Psychological Considerations for the Older Athlete
Summary and Keywords
Paralleling the graying of the baby boomer generation, there has been remarkable growth in the number of Masters athletes (adult sport participants generally 35+ years old) and Seniors athletes (55+) worldwide. The phenomenon of the aging or older athlete is an opportunity to study the psychological conditions and considerations that distinguish older sportspersons from their younger counterparts. Although the vast majority of sport psychology research focuses on youth and adolescents or young adults in a high-performance context, a critical mass of literature on middle-aged and older athletes has emerged. Much research has aimed to understand the sport motivation of older adults; this work has evolved from early descriptive works to increasingly theoretically grounded and analytically advanced efforts that seek to better understand older athletes’ sport commitment and their long-term goal striving behaviors. Another theme of inquiry relates to the nature of adult athletes’ social motivations and the role of social identity in explaining immersion into sport. Research has examined various social influences on older athletes, and specifically how different social agents and social norms come to bear on older athletes’ sport participation. Much work has interrogated how social support facilitates older sport participation as well as the unique negotiations that older adults make with significant others to sustain their experience. Another research theme has sought to determine the various psychosocial benefits of adult sport, cataloguing benefits related to personal growth, age-related adaptation, and successful aging outcomes. Although the discourse on adult sport has been overly positive, several contributions have problematized aspects of adult sport, challenged the assertion that adult athletes are models that many others could follow, and have further suggested that narratives of Masters athletes may reinforce ageist stigma.
The phenomenon of the “older athlete” has received increasing attention in popular media and has been the focus of a growing body of empirical works in the past two decades. Although most research and literature in sport psychology pertains to youth, adolescents, or young adults (e.g., college-aged or professional athletes), there has been significant growth in studies of middle-aged and older adults involved in organized sport. The growth of this literature is relevant considering the changing and ever-aging demographics of westernized countries where sport has sometimes been counted as a modality for promoting active aging (Khan et al., 2012). Indeed, the growth of psychological literature on older athletes has paralleled an explosion of adult sport participation in these countries and the commodification of organized sport for baby boomers (Hastings, Cable, & Zahran, 2005; Weir, Baker, & Horton, 2010).
Older athletes are commonly referred to as Masters athletes (MAs) or Seniors athletes. Several features (Young, 2011) characterize a MA. First, a MA will have formally registered for a sport, for example, an identifiable event (e.g., a league, club, or community race), or for larger-scale festivals called “games” (which are inclusive and welcome all comers) or “championships” (which are exclusive because of their qualifying criteria for performance). Second, a MA will take part in rule-governed activities that have an inherent (although varying) degree of competition, which necessarily distinguishes these pursuits from exercise or fitness. Third, a MA will acknowledge that he or she “prepares in order to participate,” which means that a forthcoming competition will engender some form of practice routine. Highly devoted or “serious” MAs readily call themselves “athletes” and refer to their preparatory routine as “training,” whereas recreational participants are more reluctant to identify themselves as athletes and are less comfortable with the term training; still, a preparatory routine of participation is common to all. Fourth, a MA will participate in a formal venue or activity that has been advertised for adults (i.e., not the high-performance trajectory traditionally organized for younger athletes). MAs participate in organized events that typically begin at 35 years of age, with many adults active in subsequent decades and into their 70s and 80s. With the proliferation of adult sport, some sport federations have chosen earlier debut ages for MAs (e.g., Masters swimming begins at age 25). Seniors athletes claim all the same characteristics as MAs; however, they typically compromise participants who are 55 years of age and older. In understanding psychological themes pertaining to adult athletes, it is important to bear in mind that most literature continues to refer to 35 years of age as the commencement of adult sport, that there is a wide-ranging age span among participants, and that empirical samples fall invariably at different points along this span.
Motivation and Commitment of Adult Sportspersons
As a backdrop to studies of motivation, a number of works describe the remarkable depth and continuity of Masters athletes’ (MAs’) involvement in sport (e.g., see Starkes, Weir, & Young, 2003; Weir, Kerr, Hodges, McKay, & Starkes, 2002; Young & Medic, 2012). In light of such involvement and the presumed motivational uniqueness of adult athletes, much research has attempted to understand the psychosocial conditions that facilitate MAs’ motivation and sustain their commitment.
