Playing tennis safely
The summer heat has died down and many people are hitting the courts after Andy Murray’s British win at the London Olympics, and while waiting for the U.S. Open in New York in a couple of weeks. But don’t forget that tennis is a physically demanding sport, with quick changes in direction, repeated serves putting pressure on the shoulder and elbow, and reverberation through the body every time that little fuzzy ball comes into contact with a racket.
All tennis players should keep these tips in mind as they approach the court (or as they walk away from it):
Cross-train to maintain strength throughout the body and not just the muscles used on the court. This applies to just about any sport, but it is particularly important as tennis players often end up stronger on one side than the other. (You can often deduce if a serious tennis player is right- or left-handed by noticing which forearm is bigger.) Doing exercise like yoga or Pilates can also increase core strength and balance, both key to success in any match.
A proper warm-up is essential — and that means more than just hitting the ball around with your fellow players. Many injuries can be avoided with a little stretching and some warming up. Click here to download a quick pre-game routine that includes cardiovascular activity, stretches and core preparations. Then you’re ready to hit the ball with your partner.
Restrict your matches to 2-3 times a week. As we’ve mentioned before, rest is just as important for your body as exercise: it allows your muscles to recuperate. It may be tempting to play more frequently as your skills improve, but keep in mind that if you play too often, you could overwork your body into an injury, or get burned out and quit altogether.
- Consult with a tennis pro or physical therapist about your form. In a recent newsletter to alumni, the Harvard Medical School pointed out that, “Proper playing technique and overall physical conditioning can prevent many injuries from ever happening.” If you are new to the game, or returning after a period of time, working with a pro can make sure that your technique is improving your game rather than hurting your body.
Speaking of pain, it is always a clear sign that you should consult with your doctor or a physical therapist about what may be causing it. If you start dropping things, have limited movement in your hand, or notice that you’re having issues with finger motion or inordinate light work, these could all be signs of epicondylitis, or tennis elbow, and they are a reason to seek treatment immediately.
According to Jim Dagostino, physical therapist and owner of Dagostino Physical Therapy (a Physiquality network member in California), “Tennis elbow usually begins with point-specific pains or aches outside of the elbow. As the overuse continues, the pain progresses down the forearm. Tennis elbow usually comes from poor form in a backhand stroke. So not only should you seek physical therapy for treatment, you should also see a coach about perfecting that backhand.”
One last thought: Be sure to use equipment that fits your needs on the court. When purchasing your equipment:
- Don’t use a grip that is too small for your hand.
- Don’t string your racket too tightly.
- Don’t play with wet or dead tennis balls.
- Don’t use oversized racket heads.
- Don’t use a racket that is too heavy.
And don’t forget to have fun on the court!
Jim Dagostino, PT, DPT, is a physical therapist and owner of Dagostino Physical Therapy, a Physiquality network member in Oceanside, California. An avid tennis player, Jim has practiced physical therapy for more than 35 years and is on the board of directors for PTPN, Physiquality’s parent company.
For further information, look through our selection of articles on tennis, in addition to the below links:
Stop elbow pain and stay in the game. Harvard Health Newsletters, June 1, 2012.
Bradley, John. Get into the swing — safely. Performance Physical Therapy + Fitness.
Deardorff, Julie. Rest and recovery: Why athletes need it. Chicago Tribune, April 27, 2011.
How to prepare to play tennis. Physiquality.
Physical therapy corner: Tennis elbow. Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma, September 9, 2009.
Zachazewski, Jim. Tennis safety tips: How to prevent and manage tennis injuries. Massachusetts General Hospital Departments of Sports Medicine and Physical Therapy.