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Optimum Performance: ‘Playing hurt’ and ‘playing injured’ are 2 separate things

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — Last Friday before the start of the semifinal match between the No. 1 world-ranked female tennis champion – Serena Williams – and third seeded Simona Halep at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, Williams had to withdraw due to a prior injury.

On center court after the completion of the day’s first seminal final competition between Jelena Jankovic and Sabine Lisicki, Williams told the crowd, “A couple days ago at practice I really injured my knee. Today I was struggling just to even walk.”

The knee injury occurred the day before, while Williams was serving during practice. Williams further stated that, “I have a tremendous amount of inflammation in my knee and it’s going to go away. Unfortunately, I just need a couple of days. That’s the most frustrating part.”

As I have said previously in this column, world class professional tennis can be a brutal non-contact sport based on such factors as the change in playing surfaces, the weather, travel and time change issues, not to mention the tremendous level of competition.

Story by

Mackie Shilstone,

Contributing writer

It’s one thing to play hurt, but something totally different to play injured. Williams made the right decision after testing her knee in the pre match warm up 1.5 hours before the intended competition — along with multiple consultations with the tournament’s attending sports medicine physician.

It was an agonizing decision, but one that needed to be made. You always want to win the battle, but not at the expense of loosing the war.

With the French Open less than 60 days away followed by the Wimbledon tournament, looking ahead to the “slams” is what matters when you must make a decision to play or not relative to an injury.

Fighting hurt is for heroes such as the brave members of our armed forces. For an individual sport athlete, as in pro tennis, perspective on your long- term health and longevity is what matters most.

Unfortunately, many times in my 40 years in pro sports I have witnessed athletes make decisions to step onto the playing field injured, only to have their team release them when the season ended. Commitment and loyalty has to work both ways. That’s not to say that a team would not provide good medical care and follow-up.

Professional sports franchises are in business to make a profit. Underperforming or non-performing assets must be eliminated from the balance sheet. Damaged goods are not viable, marketable commodities that have the same value prior to an injury.

Thank goodness for disability insurance policies and guaranteed money in many professional team sports which provide for an injured player – which is why the single sport athlete must not only cultivate and manage their own talent, but also quickly learn to not rent their health. There is no guaranteed money in pro golf or tennis – excluding any endorsements or contract commitments, which have revenue attached. 

The take-away message for young athletes and future pros is that you only have so many pitches, serves, throws, or swings with a golf club in your shoulder/elbow complex, so many times that you can be thrown to the ground in contact sports or punched, as in boxing, before you succumb to an injury. In many cases, the damage is repairable. In some cases, the damage is career threatening or ending.

While injuries are part of the game, survival is the name of the game. The most successful pro athletes, in terms of career longevity, are those players who recognize quickly that while age is mandatory, maturity is optional.

You must have a mature, structured, and consistent plan of attack no matter what country, time zone, or location you find yourself. Because you will always be in the cross hairs of an injury, if you let your guard down and stray from “what got you to the big leagues.” 

Mackie Shilstone, a regular contributor to | The Times-Picayune, has been involved in the wellness sports performance industry for nearly 40 years. He is currently a fitness consultant to Serena Williams and has trained numerous other professional athletes and consulted a litany of professional sports franchises. Contact him at