Tennis Helps High Schooler Overcome Rare Disorder
James Maimonis, Communications and Engagement Coordinator | May 31, 2017
WESTBOROUGH, MA- When you watch 6’3” Westborough, MA senior Zak Weinstein play tennis, you notice the fluidity and power he displays with every stroke. What you won’t notice however is his focal dystonia, a rare neurological disorder that causes uncontrollable shakes and tremors in his arms. From the time he was seven years old, the 2016 state champion doubles player at Westborough High has dealt with this rare condition that cuts off communication between his brain and his arms.
Shortly after his diagnosis, his mother, Alyssa Dver, observed that while on the court, Zak seemed unaffected by the disorder and could play tennis without restriction.
“It was fascinating that Zak’s dystonia didn’t interrupt his tennis and in fact, seemed almost absent on the court. Tennis was, and still is, Zak’s Zen where his mind and body were in perfect sync unlike anywhere else,” Dver said. “It wasn’t explainable by any of the neurologists we consulted. ADVERTISEMENT They did not know why or how he had such arm control on the tennis court and they could not offer ideas how to transfer this to other parts of his life.”
A condition that greatly hampered his day-to-day activities had essentially disappeared once he stepped on the court. Even his former coach of three years was unaware of the situation at hand.
“I never heard him talk to anyone about it including myself,” said Stephen Ferris. “Not that he didn't share it with someone, but we all traveled together in a small bus, spent a ton of time together and I had no idea and no one ever mentioned it to me.”
So over the years, Zak embraced the fact that he was in his element on the court, and tennis quickly became his greatest passion.
Although Zak was unaffected on the court, he was still reminded every day of the struggle he faced from his dystonia. He’s tried more than 10 different techniques to write efficiently, including switching hands, standing up and pushing the pencil into his chest, and he constantly had difficulty playing video games and carrying food to the dinner table.
But no matter how difficult the task, Zak refused to give up. He kept trying and trying until he found a way to succeed.
“I’ve really learned perseverance. If you want to do something and you’re trying it one way and it doesn’t work, try another way. And if that way doesn’t work, keep trying until you find a way to do it,” Zak said.
And he’s applied that never-say-die attitude onto the court, where he helped his team to two state championships, including a victory last year. In addition, he and partner Ben Hopkinson reached the DI Central Mass. Individual doubles state finals this season.
“Zak really progressed both physically and talent wise during the three years I coached him,” Ferris said. “Each year he got exponentially stronger and the same could be said of his ability on the court, and that culminated this year in his being the finalist in the Individual Districts.
About two years ago, he and his family met in Canada with a Spanish doctor who has helped Zak progress in managing his condition.
“He was able to explain that tennis gave him the focus and rhythm that his brain could use to help control his disconnected arm muscles,” Dver said. “With this clue, the doctor used movement therapy to retrain Zak’s neural pathways so they could help him control his arms. We credit tennis to being the key that helped us find this painless, cost-effective cure.”
Although there is currently no cure for dystonia, Zak has the condition in check and has seen a drastic improvement over the past two years.
Zak will be attending the University of Vermont in the fall where he hopes to major in psychology and minor in music. But his biggest criterion for college was tennis. He either wanted to play DIII in New England or go somewhere local with a strong club program. So surely while Zak will be focused on his studies, he will also be getting his fill of competition on the court.
At the time of writing, Westborough High has secured the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the DI Central postseason tournament, which puts them five wins away from defending their 2016 state crown.