Describing Motivation Profiles
Much of the early motivational research on MAs was descriptive, relying on open-ended questionnaires, or cross-sectional quantitative studies that were atheoretical and based on single item measures. These studies sampled sportspersons ranging in age from the mid-30s to mid-70s and helped to describe the profiles of various participatory samples. Early research demonstrated that MAs were motivated by intrinsic motives, such as enjoyment and loving the sport, more than extrinsic motives, such as winning and beating others (e.g., McIntyre, Coleman, Boag, & Cuskelly, 1992; Tantrum & Hodge, 1993). Carmack and Martens (1979) discovered the major participatory motives for long-distance runners were maintaining fitness, enjoying oneself, weight control, feeling better, and competitive participation. Hastings, Kurth, Schloder, and Cyr (1995) found swimmers were predominantly motivated by enjoyment, skill development, fitness, achievement-striving, sociability, and tension release.
As the body of work grew, descriptive studies uncovered motives relating to competitiveness (Ogles, Masters, & Richardson, 1995), social recognition (Summers, Machin, & Sargent, 1983), social affiliation (McIntyre et al., 1992), preserving youthfulness (Dionigi, 2008), and health and fitness enhancement (Ogles & Masters, 2003), among others. Overall, these works particularly described the breadth and diversity of intrinsic and extrinsic motives in MAs, with specific profiles depending on the age and the degree of seriousness of the sample. In a broad review, Young (2011) concluded that MAs are characterized by health enhancement and personal challenge (i.e., testing and assessing oneself, personal mastery challenges) motives but cautioned academics from concluding that MAs are not characterized by competitive motives, or from concluding that they are participating just for social reasons.
Theoretically Framed Works
Motivation studies have more recently been grounded in a number of different conceptual frameworks. In terms of Achievement Goal Theory, MAs generally show high task-orientation scores and low to moderate scores on ego orientation (Hodge, Allen, & Smellie, 2008; Medic, 2010a; Newton & Fry, 1998; Steinberg, Grieve, & Glass, 2000). Greater task orientation is hypothesized to foster an ongoing interest in sport because it gives athletes a sense of control over their involvement, their effort, and their enjoyment (Etnier, Sidman, & Hancock, 2004). With respect to Self Determination Theory, MAs have shown a relatively self-determined profile wherein they report motives that reflect personal values that are congruent with personal needs (Kowal & Fortier, 2000; Sheehy & Hodge, 2015). For example, Masters track and field athletes reported high intrinsic motives relating to personal accomplishment and experiencing stimulating sensations, and high values for integrated regulation (Medic, 2010a). A profile comprising high intrinsic motives and self-determined forms of extrinsic motivation, when coupled with low amotivation, is expected to associate with persistent participation (Medic, 2010a).
In research on the Dualistic Model of Passion (Vallerand et al., 2003), international-level track and field athletes reported high levels of harmonious passion for their sport and low to moderate levels of obsessive passion (Young, de Jong, & Medic, 2015). Whereas harmonious passion is expected to sustain participation, results indicated that being obsessively passionate could result in intrapersonal conflict, the forfeiting of other responsibilities (e.g., family, job), and further associations with negative emotions and intentions to withdraw from sport. The investigators discussed how inflexible overinvestment in adult sport by a small subcohort of MAs may leave them vulnerable to conflict.
There has been a growing collection of studies examining a bidimensional Sport Commitment Model (Santi, Bruton, Pietrantoni, & Melllalieu, 2014; Young & Medic, 2011a; also see Young & Weir, 2015 for a review). MAs have consistently reported high levels of functional commitment (“wanting to” continue sport) and moderate to low levels of obligatory commitment (“having to” remain in sport). This profile is meaningful because functional commitment is likely healthier and is positively related to persistent training and participation and negatively related to dropout (Schmidt & Stein, 1991). Results have shown that personal conditions such as perceiving inherent enjoyment in the activity, feeling that one has already invested a lot in sport, and anticipating special occasions arising from continued sport activity (i.e., “involvement opportunities”) are associated with higher functional commitment. Ensuing discussion has begun to engage sport programmers on how they might use these findings to enrich involvement opportunities in adult sport (Young, Callary, & Niedre, 2014). Additionally, researchers have begun to embed themes relating to key involvement opportunities in gain-frame messaging trials to promote adult sport to nonparticipants, with some preliminary success in controlled experimental settings (Lithopoulos, Rathwell, & Young, 2015; Lithopoulos & Young, 2016; Young, Bennett, & Séguin, 2015). Additionally, Medic (2010b) framed the multidimensional aspects of MAs’ motivation in terms of how sport psychology practitioners might counsel athletes dealing with motivational lapses, and motivational strategies when MAs are facing inevitable age-related decline.
