How older athletes handle aging and how you can get the most of your activities
I recently read that we can expand the value of exercise by learning something new at the same time we are exercising. I took that advice literally and listened to an educational podcast while walking, fell and suffered a concussion from which I am recovering. As a 78-year-old female, late-blooming athlete who has competed in marathons and ballroom dancing in my 60s and 70s, I am having a hard time dealing with the loss and my age. This is difficult for a competitive achiever. Any tips to pass on? S.C.
First of all, the good news is that you are recovering from your fall. It’s not easy to recalibrate our physical expectations in later life, particularly if we are competitive and have been high achievers.
The trend of older athletes competing has been well documented. For example, between 2008 and 2018, there was an increase in marathon finishers over age 80. In 2011, 88 runners in the New York marathon were age 75 or older. In 2015, Harriette Thompson at age 94 was the oldest woman to finish a marathon and also set a half-marathon record at that age. And at age 98, Tao-Porchan-Lynch was the oldest competitive female ballroom dancer and oldest yoga instructor.
These women are a source of inspiration — and possibly frustration. Most of us cannot achieve such heights while knowing the possibility exists as demonstrated by these exceptional athletes.
So how do we manage and cope? An article about aging athletes by coach Bret Hamilton on the fitness site Breaking Muscle said it well. “…as we age our self-worth should not and, for sanity’s sake, cannot be aligned with physical performance.” Aging will be extremely difficult for those who value themselves only for what they can do versus who they are as individuals, Hamilton adds.
Others have addressed the dilemma for aging athletes. Brad Stulberg, coach, writer and researcher, wrote an article for Outside Online about aging among athletes. He quotes clinical sports psychologist Jessica Bunce, who addresses the role of one’s attitude in adjusting to the physical changes that occur among many older athletes. She suggests that athletes who are driven from within and compete primarily for the joy of the sport and also compete against themselves are more likely to be flexible in adapting their goals in later life. This is less true for those who are motivated by external results and recognition.
She adds that such attitudes may be influenced early in life. How well older athletes deal with their sporting lifestyle might go back to how their parents approached their athletic lives. For example, children whose parents pressured them to play or who obsessed over their winning and ranking often struggle in their later years when their own performance starts to decline, writes Bunce. She adds, “But those who pursued sports predominantly for the love of the game when they were young tend to have a much easier time with aging.”
From my perspective, this might be difficult since sports for young folks are focused on winning. Think of Little League, basketball, girls’ softball, soccer, hockey and tennis. Think of all of the trophies for winners and runners-up. How about the recognition banquets and award ceremonies? And think of all of those children who did not receive a trophy. It seems that for younger folks, the win does count.
Here are a few suggestions:
• Redefine your self-worth. Take stock and acknowledge what you do well. And don’t sell yourself short on this; identify with it.
• Do some of the same, but a little less. Instead of running, consider walking. If you are outdoors, take in the environment and smell the roses.
• Try dancing just for the joy of it, without the competition.
• Treasure that you have choices. You can explore a new sport, one that fits with your capabilities. Include yoga and tai chi; they count.
• Continue to be active and train for strength, balance and flexibility. These can be adapted to one’s physical condition and capabilities. Instead of exercise, think “training.”
Bunce gives a great parting thought. “Remember that being an athlete is more than qualifying for the Boston Marathon, counting the number of peaks you’ve bagged or setting the new CrossFit personal best. It every bit is as much as personal growth, community and having fun.”
S.C., thank you for your good question that I believe many older athletes are asking. Hopefully, this will give you a few thoughts to consider. Best wishes for a full recovery and many active, fulfilling and joyful years ahead.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulagingCommunity