Who Are Those People?
Diogenes is a sometimes competitor in age group tennis tournaments sanctioned by the United States Tennis Association (USTA). At the end of this month he will return to competition after a seven month hiatus occasioned by yet another surgery (his 8th) to repair a minor injury sustained during competition last year. Thinking about competing again prompted consideration of who else participates in adult competitions.
About 7,000,000 million Americans self report that they play tennis 21 or more times per year. Of those frequent participants, over 400,000 play in the USTA Eastern Section, which includesNew YorkStateand parts ofConnecticutandNew Jersey. About 50,000 are dues paying members of USTA Eastern. One of the reasons to join the USTA is to take advantage of it’s many programs for all ages and levels of play. At the top of the age, and perhaps skills, pyramid are senior adult players, where age groups are organized by 5-year cohorts starting with 25&over and extending to 90&over. Men, women, singles, doubles and mixed doubles events are held in various locations.
Most USTA members today play Adult Team League Competitions, which are organized by both National Tennis Rating Program (NTRP) levels, gender and finally, by age. The most skilled members are among the over 7000 individual competitors that played in a USTA Eastern Adult Competition Sanctioned Event, and almost 2500 of these lived within Metro NYC. There were about 20 of those tournaments per month throughout the section. Many players compete in leagues during the week, and in tournaments on the weekends. Most are 4.0+ NTRP players. Not all are world beaters. Many former ranked ATP and WTA tour players compete in age group events around the country, but they are certainly a minority. There seem to be teaching professionals in almost every event, but most tournament players are just pretty good public parks or club players.
Why do they (still) compete?
It turns out that older people who are athletes from around the world in many sports still compete for many of the same reasons across age, sport, and birthplace. A study (Rylee, Baker and Horton “Older Athletes’ Perceived Benefits of Competition”) conducted among competitors in the World Masters Games inAustralia in 2009 found five common themes to explain what the athletes gained from continuing to compete:
- “I like a challenge” depicts Adult Competition as an ideal context to test one’s abilities. In particular, lifelong athletes (or those who had returned to sport after a long break) enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing they “can still do it!”
- “I discovered that at this age group I could win things!”
- “I’m more motivated to work harder”, describes how regular competitions provided goals for participants which structured their training. Also, the act of competing brought out their best performances.
- “You know where you stand”, shows how participants liked that competition enabled them to compare themselves with others of their own age cohort.
- “Travel” and “companionship”, explains how the organized, competitive structure of Adult Competition allowed for regular travel, the establishment of ongoing friendships and weekly social interaction.
How Does Competing Affect the Competitors?
Most children born before the 1980s were nurtured with competition in sports before the new age of collaborative efforts. The theory was that tough competition would give kids a realistic view of their own strengths and weaknesses. An accurate sense of one’s own ability could help the process of acquiring expertise, and aid in the development of self discipline. Now we have no-cut athletic teams, and the theory that “everyone is special”. Children are discouraged from concentrating on only one sport and competing much before the age of 12 in the hopes of preventing “burnout” and encouraging the development of cooperative skills required for team play.
If we no longer believe that individual competition is great for children, how has thinking evolved on benefits for older competitors? Are champions wiser than their non competing peers? Given the adoration we lavish upon our champions, one might wish this were so. Studies comparing professional athletes with amateurs and non athletes don’t seem to fully address the question, although many anecdotal references can be found. Analysts at Mint.com report that 60% of NBA players file bankruptcy within five years of retirement. Football players are even worse. More than 78% of NFL stars will file for bankruptcy within five years. Major League Baseball players have only mildly better luck, filing for bankruptcy four times more often than the average U.S. citizen. On the other hand, contrary examples are easily found of great athletes that appear to be superior, generous human beings. In tennis, we need look no further than Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, who have endowed large philanthropic efforts and are humble and gracious to a fault.
Interacting with the champions at national age group competitions has convinced Diogenes that they have about the same, or even greater, personality issues and disorders as the rest of us. Certainly as athletes they are a bit healthier than Americans as a whole, but more than a few are hyper competitive. They are great in high stress moments during tournaments and would be great as soldiers at the front in time of war. The reality is many of them are hard to live with, lots have difficulty in sustaining a job, and most have moved often during their professional lives. The lesson is that moderation is probably good in sports competition as in most things in life, and keeping the proper perspective is the healthiest approach. Well experienced coaches teach their students that one should treat every match as if it is the most important thing in the world, while realizing at the same time that it really doesn’t matter much at all.