Generally, when data for increasingly older age cohorts are inspected, adult athletes are less ego oriented, less competitively focused, more intrinsically motivated, and have more health-enhancing motives (Medic, 2010a). However, this conclusion may be an oversimplification (see Dionigi, 2008), as some findings show either null effects across age groups (e.g., Hastings et al., 1995; Tantrum & Hodge, 1993; Toepell, Guilmette, & Brooks, 2004) or even increasing focus on extrinsic motives in successively older groups (Medic, 2010a). Medic (2010a) developed a line of inquiry that considers how adult competitive sport is organized in successive 5-year brackets (e.g., 35–39, 40–44, 45–49 years old). Typically, there is a progressive drop in participation rates at competitions across any 5-year bracket. Medic, Young, and Grove (2013) discussed how athletes with a more highly self-determined profile in year 1 (e.g., age 45) of a bracket reported more continuous attendance at competitions across the next four years, than those athletes who had a less self-determined profile in year 1. These results have been discussed as having implications for how motivation influences competitiveness and whether alternative forms of competitive organization need to be considered in adult sport to ensure continued adherence.
On the question of sex differences, females generally place greater import on enjoyment and intrinsic motives, social affiliation motives, health and fitness motives, have higher task orientation, show less preference for extrinsic motives, and show lower ego orientation than males (Gill, Williams, Dowd, Beaudoin, & Martin, 1996; Hastings et al., 1995; Newton & Fry, 1998; Toepell et al., 2004). However, motivational profiles vary depending on the seriousness of athletes’ involvement, and this factor may moderate motivation more than age or sex (Hastings et al., 1995), attenuating age or sex differences among the most serious cohorts (Dionigi, 2016; Etnier et al., 2004). Generally, athletes who are more intensively involved show a greater orientation toward competitiveness, achievement motives, and winning. How motivational profiles can be attributed to moderating variables is becoming a relevant part of discussions among sport event marketers and event managers who seek to promote and to organize their event offerings in a manner that is specifically tailored to particular market segments (e.g., Casper, 2007; Young et al., 2015).
Overall, the majority of motivation and commitment studies are quantitative and survey-based. Although there are less qualitative studies, they have made important contributions to understanding the participatory motives of MAs. Most of these works (see Dionigi, 2006 for a review) describe the involvement opportunities and anticipated benefits recounted by MAs. These studies touch upon key motives pertaining to personal challenge, performance achievement and social comparison, finding purpose in training, travel and companionship (Dionigi, Baker, & Horton, 2011), or important motivations related to community (Lyons & Dionigi, 2007). Continuing qualitative and mixed-methods research is integral for uncovering prevalent motives for both performance-oriented and participatory-oriented adults.
Quantitatively, future work would benefit greatly from longitudinal designs and causal modeling of data to define the motivational profiles that best promote continuous involvement. Investigators have typically derived convenience samples from international- or national-level cohorts who are already quite involved in adult sport. More information is needed with respect to all competitive levels and distinctions between antecedents that motivate adult initiates into sport, and those that motivate adults’ reengagement at different points in the lifespan.
Social Motivation and Social Influences on Adult Sport Involvement
There has been work conducted to better understand the role of social identity and the social orientations that drive Masters athletes’ (MAs’) continued sport participation, and also to understand the nature and contributions of various social actors in support of MAs’ pursuits.
There are several key qualitative works that suggest that social identity is a central psychological construct explaining MAs’ involvement in sport. In a study of how adults become socialized into Masters swimming, Stevenson (2002) discussed how identity was consonant with a process of “entanglements, commitments, and obligations” that grows in scope as an adult deepens her or his sport involvement. Stevenson illustrated how being a swimmer became a significant part of self-identification, with others in their social circle (e.g., friends, work colleagues) attributing this identity to them. Thus, social influences served to consolidate the identity of a MA, especially as the swimmer became socially recognized and identifiable by others because of their achievements and investments in sport. This study was important because it described how identity can be immersing and how it can motivate continued involvement in adult sport. Further, it showed how identity can create a sense of obligation to continue sport, which constrains people from leaving. In a study of adult runners, Yair (1992) also showed how athletes’ identities become inextricably defined by their sport involvement, encouraging an athlete to immerse in further sport activity to maintain the coherency of this identity.
Dionigi (2002) interviewed Australian Masters Games participants about their experiences, which she interpreted through the lens of identity management and identity construction. She interpreted that identity was a central construct that enhanced athletes’ enjoyment and their determination to continue sport involvement. MAs believed strongly that, by competing in sport, they were expressing their authentic self and an identity that they liked to project to others. In terms of a social identity, many were well known in their community because of their sporting acumen, were often told they were admired for their exploits, and they described how they used their sport involvement to distinguish themselves from others their age. Similarly, Langley and Knight (1999) recounted the story of a 68-year-old MA whose efforts to remain successful in sport were driven by a need to project a continuous sport identity across the lifespan. This athlete’s identity determined his past and continuing patterns of social relationships.
