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Sport and Competition

I May Be Past My Peak But I’m Not Over the Hill

Older Athletes and Extreme Sports

David Swink

Extreme sports often involve speed, height, an intense level of physical exertion, and specialized gear. They gained popularity in the 1990s when the X Games and the Extreme Sports Channel launched. Today there are myriad TV networks, magazines, and You Tube videos dedicated to the coverage of these adventures.

I have always been attracted to high-risk extreme sports even before they were called that. At age 15 I began mountain climbing and in college began skydiving. That became my main sport for the next 30 years. At age 63 I’ve now settled into flying trapeze, snowboarding and surfing as my main sports. I have loved every minute of these high-risk activities and I believe with all my heart, that they have made me a better person in many ways.

Recently, I have been thinking about my next big challenge. Will it be BASE jumping or parkour, or maybe jetpack flying? Nope. My biggest challenge will be how to continue pushing myself to the edge of my physical and mental learning envelop while being realistic about what my aging body and mind can safely handle. I also need to know when to walk away from a potential thrill that at a younger age was manageable but now might injure or kill me.

I know many people my age who have given up extreme sports early in life, leading unnecessarily sedentary lives. Some of those people are clinically depressed because they can’t participate in the extremely physical activities they once loved. On the other hand there are friends who have given up high risk sports too late and have either suffered physically or have even died as a result.

The number of sports-related injuries to people 65 or older has increased significantly in recent years. As baby boomers reached middle age those injuries increased by 54 percent from 1990-1996 alone, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. I would imagine that the injury rate is rising quickly for older people engaged in extreme sports. Does that mean older people shouldn’t do extreme sports? Certainly not! There are many benefits to participating in extreme sports at any age.

Extreme Sports Benefits

One benefit of extreme sports is the experience of “flow.” Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi, one of the most respected researchers of flow, defines flow as a “state in which action follows upon action according to an internal logic which seems to need no conscious intervention on our part. We experience it as a unified flowing from one moment to the next in which we are in control of our actions, and in which there is little distinction between self and environment; between stimulus and response; or between past, present, and future.”

If you have ever experienced flow, you know how powerful it is. For flow to occur, the activity one is doing is usually equal to or just above the ability of the participant, thus requiring total involvement. The situation is neither underwhelming nor overwhelming. Flow states brought on by intense physical high-risk activity may be less available as one’s physical abilities decline with age. I am unaware of any research in this area.

A second benefit of high-risk sports, involves what researchers have termed “communitas,” described as a kind of "shared flow." Engaging in dangerous challenging activities with other people breeds a sense of trust, belonging, and brother/sisterhood. In some extreme sports each participant’s survival may be interdependent on other participants’ competence. This often results in a strong social bond.

Extreme group sports exposes you to people from all walks of life that you might not ordinarily choose to hang out with. As a skydiver, I jumped with schoolteachers, doctors, grocery store clerks, farmers, Navy SEALS, and CIA agents. Exposure to such diverse people brings about a widening of perceptions and appreciation of people who are different from oneself. Communitas benefits older extreme athletes because they often develop friends that are much younger than themselves so they can keep their fingers on the pulse of what is happening cross-generationally.


Research has also identified a personal growth component as a benefit of extreme sports. Mountain climbers, skydivers, BASE jumpers and others often report that they had been changed, often in profound ways, by their respective sports. Extreme sports can create a feeling of self-change that is experienced as a "high," but not as an adrenaline or excitement high. Unlike flow, it is a state that is self-consciously experienced and immediately available to introspection. In fact, it is the intensified self-awareness of the change in itself that seems to provide the high.

There is new research in the field of neuroscience that may eventually tell us how continuously learning challenging new skills and being physically active in extreme sports can positively impact mental performance in older people. Because of brain neuroplasticity, the continuous learning of challenging new skills creates new neuronal connections that could help prevent memory loss and keep mental acuity as one ages.

The scaffolding theory of cognitive aging proposes that behavior can be maintained at a relatively high level with age, despite neural challenges and functional deterioration. This is due to the continuous engagement of compensatory scaffolding which recruits additional circuitry that shores up declining structures whose functioning has become noisy, inefficient, or both. Scaffolding enhancement can occur through cognitive challenges like new learning, exercise and cognitive training, all of which are strong components of extreme sports.


Older Athletes and The Dangers of Extreme Sports

Learning or even continuing extreme sports late in life, can be frustrating if you you don’t manage your expectations. When I was in my 20s and 30s I learned athletic motor skills very quickly. Now, however, it takes more time. As we age, the neurons that connect during learning aren’t as conductive and efficient as they were when we were younger. Each neuron has a productive coating of myelin that insulates each neuron like the plastic coating on an electrical wire.

In his book, The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle sites research that shows that myelin is generated at a high rate into our 30s producing a time that our brains are extraordinarily receptive to learning skills. We continue do develop myelin until around 50 when the balance tips toward loss. We continue to have the ability to myelinate throughout our lives but it takes a lot more time and energy to develop the circuitry to develop skills.

