Matthew arrived for session clad in a t-shirt and sweat pants, a gym bag slung over his shoulder. In our initial phone call, he told me that he was 64-years old. Had I not been privy to that information, I would have assumed that he was, at most, mid-fifties.
Youthful energy and smooth skin are common physical traits of people who are athletic. Matthew was a lifetime athlete, playing basketball and running in high school, running cross country in college. After college, he was an avid runner and tennis player. He belonged to an adult basketball league, did martial arts, strength trained. You name it, Matthew could do it.
He was a natural athlete, strong, fast, coordinated; most of all, Matthew had the mental edge that every accomplished athlete has. Matthew had will. And he relished in pushing his physical limits.
As it turns out, his strong will was at the root of his distress.
We all need will to keep us going, to find meaning, to not just exist, but to live. You may be wondering why will would cause any problems. It’s something we could all use an abundance of. However, for life-long athletes who have been propelled by something deep within themselves to push the limits, adjusting expectations to account for the natural losses of aging can be difficult. For Matthew, it was devastating. He reported feeling frustrated, even angry and “blue,” as well as, less motivated, tired and agitated. We talked for quite a few weeks about his life, his identity as a strong, athletic man and the feeling of losing part of his sense of self.
“Who am I, if I’m not the strong, lean athlete I have always been?” He asked. I knew his struggle was with his will to be who he was. His sense of self felt compromised.
It’s All in Your Attitude
We all need will to keep going and to push forward, especially when faced with adversity. This goes for athletic performance as much as for life in general. Physical fitness is an important byproduct of exercise; we should exercise to keep strong, especially as our bodies age and we have to work harder to maintain our strength, energy levels and coordination.
Will is a human yearning deep inside all of us, the wanting to find our potential, to do something powerful and all-defining, something that reveals who we really are.
When we push ourselves — physically, psychologically or artistically, we learn about ourselves. We learn what we are made of, what we can accomplish if we try. And in those actions of willing, we discover inner fortitude. Ask any athlete, and they will tell you that the mental edge is what differentiates a good athlete from an exceptional one.
Bill Bowerman, American track and field coach and co-founder of Nike, famously said, “The real purpose of running isn’t to win a race, it’s to test the limits of the human heart.”
Endurance is the ability to transcend limitation; Matthew had spent his life in pursuit of this. It was who he was. Now at 64-years old, he reached a limit that he just couldn’t surpass. It was the origin of his distress. I asked him about his training program. I wondered how he hadn’t confronted this in his forties and fifties when people first notice the body slowing down.
Turns out, Matthew had never consciously made changes to his training program. He’d slowed down because of work and family life. Now that the kids were grown, he had more time. He went back into his training only to find that he couldn’t push the way he used to. He said, “I didn’t expect to do what I used to; I understand the aging process, but I hate running on the treadmill and seeing the times so slow, or my knees hurting the day after an hour of basketball. I wake up with back pain for no reason. Things don’t feel the same and I hate it.”
I felt his pain, the sense of loss, the lack of control. But I also knew he could get his will back by accepting (what athletes hate most) his limitations, and then adjusting his expectations.
Adjusting to the Changes that Accompany Aging
We can still push limits as we age, we can find the transcendence and exhilaration we had when we were younger, but we need to reset where the limits are.
Chantal Shea is a former elite runner and winner of the 1988 San Diego International Marathon, and founder of The Courage to Tri, an initiative that helps athletes meet their potential by creating individualized training programs. Shea found herself at a major crossroads when following a car accident and a series of surgeries she couldn’t run as fast or far as she used to.
In her fifties, Shea decided that she had to make a choice: either give up her passion for running to the edge of her limits or try something new. She certainly understands both the power of pushing limits, as well as, the pain of confronting them. She told me, “Realizing that I would never compete at an elite level as a runner again was painful and so difficult, but I knew I had to have the courage to ‘tri’ something new or I would lose a part of myself.”
Shea transformed herself from elite runner into an accomplished triathlete and long distance cyclist, having competed in cycling races as far as 100 hilly miles long. When I asked her what she would tell someone struggling with accepting their limitations, she said: “Put yourself out there and have the courage to change, the courage to ‘tri.’ If you have the courage to accept the limitation, you will be able to do something else that will allow you to push the limit.” She added, “Pushing the limit teaches us something about who we are. Deep inside. If this is who you are, then you need to ‘tri’ and find it elsewhere.”
This was the approach I took with Matthew. I had to help him to discover new ways to explore, push against, and transcend his limits. This was no easy endeavor with a willful person. We discussed whether he wanted to set his new limits in the sports he had always done or if he wanted to try something new. I have often found for people as determined and as athletically accomplished as Matthew, trying a new sport is often more effective. But the decision rested with him. He decided to keep doing what he had always done, but to join a swim team as well, which was a sport he had only done recreationally.
Within only a few weeks he reported feeling his resilience return. He described pushing himself in his swim workouts, as well as, looking into competing in open water races the following year. Something to train for and aspire toward, a place to channel his will.
Additionally, when he reported running, playing basketball or lifting, he no longer thought about what he couldn’t do. Instead, he began to see it as what he could do. He could still push himself until fatigue, and then push a little longer, and a little longer. Even though his times were slower and the weights lower, the essence of the experience was unchanged as soon as he adjusted his expectations.
Editor’s note: Matthew’s name was changed to protect his anonymity.