What’s good for tennis players, should be good for all of us!
Case study: Last week in the clinic, we worked with a tennis player who had trouble with their balance. Balance is an important part of tennis because you’re likely to miss, or mishit, if you can’t get your feet set and execute your forehand, backhand, serve or volley with a balanced body. Since balance comes from the ground up, we checked out this player’s foot stability, and found some major issues, so we started there.
What does the foot need? The foot needs to feel. When we are younger, shoes and socks are usually only for picture day or special occasions. Otherwise, we are crawling or running around with naked little feet, and it turns out that this is good for our young, learning feet and brain that are trying to stabilize our bodies, help us walk, eventually help us run, and ultimately play games with our friends.
After half a century of work and life, our feet have often forgotten what to do. The feel of the foot is also connected to how well we use our core and glutes. It’s connected to our hip control for knee stability. It’s also connected to our vestibular balance centers in our brain. Basically, everything that one needs to be mobile, from walking in the park, to playing a tennis match, starts with the foot.
The Feeling Foot: feels the ground and feels what the muscles of the foot are doing, as well as how the foot is formed. Grab the ground with all of your foot, parts of your foot, with your toes, without your toes. The feeling foot feels all of these things and is generally aware. The feeling foot also prefers going around without any “clothes” on.
Other than feel, the foot needs focus. Hitting some tennis balls without shoes and socks will force you to focus on your feet and what they are doing. It will magnify your senses, but it will also magnify your problems. If you have a previously undiscovered foot pain, there’s reason to suspect your foot is unstable, as most chronic foot issues come from our lack of focus on stabilizing them and activation of the appropriate muscles that stabilize the foot. As time goes on, our muscles get weaker, our motor control muscles get sloppier, and we begin finding ourselves unable to do the things we once did before. This is why we need focus, to restore order to our mechanics once again. So, try and grab the ground with your feet when you’re out walking.
The Focused Foot: is mindful of what the foot is doing throughout the day, especially during moments of physical exertion, which can range from walking, going up and down stairs, lifting weights in the gym or playing a tennis match.
The foot needs form. This is one reason why orthotics are both a blessing and a curse. Orthotics do help restore the three arches of the foot, in a similar way that a cast helps bones to heal in alignment, but once the cast is removed, the muscles have already weakened, which is the reason why rehabilitation is required. There is some evidence to suggest that orthotics also help the muscles of your foot become more effective, but ultimately there is no way around being aware of your foot and actively restoring support. As the saying goes: “These weights aren’t going to lift themselves.”
Bunions, for example, are often due to loss of foot form, specifically of the transverse and longitudinal arch of the foot, which derives a great deal of its support from the muscle adductor hallucis (and a host of other muscles). Bunions can also be due to poor hip control, which is ironically supplied by the same cluster of nerves from the spinal cord, so really everything is truly connected-but I digress. This isn’t a class on the neurology of pathobiomechanics, and right about now you’re probably almost finished with your coffee or tea.
The Well-Formed Foot: has three arches that are formed by both the passive structures (ligaments), as well as the active structures (muscles, tendons, and *fascia). It’s flexible but also supportive and dynamic throughout daily activities. Its muscles are made to work overtime when the passive structures fail, and it can walk comfortably on a variety of terrains.
In the end, our tennis player benefited from learning about what their feet were doing and what they needed to be doing. They applied the principles of feel, focus and form. They were then able to go and try it out on the court without shoes and socks, which created a great learning environment to go try out their newfound knowledge and build the strength and coordination necessary to improve their balance.
As a result, their shots will be more consistent, they will have fewer injuries, and if they find they have an issue, they’ll be more likely to address it rather than cover it up, only to discover later that it limits their mobility, or worse, force them into retirement from the game.
So, go on, don’t be shy, take your shoes and socks off and go hit some tennis balls or do anything else purposeful in your backyard even. Other than a few callouses, what do you have to lose?
*While we can’t actively contract or relax the fascia of the body, the structure itself is dynamic in the way that it supports our muscles and joints. We long thought this structure to be passive in nature, but relatively recently we have found that it does indeed contract and relax on an as needed basis.