In describing the lived experiences of high-level Masters cyclists, Appleby and Dieffenbach (2016) emphasized the strong motivational role of athletic identity. Being able to socially project themselves as competitive cyclists helped to socially validate their enormous personal investments in the sport, gave them feelings of social distinction from others their age that heightened their self-esteem, and legitimized the sacrifices and negotiations they made for their sport. Results also showed that highly involved cyclists were hesitant to discontinue their cycling involvement to shift to other priorities in life for fear of losing an activity upon which their identity relied. Altogether, these works are poignant for emphasizing that identity is central to understanding older athletes’ strivings.
Much of the aforementioned research demonstrates that social affiliation is a participatory motive for many adult sportspersons. To understand the nuances of social affiliation, Hodge et al. (2008) surveyed World Masters Games participants with respect to the Social Motivation Model (Allen, 2005) to determine the types of social competencies that adult sportspersons seek to fulfill or demonstrate through their involvement. The athletes reported high scores for a social affiliation orientation (e.g., to meet others and establish mutual connections) and moderately high scores for a social recognition orientation. The investigators explained that sport provides MAs with opportunities to satisfy inherent needs for social connections and belonging, which aligns with basic needs for relatedness. A small cluster of athletes were driven to use their sport involvement to gain pride from being identified as a serious and skilled athlete, and to obtain social recognition, respect, and admiration from coparticipants and significant others. This latter interpretation is consistent with a number of works that suggest that some adult sportspersons enjoy the acclaim they receive from family members, friends, teammates, and community members for their status as a serious MA (Dionigi, Fraser-Thomas, & Logan, 2012; Dionigi & O’Flynn, 2007; Roper, Molnar, & Wrisberg, 2003).
Influence of Social Agents
A number of studies have tried to identify the social agents contributing to MAs’ initial engagement, reengagement, or continued participation in sport. The influence of specific agents has been examined through the lens of bidimensional sport commitment types (Santi et al., 2014; Young & Medic, 2011a). Although both types of commitment are related to social agents, more support exists in the literature for the relationship between the influence of social agents and MAs’ obligatory commitment. While considering the contribution of eight various social agents, Young and Medic (2011a) found that feelings of social constraint (i.e., fearing threats of disapproval from others should one quit) in relation to one’s spouse and training partners, as well as perceived social support from health professionals, correlated with MAs’ feelings that they “needed to” or “had to” continue in sport. The perceived social influence relating to one’s own children was curious—on one hand, feeling constrained by one’s own children was associated with “wanting to” continue sport; on the other hand, these same social constraints were concurrently associated with higher obligatory commitment. Santi et al. (2014) found that Masters swimmers’ perceptions of social support from teammates and coaches increased functional commitment, which was in turn associated with increased training with one’s team. Perceptions of social constraints from teammates and coaches increased obligatory commitment, which in turn was associated with greater hours of training alone.
Few works have contrasted the perceived contribution of multiple social agents on a within-study (or within-cohort) basis. Based on athletes’ quantitative self-report data, Young and Medic (2011b) judged the following influences to be most significant for international-level track and field athletes: one’s spouse (or life partner); one’s training partners; one’s children; and peers in one’s sport community (i.e., in a league or club). By inspecting results across a broader body of work, it is possible to further understand the particular role of peers (nonsport and sport), family, and the coach in terms of their influence on various cohorts of adult athletes.
Golding and Ungerleider (1991) discovered a positive association between MAs’ perceived social support from friends and frequency of training among 50-year-old runners. Elsewhere, MAs have described how their sport adherence was facilitated by the encouragement provided from fellow sport peers as well as the opportunities afforded to them by other sporting peers to sample new sports (Dionigi, Horton, & Baker, 2013a; Rathwell & Young, 2014). For example, many MAs reengage in sport after decades away from it because of an encouraging invitation from a current adult athlete or existing adult sport network to come out and try it (Rathwell, Callary, & Young, 2015; Stevenson, 2002). Conversely, a survey of Seniors Games participants indicated that discouragement from friends and a lack of coparticipants are social barriers to participation (Cardenas, Henderson, & Wilson, 2009). More information is needed about the nature and types of support offered by these agents (e.g., emotional, validation, instrumental) and to examine whether certain cohorts of serious MAs thrive because of a “lone wolf” status that does not rely on peers. For example, 75% of World Masters Athletics competitors train alone or with one other person, and they report nonsport peers as having very minimal influence (Young & Medic, 2011b). For the most part, peer influence has been reported positively with respect to sport adherence.
