PUMPING IRONY: The Brain Game

Injuries force my tennis buddy to play left-handed, which will probably make her smarter — and our matches more competitive.

It had been awhile since I’d been on the tennis court, so when The Baseline Machine called to schedule a match last week I was ready to do battle. There was a small problem, however: Her rotator cuff was injured and her tennis elbow was acting up.

“Um, so how are you going to play,” I asked.

“I’ll hit it left-handed,” she replied.

“You’re ambidextrous?”

“Not really, but I can write with my left hand.”

You might think that I would welcome this opportunity, given my recent run of futility against TBM, but I was already feeling the pressure when I pedaled over to the Nokomis courts Saturday morning. If I can’t beat her when she’s playing left-handed, I may have to hang up my racket. I do have some pride, after all.

So it was with some relief that TBM opted for a little light volleying rather than a full-on match. I happily discovered that she’d never actually tried to hit a tennis ball with her left hand holding the racket, but she was convinced that it would help her repair her basic stroke mechanics — using her legs and torso as much as her arm — which would no doubt help prevent future shoulder and elbow injuries. It’s all about building new neural pathways, she explained, as she took up her position across the net.

I’d heard this before from my yoga teacher, who often has her geezer class doing awkward movements with the same end in mind. It is, in fact, a great way to keep your brain healthy as you age. The late neurobiologist Lawrence Katz coined the term “neurobics” to define brain exercises that would test the brain and keep it sharp — and among these was using your non-dominant hand when doing familiar tasks, like brushing your teeth.

Fifty years ago, it was assumed that deteriorating brain function was simply a natural result of aging, but now it’s clear that the brain can adapt, based on experience, by creating new neural pathways, so TBM’s left-handed gambit wasn’t just a way to clean up her stroke; it could also keep her brain in shape into a ripe old age (which, I should note, is still a long way away for her).

But it sure looked funny when she tried to hit the ball. “I can feel my self-esteem rising already,” I told her a she knocked another one feebly into the net.

It wasn’t long, however, before she started returning my volleys with more confidence and actually placing a few winners in the corners. She couldn’t serve, of course, and her backhand was useless, and I was starting to wonder where this might lead. Maybe if I could get her back out on the court again while she was gaining confidence as a lefty — but before her right arm was back in business — I might end my long losing streak.

When we finally called it a day, TBM was smiling. “I think I’ll take beginner lessons as a left-hander,” she announced, the traffic evidently flowing smoothly along her freshly paved neural highway. It didn’t sound like a bad idea to me. It may make her even smarter than she already is (which is saying something), but I know this much: Even the sharpest brain can’t cure a lousy backhand.

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

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