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The Ageless Benefits of Team Sports: Getting Back in the Game

volleyball By Joe Duty on Flickr

Growing up in Iowa in the '50s, I played several sports including volleyball and softball, but my favorite was basketball. My father, who encouraged his five offspring to be competitive, converted the haymow of our barn to a basketball court so that we could practice year round. (He played radio music at full blast for the chickens being raised on the first floor so the sound of the pounding basketball wouldn't disturb them.)

As the fourth child, I was up against some serious competition with my taller siblings. Although I was only a second grader, I was expected to dribble the ball down the court and, if passed the ball, shoot a basket and make two points.

Early on, my efforts fell far short of the mark. But I remember the encouraging remarks from my father. He would tell my sibling opponents that "she almost made it" or that "she was closer this time."

I loved being coached. I loved the competition. I loved getting better. But in truth, I did not love missing the shot. I hated losing, yet I loved the idea that there is always another game-another chance to make the shot.

Such was my introduction to team sports-a love of which, after 60-plus years, has yet to dim. Of course, I had to take a break for a few decades to work and raise a family, but at last I'm back on a team-except the team plays tennis instead of basketball.

I'm not alone in my longing for the joy of team sports that I enjoyed in my youth. In a Los Angeles Times article titled "Back in the Game," Martin Miller explains that "a cultural emphasis on the benefits of exercise, improving medical techniques and technology, and a strong desire for a sense of community are helping to create and sustain a vigorous team-sports network for older Americans." Miller adds, "With nearly 21 million baby boomers expected to reach age 50 in the next five years, the over-50 leagues are poised to expand by leaps and bounds." Miller also mentioned some of the revised rules for seniors sports that take into account aging bodies.

I can personally attest to the significant benefits that this remarkable return to team sports provides:

  • Health: Who can argue that exercise doesn't improve your health? Researchers have found that seniors who engage in team sports live longer than their more sedentary, isolated counterparts. Researchers have also found that brain health, especially the functions involving information processing, is enhanced by exercise.
  • Discipline: Setting a goal and working consistently toward achieving that goal teaches personal discipline. Once you fall madly in love with a sport, you will constantly try to improve, whatever your skill level or age.
  • Resiliency: After you've lost some closely fought games, you realize that the ability to pick yourself up after losses and begin anew is essential. There's always the opportunity for do-overs; there's always the prospect of getting better and competing again.
  • Team-Building Skills: At some point, you realize that your talents and skills, however essential, are only part of the talents and skills needed to win. You respect your teammates' contributions, just as your teammates respect yours. You also learn to set goals, make decisions, communicate, resolve conflicts and solve problems-a good set of skills to acquire, whatever your age.
  • Teachability: To be coached, you must be teachable. That is, you must trust the direction of another who has your best interests at heart. Learning and applying lessons is also a valuable skill.
  • Friendship: When we compete, we strengthen our relationships with our teammates-and sometimes with our competitors as well. We develop enduring relationships because we remember the occasions, whether we won or lost, in which we challenged ourselves and met like-minded folks.

How else could you explain, for example, the explosion in the number of Granny Basketball leagues in the Midwest? The National Sporting Goods Association reports that "the "number of women 55 and older who play basketball at least 50 times a year has grown from 16,000 in 1995 to nearly 131,000 a decade later." Wow!

  • Body-Mind Connection: Participating in a team sport forces us to exercise our minds as well as our bodies. To compete and win, we must integrate our body with our brain. We have to be mindful of our level of conditioning and simultaneously plot our strategy while dealing with our emotions.
  • Fun: Perhaps most importantly of all, being on a team is fun! That's why we use the expression "playing tennis" or "playing softball." Who doesn't love to join a good game?

Looking back, I can see that competing on a team has been a major influence in defining my character. Resiliency taught me to pick myself up and start anew. I learned the importance of being coachable, and outstanding mentors have made a huge difference in my career. I also learned the importance of teammates, whether the mate is my husband or a colleague.

Whether you enjoy badminton, basketball, baseball, boccie ball, softball, volleyball, swimming, pétanque, pickle ball, rowing, table tennis or some other team sport, go for it! The benefits can be enjoyed, whatever your age. Indeed, the rewards are timeless.

Are you ready to get back in the game?

Photo:  Joe Duty on Flickr


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