Emerging themes relate to familial support in a complex manner involving social negotiations within the family unit. In some instances, MAs have noted active forms of support from their spouse and children, evidenced by their attendance at competitions, or having their spouses coparticipate with them in sport (Dionigi et al., 2012; Grant, 2001; Rathwell & Young, 2014). Roper et al. (2003) highlighted the importance of spousal support for an 88-year-old senior athlete, who perceived encouragement and social approval. However, MAs have also equated support with family members “allowing” their busy training and competitive routines. Family members did not necessarily provide active support, but were judged as supportive because they “accommodated” without questioning or complaining (Dionigi et al., 2012; Grant, 2001). Family support has also been described in the form of scheduling, whereby family members (especially female spouses) adapt their schedules to afford time for the MA to train and compete, while also ensuring the MA and the family share time. This type of support is instrumental so the MA does not have to forego family time to participate in sport (Grant, 2001; Stevenson, 2002).
The MA’s prioritization of sport is not always supported by family members. For instance, MAs have highlighted in past studies that the negotiation of leisure time has led to relational conflicts with spouses and missed sport opportunities, especially for female MAs (Barrel, Chamberlain, Evans, Holt, & Mackean, 1989; Dionigi, 2002). Dionigi et al. (2012) concluded that social negotiations involving acceptance and allowance from family were meaningful in ensuring continued sport involvement, especially for already committed MAs. In the same study, investigators described how some MAs saw their children as indirectly supporting them, either because MAs felt they needed to act as role models for their children’s sport participation or because their children’s sport involvement prompted their own.
A coach is an important resource that MAs use to motivate themselves to train (Medic, 2010a) that can also enrich the quality of their sport experience (Young & Callary, 2018). For example, having a coach was correlated with a more self-determined motivational profile (Medic, Young, Starkes, & Weir, 2012). In qualitative work pertaining to a coached context, Masters swimmers appreciated the accountability and structured planning that accompanied a good coach, and how having a wholly engaged coach validated their own investment in sport and encouraged them to do more (Callary, Rathwell, & Young, 2015; Rathwell et al., 2015). MAs particularly appreciated when their coaches tailored approaches to meet their preferences (Callary et al., 2015; Ferrari, Bloom, Gilbert, & Caron, 2017), and specifically when coaches considered their mature identities and refined coaching approaches to how older adults prefer to learn (Callary, Rathwell, & Young, 2017). Results from quantitative work also indicate that social constraints from a coach can be a concern because such feelings can reduce MAs’ functional commitment (Santi et al., 2014).
In terms of applied implications of these works, literature has begun to address how teammates and coaches can provide positive support to MAs without creating overexpectations and climates where athletes concern themselves with threats of disapproval from others (Santi et al., 2014; Young et al., 2014). Medic (2010b) initiated an applied dialogue for how sport psychology consultants might aid MAs whose obstinate sport involvement was disrupting their family and professional lives, and vice versa. Additionally, recent research examining coaching approaches in Masters sport has begun to speculate on whether and how findings can be used to advance best practices tailored to MAs (Callary et al., 2017).
The majority of studies on the social element of Masters sport have focused on social agents as an antecedent to either sport commitment or motivation. However, little research has focused on benefits that social agents provide beyond improving adherence. More information is needed about whether adult sport is just another venue to facilitate belonging or whether there is unique social capital associated with a sport social circle.
On the Topic of Aging
Masters athletes (MAs) are an opportune cohort for considering how adult sport behaviors are influenced by and can reciprocally influence age-related expectancies. Early on, Ostrow, Jones, and Spiker (1981) suggested that ageism, the negative stigma that is associated with older age, unconsciously plays out in sport. Grant (2001) noted that senior athletes encountered such ageist attitudes from others (e.g., older adults being seen as too frail to participate), and integrated these attitudes into their own self-perceptions, which were barriers to sport involvement. Horton (2010) conjectured that many adults “buy into” these negative stigmas, internalize them, and avoid adult sport as they get older, regardless of whether they have the ability to participate. Conversely, MAs may embody contemporary images and narratives on aging that can challenge societal attitudes about aging and change the beliefs of older adults so as to facilitate broader adult sport participation (see Horton, 2010). Optimistically, some MAs appear to challenge typical associations of intense, competitive sport as being for youth, and of moderate exercise and avoiding extremely strenuous exercise as being for older adults (Dionigi, 2008; Dionigi et al., 2011). Research has yet to substantiate how and the extent to which older athletes serve as catalysts for others’ participation; still, academics have posited that visible MA sport festivals may optimistically enhance ageing norms in the broader community (e.g., Young et al., 2015).
