Accepting Aging as an Athlete

I explained what I’ve written below to my neighbour as I walked by him on my way home from playing ultimate, and he started to chuckle. I asked what he was laughing about and he said “It’s fun watching you grow up”. This is my neighbour who used to be on the Canadian National Figure Skating Team, so he knows what athletes go through as their career (or in my case “career”) winds down.

I think a lot of people understand this, but even more of us go through it. It was a beautiful fall morning. The sun was out. A couple of my best friends are on the team. I spent an hour and a half exercising, enjoying fresh air, hanging out with great people, and playing a sport that I love. Sounds great, right? Sort of. This was a recreational level team and I was there as a sub. I was used to playing at a higher level, which meant I was one of the better players on the field. But I made a couple of bad throws, and was beaten twice defensively. I also had some good plays of course, so I had no real reason to be unhappy. And the team certainly didn’t mind that I wasn’t perfect.

In other words, I should have thought it was just a great morning. But instead, I was unhappy with my performance. I felt that I should have adjusted better to the wind to throw those flicks properly. And if I had been playing better defense, I would have prevented those two points. After the game my friend Scott commented about what a great and fun game it was. I commented that it was nice but I wasn’t happy with my game. He said something like “Wow, you’re really hard on yourself”. I looked around. Everyone but me was all smiles.

There’s a certainty in life that as we age, we start to get a bit slower. Training can reduce and delay the slowing down, but it doesn’t prevent it. Training also keeps our muscles and joints healthier, so definitely worth doing, but inevitably as we add years, we slow down. The other thing that tends to happen as we age is that we lose our commitment to improving. Other elements of life take more of our time. This reduces both our training time and our practice time. So we are slower, we spend less time working on our skills, and we train less.

Anybody with half a brain should be able to figure out that less speed + less practice + less training = reduced performance.

Apparently I am operating on less than half a brain, because I keep going out to the field expecting my body to perform for me the way it used to. The way it did before I turned 39. The way it did before I took two years off sports for hip surgery. The way it did before I started defending people who are ten to twenty years younger. The way it did when I played and practiced three times each week and played tournaments every two to three weekends.

I started writing this article when I got home from the game. Then the next day, I got an email from my friend John. It was a group email he sent out sharing an experience he had had a couple of weeks ago while doing a 100km bike tour. John had a heart attack in 2000, and since then has had a renewed commitment to staying active to reduce the potential for another. He had done many 100km rides prior to this one, so that in itself was not a big stress. But he said that at about the 50km mark, he noticed he had pushed more than normal, was really going at a great pace, and that his ego got the best of him. Instead of slowing down to his normal pace, he pushed even more, and passing more people. Then at the 78km mark, he got a sharp chest pain. He stopped for a minute and the pain went away. He wanted to keep going, but the friend he was riding with convinced him to call it a day. He went to the hospital to be safe and it took several tests over several days for the doctors to first come to the conclusion that he had a heart attack and then to the conclusion that he didn’t. The false positive was because he had stressed his heart considerably over the four hour ride and some of the tests looked like he had had a heart attack.

In the end, he realized that his extra push caused undue stress to his family, extra work for his team at the office, and added cost to the health care system. All because he was trying to be “a 30 year old jock”.

John and I had similar realizations, although through vastly different experiences. I definitely had the easier road! But I bet his lesson will stick, whereas I suspect that it will take me a while longer to forgive my weaknesses, and to allow myself to enjoy being a veteran athlete.

I wonder if anyone is able to turn off that ego like a light switch?

I definitely look forward to being mature enough to just enjoy playing, without judging myself against the other players on the field, and against the younger me.

I think the impending ski season is well-timed, as I am able to find great joy from just skiing. Of course that may change if (or when – gasp!) I have to stop skiing the bumps and start sticking to the blue groomers. Yup, maturing is going to be a long road. But I feel lucky that this is a road I get to travel.

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2 thoughts on “Accepting Aging as an Athlete”

  1. I could’ve written this myself, it rings so true! It’s not just aging, but also changing priorities as recreational athletes: recovering from having kids, not having the time or inclination to train or practice/play most days of the week. But we still expect to be able to perform as we used to when the game was our life. I don’t think there’s a solution, other than just getting used to it… Enjoying that beer after the game helps, though.

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