I’ll be honest with you…this wasn’t an easy article to write. However, as I am recovering from my 14th major surgery (back surgery on December 21st), I figured it was the right time to share my experiences in dealing with injury throughout my career. Hopefully, gathering my thoughts and writing them down can help me remember once more how to be resilient in the face of adversity.
Even as a young kid, I knew that I didn’t have the most gifted body. I was blessed with great hand-eye coordination but was always very tight and did not have flexible joints. When all of the other kids sat cross-legged on the floor, I would be forced to hold my bent knees towards my chest. My hips were always a problem area, and if I could go back in time, I would have placed a much greater emphasis on flexibility and joint mobility.
I can still vividly remember sitting in the doctor’s office in late 2005, fresh off beating a top 10 player (Gaston Gaudio) to win my first ever grand slam match at the US Open. I had been experiencing some hip pain for a few weeks and wanted to get it checked out. The news was not good. The doctor (specialist who had also worked on Gustavo Kuerten and Magnus Norman) flat out said I did not have the hips to play professional tennis. What a buzz kill! I had finally broken through on tour and then got hit with this bombshell. I’d dealt with adversity before with a major knee surgery in my teens, but this conversation made me question my future as a professional tennis player for the first time.
The Mental Toll
I ended up getting surgery a few weeks later but refused to believe that I didn’t have the body to play pro tennis. That’s how I have always approached things. I just try to roll with the punches and keep the belief that things will improve down the line. Now, when the hip surgery was a catalyst for several more surgeries, it becomes tougher and tougher to keep a positive attitude. The physical pain takes its toll, but the mental anguish is always worse.
I think the hardest part about being out for so many years and always being hurt is the stigma that follows you around. Not being able to compete at the sport you love and have dedicated your life to is no doubt difficult, but always being known as the hurt and frail guy is just as bad. I went from “tennis guy” to “injured guy.”
When I would go to a social gathering, the question was always, “how is your body?” or “what is bothering you now?” Imagine answering that thousands of times over the years. Everyone is just trying to be nice (I probably would be asking the same question in their shoes), but it becomes mentally exhausting to have to think about my injury situation all the time. My fantasy football league (comprised of a lot of my tennis buddies) even refers to me as the wheelchair emoji! However, it is all in good fun, and we all dish out the trash talk. The main point is that I have accepted that the stigma will always be associated with me, and I have had to learn to deal with it.
Over the years, I have found some key principles that have helped me handle my adversity that others might find useful. It definitely has not always been easy (in fact very hard), and there have been times where I haven’t been very resilient. I think every situation is different, and there isn’t a perfect recipe to cope with pain and disappointment. However, the more equipped you are to handle adversity, the easier it will be.
Having a healthy perspective during a tough situation is super important. Normally, the first reaction is that the world is ending and that it will never get better. I can’t tell you how many times I have sabotaged myself into thinking that a certain injury will never heal and that I’ll never get back to playing at a high level. However, if you do the right things over time, the situation normally gets better. I strongly believe the brain is a powerful healer and a positive mental mindset can help heal the body. Hypochondriacs exist and placebo treatments have been proven to work. The brain has an insane amount of power.
Focus on what you can control and spend less energy on things that can’t be controlled. We can all be prone to irrational fears during stressful periods, but I can promise you that worrying about stuff that can’t be controlled is counter-productive. Instead, focus all your attention on having a positive attitude and attacking the rehab process.
Part of a positive attitude is also remembering to be thankful for what we do have, instead of what we do not. It can be quite difficult to be thankful during adverse times, but most of us (especially myself) are very blessed if we stop and think. I try to remind myself of my wonderful family and friends who constantly lend their support. I think about my brain that still functions well and that my general health is good. I think about all the incredible places I’ve been to and people I’ve met from travelling the world playing tennis. Of course, I still have moments where I’m angry at not being able to achieve a level of success I know I’m capable of, but spending too much time playing the victim is useless.
Finally, a healthy perspective means accepting the fact that even if you have a great attitude and do all the right things, some situations won’t completely resolve. Life isn’t fair, and bad things happen to good people. Doing the right things drastically increases the odds of future success, but sometimes people just have to learn to deal with adversity and make the most out of a given situation. Nothing is ever guaranteed.
Lean on Family and Friends for Support
I cannot overstate the importance of having a quality support system in place. Tough moments are challenging to handle on your own, and the toughest moments are almost impossible to navigate without outside help. I don’t know where I would be without my family, friends (tennis and non-tennis), and therapists. I have been expertly cared for after surgery, talked off the ledge, motivated to work harder, and much more. Sometimes you just need a friend who will take your mind off the current problem, so you can enjoy the day and have a little fun. At other times, you may just want to be able to vent and let off some steam. You know who you are, but I want to sincerely thank everyone who has played a role in helping me battle back time-and-time again. It would not have been possible without your help!
Avoid Using Them as a Crutch
Although it is a huge help to have family and friends in your corner, my advice is to not use them as a crutch. Venting is healthy up to point, but the “why me?” attitude can become very toxic. In the end, overcoming adversity comes down to one person…YOU!
One of my biggest issues was probably relying on too many people to make decisions. I’m the kind of person that likes to overanalyze situations, so getting too many opinions from members of your support system can hinder the decision making process (my wife says I have paralysis by analysis). The last thing you want to have during stressful situations is indecision. Get the information you need, and then trust your gut and go with it.
Don’t Set Strict Time Limits for Recovery
As much as we don’t like it, things generally get better on their own timeline. Stressing about recovery times set me back every time. This was especially true when I was playing doubles because I had a partner relying on me to be back for a specific tournament. As I mentioned earlier, a healthy mindset is crucial to overcoming an adverse situation. Stress may make some people work harder and more efficiently, but I don’t think it helps the body heal. I also think it can cause poor decision making. Cutting corners never works.
In 2008, I ended up needing three surgeries (left hip for the second time, right hip, and Tommy John surgery on my elbow). I had been grinding unsuccessfully for the past 2.5 years to get healthy from my first hip surgery and a few other issues. The stress of always trying to get back as quick as possible was too much to handle. I’m not a quick healer, and I probably just rushed the healing process every time. So when I needed the big surgeries in 2008, I decided to enroll at Belmont University in the fall of that year. I needed a break from the stress of rehabbing with a timeline. I wasn’t giving up on playing again, but I needed to move on with my life.
I was still spending a lot of time each day following the rehab protocols for my injuries, but I was also a normal student and the assistant coach for the men’s tennis team. My Tennis Takes’ partner, Maxx Lipman, wrote a great article recently about diversifying your happiness by investing more in the “person” than the “player.” I guess you could say that my decision to put my tennis career on the backburner was me investing in myself for life, instead of always investing my time for my tennis. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made because I got to remain in tennis through coaching, but I was much happier overall. The fire still burned in my stomach to resume my career one day, but not having a timeline to play removed a ton of stress. It doesn’t hurt that I also met my future wife in 2010 during my time away from playing!
Wrapping it Up
Nobody ever seeks adversity, but life is full of it. The better equipped you are to handle some bad luck, the easier it is to successfully find a solution. Having a good attitude, leaning on a support system for help, and investing resources in your general happiness are some concepts that helped me recover from major injuries and resume my tennis career. I am proud of the way I dealt with setbacks and happy with what I have been able to accomplish!
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