Mike Harmon is a rare find in seeking professional advice for keeping a tennis player injury free. Based out of Denver, Mike has an extensive background as a tennis player. In fact, his dad played for Columbia University and taught Mike how to play. His 3.5 - 4.0 level gives him a lens that few physical therapists can have to help the recreational tennis player from getting injured. In my talk with Mike, I was clear that I am not interested in what players need to to to recover from injuries but rather how to avoid injuries all together.
With that as our filter for the interview, it was logical to go over the most common injuries a tennis player goes through and how to avoid those injuries. So our conversation consisted of just that. Let’s dive into all the information that can help you stay on the court without injuries so you can enjoy the game we both love for as long as possible!
Common Injury #1: Tennis Elbow
Without a surprise, Mike sees tennis elbow as the main injury for tennis players. He sees bad form and bad equipment as the two main factors in this injury. Form wise, when players do not use their legs, the impact on the arm is tremendous, leaving that player with a high chance of straining the tendons in their arm (called tennis elbow). To improve your technique, it’s important to think about how you are decelerating your racquet. When you are finished with your stroke, is your racquet stopping gradually or as a sudden jerk? The faster you come to a stop with your racquet after the swing, the more tension you will put on your forearm tendons. A quick test on this is to see where you feel tension after you finish your shot. If you feel it in your arm, you are not letting your racquet wrap around you enough to get your racquet to slowly come to a stop.
If technique is not something you want to dive into, consider your grip size on your racquet. Gripping the racquet too tight because of a grip size that is too small or big can be a reason for tennis elbow. Also having softer string and a loose tension can help with the amount of impact your arm receives on each swing.
A way to keep the the tennis elbow from getting worse is to wear a brace until you can tweak your form and/or your equipment. Mike explains the brace in this way: Having tennis elbow is like a four lane highway (your tendons of your arm) being reduced to 2 or 3 lanes. The traffic (demands on the tendons from the force of hitting the ball) doesn’t change, making more stress on those few lanes (tendons) that are working. The brace allows for the “highway” to open back up to four lanes again. This is a good idea for those suffering from tennis elbow to keep the injury from getting worse.
Common Injury #2: The Knee
Injuries of the knee is hard to self assess as there are many possible reasons for your kneesd to hurt. There can be a lack of mobility in your ankle or hips that put unneeded stress on your knee. A professional like Mike can examine your movements to see what is the problem. Other than mobility of the ankle and hip, he would look for any supination in your feet, how well your hips and knees are extending as well as how well you are pushing off the ground with your toes. As you can tell, there isn’t a great way for you to find out what the causes of your knee problems are BUT Mike does suggest some exercises to keep your knees as healthy as possible.
The main theme in keeping your knees healthy is how you strengthen and use your hips and glutes. Mike equates the hips and glutes as the offensive line. It doesn’t get a lot of attention but keeps the knee (quarterback) from getting hurt. This is because these muscles are able to take the impact away from the knee. Try exercises like “monster walks” with an exercise band around your ankles. With that same scenario, you can side shuffle, keeping your toes facing forward to target the hips as much as possible. Mike also recommends to stretch the IT band as much as possible. The best way to target that tendon along the side of your leg is to foam roll on it. Although sometimes painful, it is well worth the improved quality of movement you can get in your legs!
Common Injury #3: The Shoulder
Mike identified the rotator cuff as the main group of muscles to focus on to keep your shoulder healthy. There are four muscles that make up the rotator cuff. The main function for these muscles is to stabilize the shoulder. When you raise your arm, the joint spins in the socket. The four muscles allow for that to happen. If the one or more of the muscles are torn, the join will not spin. Instead, it rolls and impingement occurs. When this occurs, you are limited in your tennis swings as a big looping forehand or serve will be painful. Basically, any movement that requires your arm to go above your shoulders is a problem.
So the best thing way to avoid such an injury is to strengthen the rotator cuff muscles. To do this, you need to think less weight, high reps. Any way you can put your arm at a 90 degree angle and externally and internally rotate it (with high reps and low weights) will allow those muscles to strengthen. Choosing higher weights will target muscles other than the rotator cuff so be sure not to use any heavy weights!
The Best Thing to Do to Avoid ALL of These Injuries
Mike makes it very clear. Rest. According to Mike, overuse of the muscles without proper time to recover is the biggest reason for injury. The good news is that this makes most of our injuries preventable. Remember that every time you are working your muscles, tiny tears occur. These tears will be rebuilt to make your muscles stronger only if you give your body time to rest. Try to work on listening to your body after your tennis matches and workouts by giving more time to rest. However, this doesn’t mean to sit around for a few days. Light workouts and movements can be done after the initial soreness subsides. Simple movement will allow blood flow and promote recovery.
One last thing that Mike does mention when it comes to injuries. Simply sticking to a regimen that keeps you healthy is something that many of his clients will not do over a long period of time. This is one reason why he has his patients pay out of pocket for their visits. If you pay for the rehab of an injury, you’ll be more likely to want to continue it on your own so you have made good use of that money! Try to have that mentality when keeping yourself injury free or when you recover from an injury.
Want to stay fit as well? Check out this video that gives you plenty of exercises to choose from to create your own workouts.