By P.J. Simmons

Over the years I’ve had my share of athletic and tennis injuries. They’re never fun. But as I get older, I’m finding that a healthy mental perspective on injuries isn’t just a “nice to have”– it’s a must have.

I’ve recently come to believe, very strongly, that with every new injury comes a new opportunity… to learn, to grow, to become stronger.

1801223_501562343286248_731125874_oMy body kindly gave me a reminder of this recently when I re-injured my calf (ironically and quite embarrassingly, demonstrating forward sprints for iTPA founder Mark Kovacs in his class at the PTR Symposium in Hilton Head… in front of about 200 people!). Here I was– alongside a former college D1 player– confidently demonstrating several exercises I’m certified by the iTPA to teach others. Mark was saying things like “Keep in mind these two are incredible athletes, etc etc” and all was going great… But I hadn’t warmed up quite enough, it was a really chilly morning, and before I knew it we were doing all-out forward short sprints. Then “Boom” – the familiar sensation of a gunshot to the back of the calf that signaled a serious grade 2 re-strain of the same calf I’d done this to 6 years ago.

You could hear the entire assembled crowd go “ohhhhhh” sympathetically, and I laughed, politely excused myself, and limped away to go ice down the leg.

I tried to be upbeat for the rest of the weekend, but inside I was seriously bummed. In just 2 weeks, I had planned to go with my friend Amy to Tennis Fantasies weekend at the John Newcombe tennis ranch to play doubles with John Newcombe, Roy Emerson, Owen Davidson and many other greats. I knew playing would be totally out of the question.

Before I knew it, my “story” — the inner monologue we repeat to ourselves that can be good or bad, as Bob Litwin taught me– started heading downhill. I started feeling the cold dose of reality that comes with the press of age: calf strains are among the telltale injuries of 40+ male athletes… “Dammit,” I thought, “I train so hard to stay in shape and I still got injured…” Fears about getting older started creeping in. Subconsciously my brain started circulating ideas of sadness, fear, self-pity, “why me?”, “this isn’t fair” around my head.

I cut these thoughts off quickly and set out to change my story.

I returned to NYC and called the incredibly great Steve Contardi at Tennis Fantasies to tell him I was still excited to be coming but would just be a spectator. I started feeling genuinely grateful for the chance even to go to that weekend and watch. I got an appointment to see one of the best physical therapists out there (who also works with Serena Williams and the Brian Brothers): Patricia Ladis of Kima Wellness. I started rehabbing intensively with Derek Mansfield, one of Kima’s top sports therapists, who was AWESOME. And in the process, started thinking the following:

With every injury comes an opportunity…

Among other things, I realized I was learning things that would help me avoid more injuries, help me rehab better the next time I get injured, and help others over the course of my lifetime to prevent and rebound from injury.

Most importantly, though, this injury brought an opportunity to test how I deal with adversity in life. To regain perspective. And to be grateful.

I arrived at Newk’s ranch still limping but feeling very upbeat. While I couldn’t play matches, I did manage to hit each day with a great young pro named Tanner, who placed the ball right in my strike zone so I didn’t need to move much. And every single ball I could hit felt like a gift.

Then, in an incredible stroke of luck, I met two people at the Tennis Fantasies weekend who inspired me enormously and totally put my perspective back in check.

Screen Shot 2014-04-22 at 11.20.18 AMOne of those individuals was Barbara, a delightful woman who I noticed playing with an intensity and passion that really stood out. As I watched her admiringly, Steve Contardi pointed out to me that she was temporarily playing lefty because of a severe right shoulder injury that needs surgery. This is a woman who loves our sport so much she refused to let an injury sideline her and figured out a way around it while she’s recovering. And there she was, out on the court fighting, laughing… and eventually in tears after a match win that meant so much given the circumstances. What a beautiful person and beautiful example.

Screen Shot 2014-04-22 at 11.20.28 AMAnd then I met Chandry– a young college student who is one of the kindest and upbeat people you’ll ever meet. Over a beer on our second night, Chandry told me how he had battled testicular cancer in his teens. He talked about his experience getting the diagnosis, resolving to beat the cancer (he did), and making the decision to be very outspoken about it so he could help others. He had gone through chemo and all kinds of trials and tribulations during his recovery, but I could tell he dealt with it all with the most positive attitude imaginable (seriously, he never stops smiling and bringing good cheer on court and off). What an amazing guy and amazing leader.

Talk about an opportunity to gain some serious perspective.

As if that weren’t enough, I received an email the following day from fellow tennis nut Jim Falvo telling me he was due soon for a hip replacement surgery. I asked Jim if he’d write a guest post about his recovery process in the hopes it might help someone else out there. He kindly agreed. So part 2 of this story will come soon with a guest post by Jim sharing what he’s experiencing in real time as he goes through that tough rehab process.

In the meantime, here’s my new story about injuries–present and future:

Today’s injury is giving me a unique new opportunity to learn and grow. I may not see exactly the nature of the opportunity, but I know it will eventually become clear and make me stronger. This obstacle also is a gift to remind me how exceptionally grateful I am for all the amazing blessings in my life.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.