Resisting and Reinforcing Perceptions of Aging
A body of qualitative work that has interpreted the stories of older adult sportspersons underscores that growing older need not be negative. For example, Dionigi (2002) explored aspects of competitive sport participation among older adults (from 55 to 94 years old) and found that competitive sport gives MAs the opportunity to resist negative factors associated with ageing and adapt to later life, while also expressing youthfulness associated with sport engagement. MAs’ engagement in sport was seen as a resistance to the traditional narrative of physical and cognitive decline, contesting negative depictions and demonstrating how Masters sport provides opportunities to age positively (Dionigi, 2008; Grant, 2001; Tulle, 2008). Similarly, Phoenix and Smith (2011) discovered that Masters bodybuilders (50 to 73 years of age) described alternative ageing identities and told “counterstories” in defiance of the stereotypical assumptions. Dionigi et al. (2013a) also described how World Masters Games participants countered traditional narratives on aging. Specifically, MAs wanted a sporting challenge, discovered their sporting competitive selves in older age, and wanted to compare their sporting accomplishments with others of their age.
These stories of resistance are complemented by quantitative survey work which shows MAs are motivated by the opportunity to use sport to delay the effects of aging, and that affinity for this motive increases with age (Young et al., 2015). This leads to the question of whether resistance or antiaging themes should be embedded in promotional campaigns to encourage more people to join adult sport and whether they can empower or inspire others. Phoenix and Griffin (2011) described how stories of resistance, when shown to focus groups of young adults, helped them feel that growing older need not be negative. Horton, Baker, Côté, and Deakin (2008) conducted interviews with 62- to 74-year-old seniors and asked them to comment on how they saw one age-matched “superstar” MA (whose exploits clearly defied aging expectations). Respondents fell into one of three categories: those who unequivocally admired him and found him motivating; those who found him to be extreme but who acknowledged that he could be an inspirational role model for a particular segment of seniors; and those who found him intimidating, could not identify with him, and concluded he was uninspiring. These results, along with others (see Baker, Fraser-Thomas, Dionigi, & Horton, 2010; Oghene, McGannon, Schinke, Watson, & Quartiroli, 2015), have exposed inherent complexities to the assertion that seeing images of others resisting aging could be inspirational.
There are a number of academics who have reservations on accepting these resistance narratives as positive and question whether antiaging narratives should be used to promote sport. To illustrate, Phoenix and Sparkes (2007) asked young adults (early 20s) to describe how they viewed ageing athletes and found that narrative maps, projected by older midlife team members, influenced younger adults’ perspectives of self-ageing as either almost ready to retire from high-performance sport (preferred), stepping down reluctantly, or fearing ageing by “hanging on.” Further, Phoenix and Smith (2011) noted that counterstories may “trick” older adults into unreasonably believing that they can simply resist ageing (when physical frailty may in fact limit their capabilities), or may “produce a tyranny of cheerfulness that provides no place for those people who do not wish to or cannot view ageing as a positive experience” (p. 636). While resistance narratives may be viewed as a positive shift in sport participation for older adults, they also paradoxically imply that as people age, they should try to “defeat” aging—which is ultimately a losing battle and could reinforce negative stereotypes around aging (Biggs, 2014; Dionigi & O’Flynn, 2007; Gard et al., 2017).
In response to advocates who promote lifelong “sport for all,” Gard et al. (2017) also expressed reservations that the manner in which sport is being framed for older persons may unfairly imply that it should be practiced by everyone. Dionigi, Horton, and Baker (2013b) noted that older adults who use sport to set back fears of ill health and age decline place responsibility on themselves for maintaining health and performance. They also pointed out how sociocultural factors that shape MAs’ experiences are typically discounted because research has been conducted mostly with adults who are white, middle class, and who can afford the time, travel, and costs associated with sport participation. Thus, placing responsibility on adults who cannot afford sport may be unfair. Cognizant of such arguments, recent conceptual models advocating for societal “health through sport” (Eime, Young, Harvey, Charity, & Payne, 2013) and “physical literacy for older adults” (Jones et al., 2018) have more fully considered ecological factors, including social inequities, when framing personal responsibilities around aged sport. There have also been calls for community-based strategies and policies to make adult sport more accessible for more people (Henderson, Casper, Wilson, & Dern, 2012). The contention is that adult sport could be an effective vehicle to build a more inclusive community if efforts are focused at local Masters or Seniors events, in contrast to the current scenario where growth is driven by large-scale games that are costly to attend and therefore exclude many. It was also recommended that older adults be involved in assessing community needs for and in planning such events.
