Mount Sinai Health Tip: The Benefits of Wheelchair Tennis
Though far less known than their counterparts in the main draw, another group of elite tennis players shared the spotlight at the 2018 US Open in New York: the top wheelchair tennis players in the world.
Many enthusiasts consider tennis one of the best lifetime sports for overall health, and recent published research backs up this claim. It’s also one of the best sports for those who have suffered serious spinal cord injuries and must use wheelchairs, according to Vincent Huang, MD, a specialist in spinal cord injury and rehabilitation at the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine and Human Performance at the Mount Sinai Health System. Mount Sinai is the official medical services provider of the USTA Eastern Section and the US Open.
“You don’t have to be an elite player to reap the benefits,” said Dr. Huang, who has worked with a wide variety of patients who have taken up wheelchair tennis as part of their rehabilitation. “Wheelchair tennis is an amazing sport that enables those recovering from a serious injury to socialize and connect with their family and friends. It also helps them rebuild their life after their injury. They don’t allow their injury to define them.”
Another unique benefit of wheelchair tennis is that it allows someone who is in a wheelchair to play on the same court with able-bodied friends and family. Plus, it is one of the few sports where the world’s best athletes—both those in wheelchairs and able-bodied players— gather for international competitions, including the US Open, where wheelchair players are “showcased alongside all of the great able-bodied players of our day,” said Jason Harnett, USTA National Manager and Head Coach for Team USA Wheelchair.
In this Q&A, Dr. Huang explains how wheelchair tennis can offer a challenging and exciting outlet while playing an important role in the rehabilitation process, one that can help participants build and sustain a positive outlook on life.
Q: What exactly is wheelchair tennis?
Dr. Huang: The sport is played by those who have been paralyzed in their legs or have amputations or congenital and degenerative conditions that prevent them from playing regular tennis. It’s pretty much the same as tennis, except the ball can bounce twice on your side before you hit it back. It’s played on all the same surfaces as regular tennis: hard court, clay and even grass. Elite athletes, like those competing at the US Open, have special wheelchairs, but you don’t need one, and you can play on your neighborhood courts.
Q: How do athletes compete?
Dr. Huang: Just like tennis. You can play singles or doubles, and there are separate tournaments for men and women. There’s also a new category called Quad. This is for players who have lost the use of their legs and have lost substantial function in at least one upper limb. Some players may tape racquets to their hands or may be allowed to use electric power wheelchairs. Wheelchair tennis is featured at the US Open and the three other Grand Slam events, as well as the Paralympic Games, where wheelchair athletes compete in many other sports, including basketball and rugby.
Q: What are some of the benefits of wheelchair tennis?
Dr. Huang: You have to use your hands to maneuver on the court, as well as your upper body to be able to hit the ball. This allows players to strengthen their arms, build their core strength and rebuild their fine-motor skills, which helps with everyday life functions. Wheelchair tennis challenges them to overcome something that may have initially seem impossible because of their disability. This helps build confidence and self-esteem. Wheelchair tennis also creates a bond among people with spinal cord injury and provides an environment for peer networks in the community. Most important, it’s a great way to have fun and enjoy yourself.
Q: How can it help with the recovery process?
Dr. Huang: When you are in the hospital after a traumatic injury, it can be a very difficult time. You need to learn lots of things about how to manage for the rest of your life. Wheelchair tennis is a vehicle to allow those who are recovering to open their eyes to other activities they can do as long as they set their minds to it.
Q: What are some of the things beginners should know?
Dr. Huang: First-time wheelchair players should be aware of blisters or calluses due to the heavy use of their hands and the friction that occurs with using the wheelchair. They should also make sure their movements are aligned properly so that they don't overtax their shoulder, their arms or their back. And they should listen to their body and not push it too hard, especially in order to avoid more serious injuries.
Q: How does Mount Sinai work with someone interested in wheelchair tennis?
Dr. Huang: Our Department of Rehabilitation Medicine and Human Performance has a program called "Life Challenge," which enables individuals with spinal cord injury opportunities to participate in activities that may seem impossible because of their disability. After an acute spinal cord injury, most of the time they come to an acute rehabilitation center, like Mount Sinai. They stay for three to six weeks learning about their injury and how to manage it. There is so much to learn and their stay is so short that it makes it difficult for them to think about recreational activities. We try to educate and expose these individuals with spinal cord injury as soon as possible about different activities, especially wheelchair tennis since it provides so many benefits. We make sure they are medically able to participate in wheelchair tennis. We will refer them to our spinal cord injury outreach coordinator and connect them with other players and support groups. We will go over the mechanics in order to prevent further injuries. We can also match them up with a mentor and with people with similar backgrounds and injuries.
Q: How did you get involved in this work?
Dr. Huang: When I was a rehabilitation resident, it was challenging and inspiring to see these individuals with spinal cord injury during their most difficult time and being an integral part of their recovery. I was drawn to this and wanted to help them. It’s pretty amazing what they can overcome.