Thursday, October 31, 2013

Why compete in tournaments?

In a few days I'll compete in my seventh and, I think, final martial-arts tournament of 2013.  So this is as good a time as any to pose the question that I'm sure many senior athletes frequently ask themselves: why compete when you're 60, 70, or older? 
   I can get cute and just ask, "Why not?"  Or I can say, with great authority, that most folks 60, 70, or older actually don't compete.  I'm 67 and still young by the way I define old and young, but I can tell you that I'm virtually always the oldest competitor in every tournament I attend.  Sometimes I'm the only 60+ competitor and therefore have to compete against athletes who are 25, 35, or in one recent instance 45 years younger.  This isn't necessarily good, which is why I would love to see more -- make that MANY more -- 50+ athletes competing in martial-arts tournaments.  But I compete just the same.
   Okay, so why bother?  Well, let me offer a few reasons why you should come out of retirement or take up Taekwondo or another martial art at this point in your life.
     1.  Fitness is forever.  The average American adult is destroying his or her health in a variety of ways, generally by eating too much and exercising too little.  So if your doctor clears you to begin a fitness program of gradually increasing intensity, you would be wise to consider Taekwondo or another martial art.  You need to make fitness a permanent part of your life, and doesn't it make sense to choose an activity that also teaches you how to defend yourself from an attack?  Of course.  But at a certain point your training needs to be put to the test, and that's where tournaments come in.  By training with a tournament date in mind, you'll push yourself beyond your usual limits while preparing, and on the day of the tournament you'll give 100%, not 75%, when hundreds of eyes are on you. 
     2.  Charting your progress.  Your success in the training hall may or may not reflect your level of competence.  Whether you specialize in forms, weapons, or sparring, you need to face new competition -- athletes from other schools and perhaps other styles -- in order to get a genuine progress check.  If you're consistently #1 in sparring at your school but consistently #10 in tournaments, allow reality to set in.  The message is clear: you've got ability, but you haven't yet invested the hours that some other athletes have.  Competing in tournaments is an exciting and sometimes humbling experience.  This is good.  Martial artists shouldn't wear rose-colored glasses.  If you want to get better, work harder.
   3.  Because you can.  Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that if you have some talent, you're supposed to use it.  Billions of people on this planet don't have the health or resources to engage in sports, so I believe it's a bit offensive for capable people to behave as though they're incapable.  If you sit on the couch long enough, well, yes, you'll become incapable.  But this is not nearly the same thing as being born physically or mentally challenged.  So it's up to you to push yourself and use what God gave you.
   I compete in martial-arts tournaments for the same reason that many people run marathons, even though they can't possibly win . . . or play golf even though they'll never beat Tiger Woods . . . or shoot hoops at a local gym even though they'll never be drafted by the Miami Heat  . . . or play tennis even though they'll never be invited to Wimbledon.  I do it because I can . . . and because striving is its own reward.
   If you're 50+ and active in the martial arts, sign up for a local tournament.  And if you haven't tried the martial arts yet, remember that age isn't a barrier.  Find a senior-friendly school, and join the family.
   Enjoy yourself.  Compete. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Balance and Aging

Rumor has it that we get wiser as we get older.  If that's true -- and, frankly, I have my doubts -- it's one of the rare benefits of the aging process.  Let's face facts: the older you get, the more problems you can encounter.  And one of the most troublesome is a diminished sense of balance.
   You can have balance issues at any age, of course, but the potential causes seem to accumulate with age, ranging from inner-ear changes to high blood pressure to reduced feeling in the feet.  The first step in countering balance issues is to see your doctor and let him or her know what's going on.  If the doctor agrees that exercise can help you compensate for the balance problems, you should think seriously about the potential benefits of Taekwondo and other martial arts.
   Since Taekwondo is a kicking-oriented martial art, you spend a lot of time on one foot rather than two.  And this means that you get to challenge your sense of balance on a regular basis.  The more you challenge, the more stable you can become. 
   One simple way to begin is with an ankle-loosening exercise.  Place your hands on your hips, and raise one leg so that the thigh is parallel to the floor.  While holding this position, gently rotate the ankle of the raised leg, first in one direction, then in the other.  It's helpful to bend the knee of your supporting leg slightly, since the joint then becomes an adjustable stabilizing unit.  If you wobble a bit, not to worry.  With practice the warm-up exercise will become routine.  After working one leg, switch to the other.
   It's important to practice this exercise in a safe area, one that's free of objects that could cause injury if you fall.  If you have a thick mat, you can try practicing on that.  If not, try standing close to a wall so that you can use one of your hands for extra stability if you need it.  Just be sure that the wall is clear of all furniture that could be hazardous should you lose your balance and fall.
   After working on this ankle warm-up, work on gentle kicks.  Once again raise a leg so that the thigh is parallel to the floor.  Then gently extend the leg into a waist-high kick, and bring the leg back to the starting position.  Do 5-10 kicks before switching to the other leg.  The power of the kick is unimportant.  Right now we're simply working on balance issues.  The more you practice balancing on one foot while changing your upper-body position [and your center of gravity], the more "muscle memory" you build into the maneuvers.
   While you're working on challenging your sense of balance in this way, you should also begin -- again with your doctor's approval -- a strength-building program.  Without question, improving your leg strength is one of the most important ways to compensate for a diminished sense of balance.  If you have access to a gym, try using the leg-extension, leg-curl, and leg-press machines.  If you're working out at home and don't have a lot of equipment, begin with knee bends.  But don't bend the old knees too far; just get low enough that you feel the muscles working.  And try to keep your upper-body weight back, not forward.  You don't want to be bent over your legs.
   An alternate way of doing knee bends is to place a strong, stable chair behind you.  Sit until your butt just touches the seat, and then stand up again.  Repeat this motion until your legs begin to feel fatigued.  Over a period of weeks this simple exercise can help you regain the kind of leg strength that can overcome age-related balance issues.  Strong legs won't make balance issues disappear, but they can often spell the difference between staying upright and falling.
   I wish I could say that practicing Taekwondo or another martial art will eliminate age-related balance problems, but that's not the case. By challenging your sense of balance religiously and by keeping your legs as strong as possible, however, you'll greatly improve your chances of compensating for what could become a life-threatening problem.  If you've been "retired" from the martial arts for too long, get back on track.  And if you've never enjoyed the experience, remember that it's never too late to put the power of Taekwondo to work for you.