Some studies have shown other complexities in narratives for how MAs negotiate aging. For example, some MAs see sport as an opportunity to redefine aging, and accordingly they try to make sport about developing anew and having fun, while others talk about how sport encourages them to accept and adapt to aging (Dionigi et al., 2013a). Other MAs use sport to reenter youth-like sport experiences, while others discuss how adult sport makes them confront aging and compromise by accepting their aging status and bowing out of sport with dignity (Partington, Partington, Fishwick, & Allin, 2005). Still, the dominant narrative from most MAs relates to using sport to control and fight aging, and thus debate continues on the rewards and risks of exploiting such stories for promoting adult sport.
There is little work that has systematically analyzed the manner in which MAs affect societal stereotypes and others’ perceptions of aging. Horton (2010) borrowed on work from educational gerontology framed within social cognitive theory to suggest several avenues of work to unravel the processes that may mediate how perceptions of models translate to others, touching upon notions of similarity (between the model and observers), the exceptional or spectacular nature of the model’s image (how discrepant it is from the observers’ status), and whether the observers have time to act toward the image (e.g., not enough time to attain this model’s status). He also posited that elite MAs may be more effective in altering stereotypes and inspiring those in younger cohorts than those close in age to the senior models. Young and Medic (2011b) proposed that images of average (rather than spectacular) older athletes may be more effectively received by aging individuals contemplating a return to sport because they are more attainable. Horton, Dionigi, and Bellamy (2013) also suggested that the influence of a role model may also depend on regulatory focus, specifically whether an individual is predisposed to make upward (i.e., a promotional orientation to be like the optimistic model) or downward (i.e., a preventive orientation to avoid being like the pessimistic model) comparisons. In a sample of 75-to 92-year-old females, Horton et al. (2013) found that responses to whether MAs were role models depended on respondents’ current activity levels. When asked about images of two female MAs, highly physically active responders saw the MAs as role models, whereas moderately active and inactive responders did not. Instead, they described how their health-related role models were generally personal acquaintances who were only slightly more active than they were themselves. Although such work is still evolving, Horton discussed several applied implications for how MAs may be instrumental, including having them share their expert knowledge and stories as spokespersons, in newsletters, or at workshops with other adults. However, it was noted that efforts might also have to be made to “neutralize” the intimidation factor of MAs to accentuate their persuasive influence on the health behaviors of others in their community.
Psychosocial Outcomes Associated With Adult Sport
This section addresses research that examines psychosocial indices associated with adult sport and related discussion about the benefits of sport for aging adults. In the nascent years of Masters sport, Rudman (1986) initiated a dialogue relating adult sport to successful aging that has since been adopted by many academics in this field. Many of the studies reviewed in this section have explored whether participants are prospective models of successful aging and have attempted to describe how sport is a venue for successful aging, positing that sport may have particular beneficial attributes not shared by other modes of physical activity. Research in this line of inquiry has examined various indices of psychological and social health and well-being to determine whether sport enriches adults’ lives, and if so, to generally advocate for greater support for adult sport participation (e.g., Eime et al., 2013).
A number of studies have borrowed from Rowe and Khan’s (1997) model of successful aging (SA), a popular (though not uncontentious) framework in gerontology. It proposed that SA is a state of being that can be determined at a particular moment based on the balance of three components: high physical and mental functioning; engagement in life (i.e., social and productive activities); and absence of disease and disability. In a qualitative study of older golfers (Siegenthaler & O’Dell, 2003), the most serious-minded “devotees” to golf, who invested considerable effort and time and whose identities were tied inextricably to golf, were most likely to describe specific contributions of golf to SA. The contribution of golf to SA was less readily acknowledged as the degree of seriousness decreased (e.g., among golfers referred to as “dabblers” or “participants”). Heo, Culp, Yamada, and Won (2013) found similar findings among Senior Games competitors, concluding that adult sport is a form of serious leisure that enhances well-being and healthy lifestyles.
One of the limitations of research on SA in the domain of physical activity (including sport) is that studies have not comprehensively assessed all three components of SA concurrently in the same study design; psychosocial researchers have typically related their findings to only one or two components of the model (usually high mental and physical functioning, and engagement in life). For example, Menec (2003) discovered that, among various types of activity (e.g., socializing, solitary hobbies, reading, housework, and sport and games), only sport and games predicted satisfaction with engagement with life in adults over 65 years of age. Liffiton, Horton, Baker, and Weir (2012) suggested that sport embodies social and productive pursuits that foster meaningful engagement in life and contended these activities should be associated with SA.
