By Andrew Walker, MPH; NSGA Director of Health & Well-Being
When I think of longevity in sports, I think of professional athletes Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Cal Ripken, Muhammad Ali, Venus Willams and Tom Brady, and Olympians Simone Biles, Edwin Moses, Carl Lewis and Al Oerter, who all competed at the highest levels past the traditional age for their sport.
Athletic longevity is seen as the exception and is only somewhat valued among professional athletes. In contrast, participants in the National Senior Games consider playing their sport for a lifetime as a hallmark of aging well and want to stay in the game as long as they can.
While most of the research in athletic longevity is focused on youth sports and not older adults, there are several key practices that apply to both age groups. Being able to compete long-term involves several elements including sports participation, training practices, injury history, genetics and psychological factors.
The good news? Most of these variables are things we can control. Complementary sports sampling, cross training and an artist’s mindset are key ways to help you keep playing at any age.
Although sport-specific training is necessary, research is finding specialization in sports at early ages is not associated with lifelong sports participation. One bit of wisdom that applies to sports is the phrase, “Variety is the spice of life.” In the athletic world, this is known as sports sampling, which involves identifying and participating in complementary sports. This could look like a Track & Field athlete playing Tennis or Pickleball.
The idea is that playing a complementary sport gives your body a break from performing the exact same movements as your primary sport. It also allows you to move in different ways which may positively impact brain health by stimulating different parts of your brain.
Trying a complementary sport also decreases repetitive stress injuries. Young athletes who participate in multiple sports experience fewer repetitive injuries that are also common among adult athletes.
Burnout and joint-related injuries are also associated with intense participation in only one sport. Project Play of the Aspen Institute identified key risks for overuse injuries that can be applied to older adults. Anyone’s risk for injuries increases when:
- A sport activity requires a high volume of repetitive motion and time on task.
- Practicing and competing without adequate rest and recovery time.
- Experiencing recuring injuries in similar parts of the body.
Another approach that enhances sports longevity is using cross training in your fitness program. Cross training is exercising using multiple types of activities that provide variation in intensity and type. The hallmark of this method is that it allows us to maintain intensity of training while using a different type of fitness or sporting activity. This is especially important in off-season and preseason fitness maintenance and development.
Like sports sampling, cross training decreases the likelihood of injuries. For example, a swimmer can try cycling or running to maintain cardio fitness. And what better time to try a new activity than during the first quarter of the year.
An Artist’s Mindset
Mindset is another an important part of the long game of Senior Games sports. Embracing the mindset of an artist is essential to longevity in many skill-based activities, including sports. When you approach your sport as a craft, notice the fine details and appreciate subtleties, it helps keep athletics fresh and engaging.
One athlete who lived this out was four-time Olympian Al Oerter. In addition to being an athlete, Al was an artist who supported the Olympic Movement by creating shared spaces for appreciating the arts, sports and culture through the Art of the Olympians project.
Al’s wife Cathy shared this reflection on his approach to his sport. “Al said, ‘Throwing is like coming home.’ He loved and enjoyed the sport he had chosen and was dedicated to the thrill of being at his best. Competition acted as a test of his capabilities. He also loved working hard for an elusive goal. And it was a form of meditation that allowed him to be at peace with what he loved doing.”
So now when you see National Senior Games Association’s slogan, “Long Live the Challenge,” you will be inspired to apply new methods to stay in The Games for a lifetime!