Move smart to avoid pickleball injuries

I've hurt myself a couple of times playing pickleball, and each time it could have been avoided. Moving too quickly – lunging, twisting and throwing myself on the ground - caused lower back pain, knee pain and a broken hand.

But I've seen worse. We had a player here in Homer who back-peddled to get a ball lobbed over their head, tumbled backwards and broke some vertebrae. And I've heard of a brain aneurysm occurring from doing the same thing.

Smooth and deliberate movement - as in preparing for hitting a shot, or preparing to receive a shot - is all-important. That comes from drilling these movements over and over in practice. You need to practice these things before you try to increase your level of play.

When I lunged for a forehand and missed, I was off balance and tumbled, slapping my right hand on the asphalt playing surface. It broke the knuckle above my right pinkie (a "boxer's break," according to Homer orthopedic specialist Dr. Brent Adcox) and I'll have a weirdly deformed hand for the rest of my life (see the x-ray photo). It's a great conversation piece, and doesn't really hinder usage (I'm a "lefty" anyway), but it'll probably be arthritically painful in future years and something I could do without.

Repetitive stress injuries like tennis elbow and wrist strain can occur over time. You'll need to monitor those joints and use icing and heat to keep those at bay.

Back-pedaling to get overhead balls is a no-no. The correct technique for chasing down these shots is counter-intuitive but necessary. As the ball goes over your head, you look up to assess its direction and then turn away from the ball, and run in the direction where it will land. You try to get to the side where you can hit a backhand - or even better, a forehand - after it bounces. When a pickleball bounces, its rate of movement slows significantly, and allowing it to bounce will give you more time to return a shot. So, no back pedaling!

Quick forward movement with twisting will do your knees in. Those ligaments in the knee (ACL, MCL and LCL) will get irritated and sore and can go from a pull to a sprain to a tear, or worst case, a disconnect. Talk about painful. The solution to avoiding problems in the knees is, once again, smooth and deliberate movement. And making small movements with your feet (Google "footwork + pickleball") to get in a balanced position to hit the ball. Lunging is a no-no, too.

In your excitement to get on the court and get playing, you can forget the most immediate and effective way to avoid muscle pulls, back kinks and joint pain - stretching. Take 10 minutes at home, before you leave for the court, to go through a routine you design to warm up and get limber. That will be an ounce of prevention that may save you some pain over the long run.

The other thing to be sure to do: Get good footwear. I've got arthritis in my feet and I have custom orthotics in all my footwear, plus I wear an articulated ankle brace. After too many years of basketball ankle sprains, I finally discovered the Active Ankle, a brace used by NBA players that has cut down on those ugly sprains that almost caused me to get surgery. You can find this particular brace, and others like it, on Amazon.

Don't just use your old sneakers to play. You're looking for a good court shoe that has good lateral support for those side-to-side movements employed in a court game. You don't have to spend a lot, but you do need to replace your shoes regularly, as they break down and stop being good support. I probably switch out my shoes twice a year, and I buy a New Balance court shoe (in X-Wide for my big ole duck feet) for $60 to $80 from Amazon.

The one other thing I'm going to start wearing is eye protection. At a certain level of play it's just too easy for a ball to ricochet and hit an eyeball. That can be both painful and catastrophic.

All of this is not intended to be medical device (necessary disclaimer), but are things I've learned and come to employ in my never-ending battle to fight my future decrepitation. And it can for you too.

Next column: New court options are coming.

Jim Lavrakas has lived in Alaska for almost a half century. The self-proclaimed "squirrel man" has found a lively outlet in the pursuit of pickleball. You can reach him at