Older people that are used to learning sports quickly can find it frustrating to see a 25- year-old master in one session, something they have been working on for months. This happens to me in my trapeze sessions constantly. Here I am working on a layout for 10 straight training sessions, and a 25-year-old comes in and does it in two. I do two things to combat my feelings of old guy incompetence. First, I tell myself that a very small fraction of people my age can do what I am doing. Second, I realize that only a small fraction of 25-year-olds can do what I am doing. The 25-year-old that just nailed the layout is not your average 25-year-old. Somehow that puts things into perspective. Instead of mourning the loss of my youthful strength and vitality, I appreciate the fact that my six decades of learning new things and taking care of myself are paying off in a big way.

Another danger facing aging extreme athletes is not recognizing and adapting to one’s physical limitations. From my experience, older extreme athletes’ mental body images are generally younger than their actual bodies. This in many ways is a good thing, except when assessing one’s true physical limits in a dangerous situation. How do you know when it’s time to walk away from a sport or trick, or adventure? Many times the message comes in the form of a “close call.”

A friend of mine was the commander of a police SWAT team. He was closing in on a building where the bad guy was holding hostages at gunpoint. My friend had to run from his protective cover behind his car to a location closer to the gunman. He quickly and automatically calculated the time the dash would take and the chances the gunman could see him and fire. He sprinted to the location and during the last few steps heard the crack of gunshots and the rounds whizzing past his head. He told me later that he came to the frightening realization that he couldn’t run as fast as he thought he could and he would never try anything like that again. Sometimes it requires something like an injury taking forever to heal to get the point across. Those blown out knees at 60 years old can take 20 times longer to heal than they did at 25.

You constantly need to be in touch with your gut feelings as well as your conscious analytical mind to assess the actual risks of whatever high-risk activity you are attempting. Extreme athletes are so used to pushing through fear that they sometimes numb themselves to what Gavin de Becker calls “the gift of fear.” Fear is often based on our mental comparison of the difficulty of the challenge with our perceived physical ability to perform the challenge. When our fear is telling us that the challenge is too great for our ability, we should listen to the fear and make wise decisions.

Every extreme sport athlete I know wants to continue his or her sport as long as possible. One of my favorite surf spots in Costa Rica has a sign that says, “Surf til you die.” That could mean different things to different people. To some that means, “I’ll ride the biggest narliest waves and if one kills me at the peak of my career, I’m goin’ out on a high.” To another, it might mean, “I’ll do what I can to take care of myself so I can ride those waves when I’m 90 even if I’m lying down on my board in a mellow beach break.” I’m choosing the latter, but who am I to tell you what to do?

According to one study, 75 years old seems to be the age where athletic performance significantly declines. Vonda J. Wright, MD at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Center for Sports Medicine evaluated the age-related performance declines in athletes participating in the National Senior Games. The finish times for the top eight finishers in every race, from 100 meters to 10,000 meters, for every age group were analyzed. She found that from age 50 years to 75 years there was a small decline in physical performance per year. Both men and women declined less than 2 percent. At ages 75 years and older, however, the performance declined rapidly at almost 8 percent per year. Do the cumulative effects of VO2 (maximal oxygen uptake) loss, loss of exercise efficiency and muscle/tendon shortening become greater than the capability to train past them?

According to Wright the answer is yes. At 75-years-old, performance times decline significantly, but Wright puts this in perspective. The winner of the 70 to 75-year-old mile race for men in the 2001 Senior Olympics won in around 7 minutes. While this is significantly slower than the 50-year-old winner it is still faster than most 30-year-old sedentary people can run a mile.

Managing Extreme Sports Later in Life

Regardless, if you are surfing, skydiving, ice climbing or bungee jumping when you are 60, 70, 80 or more, there are some things that could help you continue your extreme sport or transition to other activities that provide fulfillment.

  • Access your physical limitations – Increase your body awareness through meditation and other mindfulness practices so you can be in touch with your body and the messages that it is sending you. This will help you recognize your true abilities and prevent injuries.
  • Master physically rough sports as early in life as you can so your younger body can take the pounding that often accompanies the learning curve. I learned to snowboard when I was 48. I was black and blue and had headaches from doing full-body face plants as I learned. I wouldn’t want to do that now at 63. I’m glad I learned then so now I can just glide down the slopes with only an occasional spill.
  • Treat small injuries before they become physically limiting. The small injuries take longer to heal as we age and can become big ones if left untreated.
  • Know when to transition to a lower skill level in your sport or switch to a different sport. There’s no shame in walking away. Find the next activity that is manageable and challenging.
  • If the sport maintains a high percentage of your self-esteem and social network, begin to “diversify” your activities to include other sports and activities that provide excitement, accomplishment, and well-being.
  • If you do have to stop doing a sport that was a big part of your self-image and provided those “flow highs,” look for signs of depression. It is normal to be sad about ending an incredible life chapter, but if it lasts for more than a couple of months and starts interfering with your daily life, get help from a mental health professional.
  • When you can no longer do the activity, consider coaching or mentoring younger athletes. You can pass along your wisdom, stories and passion and still be connected to the sport that you love.
  • Take care of your body when not doing your extreme sport. Do a lot of yoga and stretching. Get massages and eat healthfully.
  • If you can no longer participate in the sport, find something else that you are passionate about and can be challenged by. Never stop learning.
  • When you do give up a sport, don’t mourn the loss for too long. Appreciate the journey and the friends you made along the way.

Please share your age-related extreme sports experiences and adaptations in the comments section.

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