“The professional does not permit himself to become hidebound with one incarnation, however comfortable or successful. Like a transmigrating soul, he shucks his outworn body and dons a new one. He continues his journey.”
Willie Mays is arguably the greatest baseball player that ever lived. Mays was a 24-time All-Star who amassed 3,283 hits, 660 home runs, and a career batting average of over .300. Yet if you were a New York Mets fan in 1973, you might remember Mays as a part-time centerfielder who hit a paltry .211 that year. One of baseball’s all-time greats ended his career unceremoniously as a subpar bench player. Granted, Mays retired at 41 years old, and lasted much longer than most athletes do. But even the great Willie Mays found out the hard way that all good things must some day come to an end.
There’s an old adage that states that athletes die twice. Before they stop breathing, first their careers end. But it isn’t just pro athletes that face the reality of decay, atrophy, and the ‘death’ of their youthful physical identity; we all do. One day we’re on top of our game in sport, fitness, and in our physicality. And then one day, we’re not. At some point your sports career or fitness pedigree will diminish. We might proactively recognize this horizon, but more often than not, this transition is ‘forced’ upon us: As an aging star athlete, you are cut from the team. The doctor says you have to stop competing. Your mind is willing, but your body says ‘no mas.’ Ultimately, all of us who compete on the field of play or express ourselves through our physicality will face the down side of the bell curve.
The arena of sport and fitness are predicated on wins, progress, and infinite growth, which are fallacies when it comes to the limits of physics and aging. When we stop to think about it, the concept of a ‘second half’ may sound like a nightmare to many. But this transition need not be a depressing and bumpy road. The ‘second half’ of your fitness life and aging as an athlete is simply a new horizon. Whether you feel like you’ve got two halves or four seasons, here’s how you can age gracefully and make the most of your journey all the way to the finish line.
Understanding the Second Half
I first learned about the ‘second half’ of life after facing the trauma of divorce. With my world turned upside down, I started searching for a new identity. Instead of defining myself by my relationships, possessions, or even my physicality, I started asking different questions and looking at different defining criteria. A counselor suggested I read Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward, which talked about the distinct ‘two halves’ of life. As my 40-year-old body started to break down, I recognized that I had also entered a new half in my fitness life.
The second half isn’t about reaching a certain age; it occurs at different points for everyone. The recently-retired (he says) Michael Phelps is preparing for his second half at just 31 years old. At 27, another Olympic swimmer, Lt. Brad Snyder, had to define a new life and physicality after losing his sight to an IED in Afghanistan. Synder went on to represent his country as an athlete instead of a soldier, winning 5 gold medals at the London and Rio Paralympic Games in the 50m, 100m, and 400m freestyle.
Whether you're 25 or 55, at some point, some day you will have to face the music. Bigger, faster, stronger, or more defined don’t happen forever. There simply isn’t enough botox or HGH to keep you looking younger or getting stronger year after year.
It can be a difficult process to let go. When we compete at a high level and grow physically and athletically, all feels right with the world. Defining ourselves by our athletic accomplishments and our physical prowess feels great when we’re on top. But at some point, we will all face the realization that it’s time to retire, switch gears, or compete in a new realm. As we grapple with reaching middle age and the changing physical landscape that follows, the question many struggle with is, “now what?”
How to Play the Second Half
Here are the steps to age gracefully as an athlete and embrace the second half of your fitness life:
Face the music: The first step in the second half is the admission that the jig is up. This isn’t always an easy task. One of life’s cruel ironies is that our greatest strengths at some point end up becoming our achilles heel. The same mindset that says, “I can’t be beat, I refuse to lose, and I can do it!” is the one that will impede the ability to know when enough is enough.
There are three general ways that we learn to recognize the need for a new path physically:
Diminished returns: You start getting weaker, slower, etc., even though you’re still putting the work in.
Physical breakdown: Your mind is willing, but your body is unable to bounce back. You start to accrue a list of nagging injuries.
The peanut gallery: Others will simply tell us, if we’re willing to listen.
Around the time I was going through my divorce and my body turned 40, a man who I respected said to me, “Eric you can either age gracefully, or foolishly. The choice is yours.” Fortunately, I listened to him. My body was tired, beat up, and chronically injured. I knew it was time for the second half of my fitness life.
Mourn: Anyone who has ever been downsized, fired, divorced, cut from a team, or permanantely injured knows that the loss of identity is a harrowing experience. In sport and fitness, mourning the loss of your previously-defined self means the transition from a ‘current’ to a ‘former:’ The former star athlete, the former body builder, the former hard body. Part of loss is going through the stages of grief. Fortunately, grief tends to dissipate with time, and after you’ve said your tearful goodbyes, it will be time to say hello to new beginnings.
Surrender: As addicts know, the first steps in recovery are the recognition of the problem and the willingness to change. But after that moment comes the hard part: doing the work. There are many glaring examples of those in the public eye to that fight tooth and nail against aging. Some seem to cheat the system and manipulate their physicality in a desperate attempt to hold on to the glory of youth at all costs. But in a race against father time, the only ultimate choice is surrender.
As we near the second half of life, there is temptation to fight through pain, push through diminished returns, and override the signals from your body. But doing so merely delays the inevitable and only causes more pain, injury, and disappointment. While some hold the concept of surrender in a negative connotation, surrender is far cry from quitting. Facing change and forming a new identity is courageous. Furthermore, defining your physicality in the second half is fraught with new and exciting challenges. As you surrender to age, you gain new freedoms in letting go of impossible expectations, and the hope that a fresh perspective brings.
Define the new plan: It isn’t gutsy to play through pain, it isn’t sexy to pretend you are 30 when you’re 50, and it isn’t cool to keep competing when your body breaks down. It’s arrogant. Real courage is having the willingness to try something new. But more important than new physical plan is the defining characteristic in the second half: the change of heart. That is, the second half is defined by introspection as much as it is expression. That is, the pursuits of the first half of your physical life—to be a star athlete, or have a ripped physique—give way to the more important questions of your second half.
How can I age gracefully?
How can I continue to move well?
How can I express beauty in both an inner sense and an outward expression?
How can I help inspire, motivate, and teach others on my journey in fitness, sport, and wellness?
How can I define the seasons of my fitness life? For instance, going from student to competitor, from competitor to teacher/leader/coach/mentor, and finally to student again.
Embrace Life's Metaphors
Sport, fitness, and training are metaphors for life. We train with the seasons and we face new beginnings at the start of each training cycle. Our training is rightfully marked by progression and the desire to be better. But every athlete knows that you can’t have your foot on the gas at all times. Instead, we look at training through the lens of sport seasons and periodization.
Lost in the shuffle is the fact that while each season starts anew, there is only one season in the long run: the season of life. At some point, you aren’t going to get stronger or younger looking. At some point you will recognize it’s time for a change. That new beginning is the second half of your fitness life. In some ways it marks a new identity and new way of expressing your physicality. Most importantly though, the second half is marked by the willingness to reexamine the criteria by which we evaluate our success as physical beings. Halftime presents an opportunity to reflect and make the choice to age gracefully, not foolishly.