Aging gracefully, competing eagerly

Bradley Young and team

Bradley Young examines the psychology of athletes who compete actively at ages of 55 or more.

by Tim Lougheed

Outstanding athletic events etch themselves in the memory of spectators, and Bradley Young can vividly recall one that changed the course of his academic career. It was a track and field meet in Hamilton’s Copps Coliseum about a decade ago. The line-up included a number of athletes in the masters category, defined as participants older than 35.Among the featured performers was Ed Whitlock, a celebrated Canadian runner who was then 70 years old, logging times that would be respectable for competitors a fraction of his age.

Young, who is now an assistant professor in the School of Human Kinetics, was then completing his doctorate in kinesiology. He recalls being suddenly struck by how little attention has been paid to such remarkable individuals who have carried their passion for competitive sport throughout a lifetime.

“This is an under-examined and yet-to-be understood area of sport participation,” he explains. “From a simple academic point of view, what can these people tell us in our studies of motivation, commitment and negotiating transitions in life?” 

He has subsequently devoted a great deal of attention to the growth of master- and senior-level sporting competition. More specifically, he has examined the psychological makeup of those who undertake such competition. It might be all too easy to regard their activities as exotic spectacles, groups of old-timers reliving some lost glory. But Young finds evidence of far more depth and meaning in these events, which are also becoming ever more popular.

Just this summer, for example, the city of Brockville hosted the week-long Canada 55+ Games. Some 2,000 athletes descended on the region, significantly swelling local tourism revenues. Five years earlier, Edmonton was the site of an even bigger gathering, the World Masters Games. There, more than 21,000 competitors gathered—almost triple the number that took part in the first such games in Toronto in 1985.

The numbers are likely to grow as an ever greater number of baby boomers head into their sixties. Many of them appreciate the value of exercise as a way of staying healthy, but Young is fascinated by those who seek more.

“There’s an inherent degree of competitiveness in sport,” he says. “That’s what makes it different from exercise. Competition breeds striving behaviour. If it can be framed in a healthy perspective, isn’t that good for someone who may be looking for a new identity after retirement or who is looking for a reason to get out the door and become engaged in a regular pattern of physical activity?” 

Ed Whitlock offers a useful case in point. Now, at almost 80, he still runs for upward of three hours a day. When questioned, he maintains that his motivation for doing so is so he can continue to enter competitions of one sort or another. Or to put it another way, it is a way for him to continue challenging himself.

Young is intrigued by the factors that nurture a desire for this kind of challenge. The factors may include a highly public emphasis on the virtues of remaining physically fit, but he has seen very few resources actually devoted to developing the athletic potential of our aging population.

“I can go to a Sport for Life conference, which looks at sport policy in Canada, and I will be the only masters athlete researcher there,” he says, noting that the popular conception of sports retains an exclusive image of youth, not lifelong participation.

He adds that there is still very little public support for such participation, although events like the Canada 55+ Games draws a sizeable number of sponsors. Young is confident that the profile of these events will continue to increase, expanding the cohort of older Canadian athletes. On the other hand, he sees the resulting competition as distinct from the business-like bureaucracy that now taints so much of professional and even amateur sport.

“I wonder if masters or senior sports are a vestige of what healthy competition used to be,” he says. “These are people who train hard. They engage in striving behaviour. They get out and compete. I’m not saying that sport is for everyone, but sport could be for a heck of a lot more people than are doing it now.” 

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