An accident has widened Professor Liz Franz's understanding of her own research in ways she could never have imagined, seen here in her table tennis laboratory at the Department of Psychology. Guy Frederick met the table tennis playing Professor and discovered a personal story running hand in hand with her research.
With an invite to play table tennis with friends, and following several decades as an active runner, Professor Liz Franz discovered her new sport.
“Sport is probably the healthiest habit I can imagine, and such a nice way to be able to get the best out of yourself,” Professor Franz says. “I've been an athlete all my life. It's just a part of me.”
“Every single thing we learn is a new skill being refined, and I soon found out table tennis is highly technical. In some ways I wondered what I was getting myself into, but at the same time I absolutely loved it.”
Professor Franz is a neuroscientist based in the Department of Psychology. Her research explores psychological and neural processes associated with the action system, such as how the brain organises complex behaviours so that goal-directed actions can occur. Her specific focus is, and has always been, actions of the hands.
Professor Franz threw herself at her newfound activity of table tennis, and it didn't take long for it also to become a subject for her research. Two current research projects using table tennis as a subject of learning include exploring how the brain learns through observation of movement, and the role of focused attention to improve play.
Back to the start
The beginning of this story, however, belongs to a winter evening in late 2019, just a year after she took up table tennis. Somewhat ironically, it was a misstep while leaving a table tennis practice, that resulted in her receiving life-changing injuries.
Lying in the hospital with major internal injuries and a broken wrist, Professor Franz recalls one of her first thoughts was how her table tennis would be impacted.
“I simply didn't want to wait six weeks to get my wrist out of plaster and get going again,” she recalls. “I was lying there imagining how I would play with my left hand. I've always been strongly right-hand dominant, with a left hand that could barely do a thing.”
Consigned to home for the next four months for recovery, her family set up a table tennis table that she used to tap the ball against using her left hand, while her youngest son, then aged 8, acted as ball-boy.
Professor Franz has always drawn on her professional expertise, and this experience was no different. She turned to research to inform the journey of recovery and change she was embarking on.
“The process of switching from dominant to non-dominant side is often assumed to be merely a mechanical thing,” she explains. “But to coordinate the entire body to make this shift and translate it into the motor patterns and postures that make your body do this actually involves a great deal of brain changes as well.”
An example of brain activation associated with observation studies.
Despite been able to return to play with others, and with helpful coaching and support from sparring partners, Professor Franz could see that the road ahead would be tricky. She embraced the game and the challenge using her left hand and her skills gradually improved, fueled by her focus and mantra of 'practice, practice, practice'.
“In my lectures, I try to encourage deliberate practice in all skills and activities. Small steps will turn into larger ones and personal satisfaction and happiness comes from the challenges you impose on yourself.”
For the next two years she played competitively, attending local and national competitions, including an international training camp and tournament in Houston, Texas at the end of last year. Experiencing progress was enough to keep her moving forward even with ongoing chronic pain through her right arm.
It turned out that it wasn't just a broken wrist she'd sustained in the accident, but extensive tendon and ligament damage through her entire arm. Two years had passed with almost no progress of mobility gain in her right-wrist, in addition to significant impairment of movement with the entire arm.
How we see ourselves
While playing in the able-bodied events at the North Island Championships in July last year Professor Franz was approached by the coach of the New Zealand para team.
“He spotted me across the stadium as he'd noticed my impaired right arm and invited me to consider the New Zealand para team,” she recalls.
“It was a surreal moment as it was something I hadn't even considered, and seemed to go straight to the core of identity and how we and others see ourselves.”
Para athletes compete in classes according to their functional ability, from those in wheelchairs to individuals with impairments that allow them to play standing. Her impaired right arm meant she could compete in the highest functioning class level.
Professor Franz's saw this offer as yet another opportunity to learn even more table tennis skills.
“There are certain things I have learned along my journey, and one of these is we should never put limitations on ourselves,” she says.
“By extension, we can't put limitations on other people either. I think it's possible to learn something from every single person which is stunning, and that's something I feel even more now.”
In the meantime, research will soon be published from Professor Franz's lab working with local table tennis players using techniques including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess the links between observation of movement and brain control mechanisms. She's also working with a researcher and table tennis players from Iran exploring the role of focused attention and biofeedback of breathing activity on table tennis skills.
A mirror box which Professor Franz was involved in developing that's used as a means of therapeutic facilitation of the damaged hand.
A meeting of worlds
Professor Franz says its truly exciting to experience such convergence in her research and own experience of table tennis which largely run in parallel to each other.
“For example, I learned from the research that memory for actions includes not just the sequence of movement, but also the whole context of the learning process, including the feedback that accompanies the learning; what a coach or teacher might say as well as what you say to yourself. It all becomes part of the memory representation.”
Reflecting on her personal and professional journey over the last few years since discovering the joy of table tennis, she says it's felt like a strange but lovely coincidence it's all happened to her.
“This journey has joined it all together as one, in exciting, challenging and incredibly fulfilling ways.”
“My impairment is really quite minor in my view. I get the opportunity to learn from so many others who have overcome so much more and I'm really grateful to all of them.”
Professor Franz adds that her first-hand personal experience has also allowed her to view her research so much more clearly.
“One of the main things I have learned is that, even though many people are kind and willing to assist, ultimately, it's in your own hands to persist with something. Embrace the challenge, whatever it is, and find your own way to succeed.”
Kōrero by Guy Frederick, Sciences Communications Adviser