I had to retire from the finals of the Irish Junior National Championship Finals when I was 18. This was a huge deal to me at the time, and it should have been the impetus for some changes in my approach to the care of my body. The reason I had to retire was that for the first time in my young tennis career I experienced a significant injury. The culprit was the lower right side of my back, and it felt like a debilitating injury. I could not even put my socks on the morning of the final, never mind try to run around a tennis court!
I rested for a few weeks, took some pills, received physiotherapy, started a stretching routine and incorporated some new strengthening exercises into my gym routine. I then went off to college, and by my senior year my back had packed up again. I ended up sitting out about 2 months of my senior year, at a time I was playing my best tennis. I started seeing a chiropractor, invested in orthotics, got some new stretches and routines in the gym to help fix it. I saw some slow improvements, but every few months I would have another episode of this terrible back pain that could keep me sidelined for weeks or months. Each time, it was rest, physio, painkillers, stretching, sleeping on the floor with my head on a phone book! I tried everything. Once I stopped competing at a high level I had very few back issues. However, this past year, at age 37, I returned to competitive tennis representing Ireland in the over 35 world championships in South Africa. I started training relatively hard for this event, and sure enough my back problems returned. I stumbled through the event with limited movement and serving ability. I even had to sit out a couple of days letting my team down.
My physio, who is also a tennis player, suggested I change my serving technique. I heeded his advice and sure enough I believe my back is fixed! I played a Men’s Open money event last week and won 4 singles matches and 4 doubles matches over 6 days to win the event. I was on the court up to 4-5 hours some evenings, and not once did I have an issue with my back. To me, this is a miracle! I never believed I could play tennis for this long, at this level ever again. I assumed that it was just down to bad genetics, and that I should probably quit competitive tennis again as it could lead to more degenerative issues later in life. Advice that many “experts” love to give. I think they feel secure in this advice because they assume the person/patient won’t actually do the hard work it will take to cure themselves.
I had several coaches, physios, back specialist and other experts work with me during my days as a competitive tennis player, and not one of them suggested that maybe my back issues were being caused by something in my technique. No one, including myself put the pieces of the puzzle together that my extreme serve motion was causing the inflammation in my back.
I experienced my first injury at age 18 that stuck with me for almost 20 years. I see junior players now consistently getting injured at even younger ages. I am not saying that everyone’s injuries are being caused by their technique, but this is an area players, parents and coaches should be taking a very close look at if a player is experiencing a recurring injury. We get so wrapped up in results that making a major technique change to prevent further injuries is a low priority. We would much prefer to find an easier, quick fix solution, such as painkillers, therapy or in some cases surgery. After my experience, I believe that a player’s technique is the first place we should be reviewing when players are consistently injured. This may seem obvious, but I assure you, IT IS DEFINITELY NOT HAPPENING in most parts of the world. Players put a lot of pressure on themselves to win and also may feel that pressure from parents and coaches to perform to justify the investment in their passion. Even though their technique might be shaky, the shot may be effective and perhaps the players main weapon. Very few players (and coaches) are willing to take a few steps back in order to set the player on a new trajectory which hopefully includes fewer injury woes in their future. Ultimately, the players have to be the ones taking the lead on this. They must be willing to do the work it will require, and commit to the constant maintenance that will be needed for maybe the rest of their tennis career. However, they also need to be supported by their coaches and parents as they suffer through some unexpected losses and a dip in confidence.
The process I went through to change my serve was relatively simple. The coach at my club video tapped my serve, showed me how extreme it was, had me look at a video of Federer, and I changed it on the spot. It felt weird, uncomfortable and limiting, but with time it got better as I had a clear picture in my head as to how it should look. I would say I have lost, on average, about 5-10mph off my serve but my 1st serve percentage is higher and I am hitting my spots more consistently. I am not saying it will be this simple for everyone, but I would prefer to start with this, rather than another round of anti-inflammatories! The other amazing part of this story is that I always suffered with some low-level golfer’s elbow throughout my tennis career. Since changing my serve this tendonitis has disappeared. My old serve included an extreme elbow tuck that was likely causing this issue. The two recurring injuries, and really the only injuries I ever dealt with as a tennis player are completely fixed from just changing my serve technique! I have put up a video on my youtube channel – davemullinstennis - to show the difference between my old motion, my new one, and what it looked like when I was injured and barely able to serve at all. I have also included a few back strengthening exercises that might be helpful.
If a player is struggling with a particular chronic injury, I would suggest finding a coach that can help identify the shot or strokes that might be causing the problem, and then start the process of rebuilding the technique to avoid future injury issues. Not all coaches are experts in technique. It definitely is not the strongest part of my coaching repertoire. It is okay to work with another coach who is strong in this area; it does not mean you are ditching your current coach. Hopefully both can work together for the betterment of the player. I would also suggest finding a physiotherapist (athletic trainer) with a strength and conditioning background that can provide treatment, but also a logical rehab and strengthening program that starts at a basic level, and progresses over a long period of time. There is usually a healthy, holistic solution out there to these injury problems, but you have to be willing to make some changes, and put in the work. Even though I believe my back and elbow issues have been fixed, I still work on strengthening the muscles around these areas in the gym at least twice per week. I assure you, the initial frustration you feel with the technical change will all be well worth it for your tennis and overall health and wellness.