Left or Right?…Our ability to beat the odds

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I had surgery on my left wrist recently. I’m still in a removable cast and unable to use it. Unfortunately I’m left-handed…and what’s worse is that I teach tennis for a living. Surgery happened just weeks prior to my busiest season on court. The doctor said it would take 6 months before I could use a racquet again. Needless to say, only the worst kinds of thoughts entered my mind. I had no idea what I was going to do to get through the rush. We bill almost half of the year’s revenue in those 3 weeks. And now I was out with not a hope in hand.

I collapsed on the couch, turned on ESPN, and felt sorry for myself.

As I wasted away into the depths of the television screen, a Gillette commercial rescued me. The story of Shaquem Griffin unfolded like a message from heaven. For those who don’t know, Shaquem Griffin had to have his left hand amputated at birth because of a disease called amniotic band syndrome. The commercial summarizes his life with clips of him doing pushups, and bench pressing aided only by one hand. It ends with the tag line: “Your best never comes easy.” Shaquem went on to be selected by the Seattle Seahawks and had a successful rookie year in the NFL.

I rose from my self pity and became aware of everything I had, and mostly the fact that I possessed two hands. I yelled to my wife:

“It’s going to be okay. I’m going to play right handed!”

She let out a breath of air. She’d suffered one too many days living with a mummy.

The next morning I met with my assistant, explained my goal then asked her to feed some balls and correct the flaws in my strokes. We began slowly from the short court. I was spraying balls all over the place. I felt weak and restricted like I’d never experienced on the tennis court before. I’d been humbled to an amateur. She gave me some useful advice then I loaded up the ball machine and hit 400 more balls. I videoed my strokes then analyzed them for every weakness. I was so stiff. I looked so un-athletic. My legs were straight as boards; my arm moved like a slow steam locomotive; the space between me and the ball made it seem like I was handcuffed on most shots. I was hardly encouraged to move any further in this quest. But I’d already made the decision. And Shaquem’s story was in the back of my mind like a headlight in the dark. I had about five weeks to learn how to hit the tennis ball with my right hand.

I continued to hit at least 400 balls a day on the ball machine and practice with whoever was wiling to give me their time. At this point I was about two weeks removed from surgery and only a week into my quest. My doctor had given me firm instructions to keep my wrist in the removable cast for 24 hours a day, only to be taken off for cleaning the wound. I wasn’t allowed to lift anything above 1 pound nor grip, drag, or pull. My right hand became my motor. And it was adapting well to daily life. It had become almost normal to brush my teeth, open a bottle (squeezed between my feet), drive, and lift objects using only my right hand. I could almost feel the synapses in my brain connecting and strengthening as I gave it command over my daily chores.

This new familiarity with my unknown half began to translate on the tennis court. The racquet almost felt normal, not quite like it belonged, but definitely not like the initial feeling of holding a rattle snake or Thor’s hammer.

I started googling tennis players who had switched hands to see how good one could possibly become, to lay a sort of beacon of inspiration before me. I found a man in Northern California who had to have his dominant wrist fused at age 55. Prior to that he had been winning most of the men’s national tournaments for his age bracket. I emailed him. He could be my Yoda I thought. He wrote back. He said it took him five years before he could hit a volley. I was encouraged and disgruntled in the same breath.

“I don’t have 5 years! I have less than 5 weeks!”

I began researching on how to develop the feeling in my right side at an accelerated pace. What I found was interesting. A lot of studies agree that it’s easier and faster for a left hander to become familiar with his/her right side because we live in a right-handers world. Left handers are forced to do meniscal tasks with their right hand from an early age. I began to take notice of all the things I had to learn as a right hander simply because I didn’t have access to left handed apparatus.

I played field hockey right handed because there wasn’t a left-handed stick. I had to figure out how to strum a guitar with my non-rhythmic side because our local music shop didn’t sell any left-handed guitars. The list went on. I began to see this unfamiliar friend as one who had always been there, one who I had relied on more than I’d reckoned. And this single thought really helped me, that my right side was capable and known. It began to give me confidence on the court, a confirmation that prompted:

“Yes, actually I can be very strong with this side of my body.”

I beat a friend… one I used to practice with when I was left-handed. Now I had some empirical evidence that I was progressing, that I could do it. I didn’t beat him like I used to beat him with my left hand, but the fact that I beat him was an olive branch. Move on. Progress. I can do this.

I continued to push booked lessons towards my assistant. I told the Concierge to give every lesson to her, that I wasn’t quite ready to be on court with members. The trouble with most rich folks who take private tennis lessons is that they expect every fed ball to be perfectly placed in their strike zone. It takes away the very essence of tennis. I know. It is what it is. The feed was my final test. I got the green-light from the doctor to hold a tennis ball in my left hand. It wasn’t heavy enough to do any damage. I agreed to a lesson with a 14 year old beginner. It was the perfect lesson to test the waters. We started slowly. I fed the ball to her forehand, at a much slower pace than she was used to. She liked it. It gave her more time to recover.

“Ok we’re going to move it around now.”

I sprayed a feed into the side fence. I smiled.

“Got ya!”

She laughed. I recalibrated.

“Wow, that was bad I thought.”

I brought my target closer. I got better. We were in a good rhythm. I reached for a ball and on the way out of the basket my hand jammed into the metal part. A buzz ran through my wrist. It hurt. But I was okay.

“Lets get some water.”

“Something is a little different about you today, Luke. She looked at me, up and down, left and right.”

Only a 14 year old girl can miss a man in a cast.

I waved my cast in front of her face.

“That’s it! What’s that about?”

She hadn’t connected the dots. I continued to tell her what happened to my wrist.

“That’s terrible. Well at least you’re not a lefty!”

I had won. I had accomplished what I had set out to do. And yes it was only one lesson with a 14 year old beginner girl, but it was much more than what I’d ever thought was possible. I let out a sigh of relief.

“You’re right. Good thing I’m not a lefty.”

I called my assistant.

“I’m going to make it, Marita.”

“Of course you are.”

And I did. I went 21 days straight on the court with about 6–7 hours of lessons a day. I even won our annual winter doubles tournament with a member who needed a partner. My clients were amazed at how well I was coping with my right hand. Some couldn’t recognize the difference.

I’m about to have my pins removed and can then begin the rehabilitation of my left wrist. I should be back to playing in 3 months. A big part of me wants to continue this quest though. How good can I get? What is my right side really capable of with some more practice and work?

Two notable things have happened to me during this period. I’m starting to encourage my young kids to use both hands during every day tasks. My four year old likes to do hop scotch using only her right leg.

“Lets see you do it on your other leg now, Lily!”

She’s getting better and she’s having fun with it.

Finally, I’ve started to believe in opportunities that have previously looked daunting. What else is out there that is possible that I haven’t given hope or thought to? What haven’t I explored, or taken note of? I’m beginning to think we’re bounded by only the thought of: “I can’t do that.”

We have everything we need and we are so much more than we know.

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