting in front of a mirror, he worked to change his movement habits until this was no longer a problem. Alexander eventually moved to England and began training others with the technique he developed.

After fifteen years of Alexander lessons, I still get injured. And it doesn’t help me figure out why I can’t leave the court when I know that I am likely to get hurt. I recently came across the work of David Gorman. He is a certified Alexander Technique teacher but he has taken it one step further with work that he calls Learning Methods. He wondered what would have happened if Alexander had asked himself what he was thinking when he performed publicly instead of changing his movement habits. What if Alexander thought that he had to speak much louder and try much harder in performance than he did during rehearsal?

The key here is not to change the movement that is causing the injury but to work with the thought that leads to the movement.

David lives in the south of France and there are no instructors in California so I made an appointment to speak to him by phone. He asked me what I was thinking when I couldn’t pull myself off the tennis court even though I knew my back would hurt. I said that I didn’t want to leave the court because I wanted the server to think that I was a good tennis player and I certainly wasn’t a good tennis player if I couldn’t even stay on the court.

The server might think I’m a good tennis player no matter what I did or he might think I’m a bad tennis player no matter what I did, David pointed out. And what is the criteria for a good tennis player? A more useful question would be, “Is this thought helping me?” Clearly it’s not if the result is injury.

David asked me what I was thinking when I played well. I told him that I use a technique I learned from Lanny Bassham’s work. When I play a match, in between points I occupy my mind so that there is no room for negative thoughts. Before I play a point, I think about where I want the ball to go on the next shot and I mentally rehearse the shot. After the point ends, if I won the point I say to myself, “That’s like me.” If I lost the point, I repeat the preparation for the next point. These thoughts are helpful, they prepare me for the next point and they keep me from getting distracted by discouraging thoughts.

Because I want to perform well in front of others, I do things that are beyond my capabilities and I get injured. What if Alexander had taken the stage and used exactly the same voice he used in rehearsal, doing nothing extra? Maybe he wouldn’t have lost his voice.

The key here is not to change the movement that is causing the injury but to work with the thought that leads to the movement.

How will I use this information? Tomorrow I am meeting members of my new USTA team. If I’m playing with someone new, I like to get to the courts an hour and a half early, use the hitting machine and practice my serve so that I am completely warmed up when I meet them. All the better to impress them. Tomorrow, it turns out, there are no courts available so I will just have to warm up with everyone else.

Trying too hard in a performance situation is a common way to interfere with yourself and end up underperforming or, possibly, getting injured. David told the following story as an example. Someone asked Anne-Sophie Mutter, a well-know concert violinist, what she does about stage fright. She said she never gets stage fright. For her it’s just like practice and if something goes wrong, well, then that’s just something to learn from.