Practicing for a Better Age by Billy Crawford

Practicing for a Better Old Age

I can’t promise this will prolong your life. But it will improve it.

My friend Coach Barbe shared this article, “Practicing for a Better Old Age,” published in the Sunday, May 1, 2016 The New York Times and written by Gerald Marzorati,  a former editor of The New York Times Magazine and the author of the forthcoming book “Late to the Ball,” from which this essay was adapted.

As I read, then reread, this essay my reinvigorated brain was thinking, “I could have written this book,” for I have personally experienced much of its content since picking up the game of tennis at the ripe old age of 65. (The author began playing in his mid-50s.)

Mr. Marzorati begins with a sad but true assessment of aging. SIXTY is not the new 40. Our lung capacity is in steady decline, as are the fast-twitch muscle fibers the provide power and speed. Our heart capacity has been ebbing, our sight has been getting worse (especially at night), receding ability to integrate information, balance is not what it used to be, our prefrontal cortex is shrinking, more of our career–and life–is behind us than in front of us. Yes, we get the picture!

Then the author shines a” little light” on this rather discouraging path by suggesting something that might provide us with a deeply satisfying sense of ourselves that we did not have when we were younger–something new, something different–to immerse ourselves in and improve at. Yes, tennis!

The Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has written extensively about what inhibits people from making a commitment to continuous improvement. Here’s a blessing of late-middle age–we will not be inhibited from improving by the perceptions of others.

After a lot of playing, taking lessons, reading tennis self-help books, watching that dynamic serve on youtube, I am much better at tennis.  Am I very good? NO! Am I improving? YES!   

What are several very important benefits for playing tennis and improving?  One, our brain, its thoughts, will be recast and strengthened. Denise Park, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas in Dallas, randomly assigned more than 200 older people to different new activities for roughly 15 hours a week and found that only those who had learned and refined a complicated skill (tennis certainly qualifies) improved their memories. Other researchers say the intense and prolonged physical exertion of a game like tennis may fend off cancer by slowing the decline of our DNA strands that tend to shorten and fray with age.  In fact, Senior Olympians have been found, on average, to have a cardiovascular “fitness” age 20 years less than their chronological age. Amasing but no guarantee.

Author Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book from a few years ago, Outliers:  The Story of Success  was based on the research of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and the “10,000 hours of practice” rule. It is often misconstrued  a bit: The key is typically not the time we put in to get better, but the time we spend under the watchful eye of a coach, teacher or trainer–someone who can spot quickly what we are doing wrong and immediately correct it, or try to. As I play on numerous public courts in our city, I continue to be amazed  at the number of women who take group lessons. However, I seldom see men taking group lessons. (Maybe a promising research project for a young sociologist.)

I loved the way Mr. Marzorati summarizing his closing paragraph.

“ Which brings us to the beauty of a disciplined effort at improvement and , I think, the only guaranteed benefit of finding something, as I found in tennis, to learn and commit to: You seize time and you make it yours. You counter the narrative of diminishment and loss with one of progress and bettering. You spend hours removed from the past and, in a sense, the present, and immerse yourself in the as yet. In this new pursuit of yours, practice is your practice.  It comes to determine the way you eat and sleep and shape your days. It is not your life, but one of the lives that make up your life, and the only one for which looking ahead, at least for a little while longer, is something done without wistfulness or a flinch.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Billy Crawford

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