PUMPING IRONY: No Pain, No Gain?

A tennis injury reveals the wisdom behind listening to your body and the surprising advantages we all have over professional athletes.

My hometown newspaper is publishing a series on football and pain, exploring the brutality of the pro game and various pharmaceutical strategies employed by players to maintain their livelihood in the face of often debilitating pain. It’s a pretty compelling dissection of a sub-culture that thrives on a particularly American form of machismo and celebrates players who do whatever it takes to stay in the game — even at the expense of their long-term health.

They’re partly motivated by the money, of course; even a backup lineman can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year playing at this level. And because the average NFL player lasts for only three or four years in the league, there’s plenty of incentive for them to get it while they can. But there’s also the notion — established as early as grade school, as I recall — that you’re letting your teammates down if you refuse to play through injuries.

I’ll admit that I have subscribed to the same set of principles (at somewhat lower levels of competition, obviously). I’ve played on sprained ankles and malfunctioning knees, and more than occasionally returned home from a game proudly wearing a blood-smeared T-shirt. It’s kind of a guy thing.

Or, I should say, a young guy thing.

Last Wednesday, I was back on the tennis courts after an absence of several weeks facing my not-so-old nemesis, The Baseline Machine. The temperature was hovering in the mid-80s and the air was heavy. But TBM was swinging with authority and moving with her usual agility, and I soon found myself scrambling all over the court to reach her volleys. This helped me work up quite a lather in no time at all, while I dropped the first two games — also in no time at all.

TBM was flagging in the heat, though, wondering aloud whether she had brought enough water as she poured a few cupfuls over her head between games. I was plenty sweaty, but felt like I was just getting warmed up. And sure enough, I began to rally, winning the next two games.

“Let’s make this one the tie-breaker,” she offered, cheeks flushed. “I don’t do well in the heat.”

I agreed. I felt like I could go a full set, but at a certain age prudence occasionally trumps bravado. So we proceeded to whack it back and forth for a while until a series of unforced errors by the obviously drained TBM gave me the game and the abbreviated set — 3 for me, 2 for her, 0 for heat stroke (which, coincidentally, killed Vikings lineman Korey Stringer during a training camp practice 11 years ago this month). A win-win situation by any tally, it seems to me.

Not coincidentally, the next morning I awoke to find that I could barely move my right arm without a sharp pain jolting into my shoulder. A trip to my acupuncturist brought little relief, and the teenager in my brain began questioning my competitive fire. “Suck it up,” he said. “Be a man!”

A colleague suggested some over-the-counter pain reliever the next day, which I never got around to buying (I did take a little homeopathic arnica). By Saturday, it had noticeably improved, and the pain had completely disappeared by the time I headed to work this morning.

The miracle remedy? Rest. I ignored my normal exercise routine (aside from a long bicycle ride on Friday) and even skipped yoga on Thursday. I’m not so naïve to imagine that the NFL — or any professional sports culture — is likely to embrace such an approach, but nothing gets me back in the game more effectively than listening to what my body needs. It’s a shame that’s not an option for so many pro athletes.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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