Monday, June 13, 2011

THE AGING ATHLETE - Achtung, Baby!

On Saturday, I was watching BBC and saw that Janet Evans is currently training for the 2012 Olympic Games.  Who is Janet Evans?  Well, to freshen up your memory she is a former World Record Holder and a 4- time Olympic Gold Medalist in swimming, who retired in 1996. 
It seemed her age was the topic of discussion. Janet Evans is 39 years old. But, the face of athlete is changing.  For example, Lori-Anne Muenzer who captured gold in cycling in the 2004 Olympic Games at the tender age of 38, Stefi Nerius winning gold at the World Championships in Javelin at 37 years young or even Chris Chelios at the age of 48 playing in the NHL.  So, what was my reaction when I saw Janet was back in the pool? – “You Go Girl!!!  Now, that’s what I’m talking ABOUT!”  It reminded me of a previous blog on this topic I had written, and is worth revisiting.

Sports seem to be the one venue where discrimination on the basis of age is okay and tolerated.  Ironically, the landscape of sports is quickly changing.  I believe the real battle is for the archaic mindset of people to keep up.  People, including arm chair athletes, media, National Sport Organizations, Professional Sport teams and sometimes athletes themselves need to sit up and take notice.
The modern athlete trains under advanced conditions/knowledge, eats & recovers more wisely, and has the access of therapists who are constantly finding better ways to treat athletes. Knowledge is a click away with the birth of the internet and high quality 3-dimensional computer analysis for biomechanics. Facilities and sports equipments are also improving. All of these factors assist in extending the competitive life of an athlete. Doesn’t it make sense why athletes are lasting longer in their sports? Moreover, there is something called “mastery.” It takes an athlete approximately 10 years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a sport.
When an athlete starts performing poorly and they are older the natural tendency is to attribute it to one’s age – ‘they are getting up there in age so they are not as good as they were when they were younger.’ While, I acknowledge the effects of aging on the body, sometimes people may be experiencing personal problems, fatigue, and injury or just are in a slump... or maybe just human??? But, because someone is beyond a certain age common for their sport there is a natural tendency to attribute poor performances to age. This kind of stereotype is NOT acceptable in the workforce so why is it in sports. It actually is ageism and IT’S WRONG!
Ironically, parents unknowingly will clamor to have their child specialize in a sport at an early age with hopes of little Johnny becoming the next great one (citing figures like Tiger Wood as their example). What most people don’t realize is that Tiger Woods is the exception and not the norm. An athlete’s best chance at becoming elite is a resume which includes a rich, diverse sport background encapsulating many sports, while delaying specialization. Which, when done properly can extend an athlete’s life incredibly.  Very few athletes who are anointed the next great one actually achieve this predicted status.    
One last note – female athletes may not stay in sports as long as their male counter parts, not because of being too old, but because of a new passionate commitment to a family. They become wives and mothers -- carrying a child in their womb for 9 months and then engaging in caretaking and raising a family.  So to women like Janet Evans, mother of two, I give a loud support, cheer and applaud.
POOFing Ageism,

Côté, J, Young, B, North, J and Duffy, P. (2007). Towards a Definition in Excellence in Sport Coaching. International Journal of Coaching Science. 1 (1): 3-17.

Erickson K, Côté J, Fraser-Thomas J. (2007). Sport experiences, milestones, and educational activities associated with high-performance coaches' development. Sport Psychologist. 21 (3): 302-316.
Fraser-Thomas, J.L., Côté, J., & Deakin, J. (2005). Youth sport programs: An avenue to foster positive youth development. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 10, 49-70.

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