There is a paucity of research that explicitly links adult sport to designated components of the SA model. In a review, Geard, Reaburn, Rebar, and Dionigi (2017) synthesized broader works on Masters sport as they relate to SA. They noted significant support for a link to high physical functioning but argued that research should do a better job at fully considering measures for psychological, cognitive, and social functioning, hypothesizing that Masters sport would likely show strong associations with these indices. Due to a dearth of research, they acknowledged their hypotheses were extrapolations from research examining the effects of nonsporting modes of physical activity, and on rare occasions when MAs cohorts were examined, only the most serious-minded athletes were considered, thereby neglecting more heterogeneous participant samples. Geard et al. (2017) concluded that MAs should be considered exemplars of SA and recommended further empirical work.
There is another body of work on well-being outcomes of adult sport distinct from Rowe and Khan’s model. In a systematic review, Eime et al. (2013) reported many psychosocial health benefits associated with adult sport, with the most common benefits relating to reduced stress, increased social functioning, vitality, and improved well-being (also see Asztalos et al., 2012; Lechner, 2009). Asztalos et al.’s (2009) large-scale Flemish study found that sport participation, but no other form of physical activity (housework, biking to and from work, walking to and from work), was consistently associated with less stress among adults. Eime, Harvey, Brown, and Payne (2010) attributed psychosocial benefits to the inherently social nature of participating in a sport club based on findings that club participants reported higher vitality, mental health, and life satisfaction than gymnasium and walking participants. Although there is evidence that club and team-based sports more strongly associate with psychosocial outcomes, Asztalos et al. (2012) contended that personal preference—when individuals choose sports that suit them best (regardless of whether they are club-based or solitary)—is most influential for achieving psychosocial benefits.
Positive Development Through Sport
An emerging body of work has adopted a lifelong growth perspective to understand the assets that older adults feel they derive from their sport participation (Baker, Fraser-Thomas, Dionigi, & Horton, 2010). In a review dedicated to sportspersons over the age of 65 years, Gayman, Fraser-Thomas, Dionigi, Horton, and Baker (2017) described how adult sport foremost enables many individuals to develop socially by satisfying their need for belonging and allowing them to demonstrate social connections with others. Other prominent outcomes pertained to emotional (e.g., personal satisfaction, excitement, feelings related to success and mastery), motivational (e.g., engaging in health-promoting behaviors), and perceived cognitive-perceptual outcomes (e.g., attention and coincident timing). Importantly, they identified age-related outcomes wherein older sportspersons developed strategies for making sense of their aging identity and coping with growing older.
Gayman et al. (2017) contended that adult sport has a role in enhancing the psychosocial health of the oldest adults. Their work also supported the idea that sport can precipitate other modes of healthy active aging (also see Langley & Knight, 1999) as well as psychological benefits, such as perceived control and independence (Baker et al., 2010). Their review also acknowledged potential maladaptive outcomes, including frustration, fear of age decline, interpersonal conflicts, amotivation, and self-pressure. They concluded that it was unclear whether outcomes were solely related to sport participation and did not deny that similar outcomes could be obtained from other forms of physical activity.
Adaptation and Compensation
Finally, there is a body of work portraying how outcomes of adult sport include adaptations that enable athletes to retain elite performance as they age. These works relate to Baltes’ (1987) selective optimization with compensation principle, whereby loss does not preclude growth, and where older persons continually develop strategies and mechanisms to optimize their performance that compensate for age-related losses. For example, Langley and Knight (1999) explained how one aging elite tennis player maximized his success by focusing on tennis rather than other sports (i.e., selection), by searching out stronger partners for doubles tennis, and by using an oversized racquet (i.e., optimization). He also compensated for age-related facets by joining a tennis club with a softer playing surface to reduce wear on his body, by using lobs instead of backhand drives, and by setting a more intermittent competitive schedule. Rathwell and Young (2014) explained similar strategies in the case study of a 52-year-old elite runner. Young and Medic (2012) discussed the nature of conscious strategies supporting adaptive outcomes as well as psychomotor research showing the unique perceptual-motor processing adaptations that allow for retained aged performance. For example, Schorer and Baker (2009) examined older handball goaltenders’ reactions in a laboratory setting, specifically the postulate that their defensive responses to oncoming shots were unconsciously initiated earlier than younger colleagues’ responses because of acquired perceptual anticipation skills that compensated for slower physical speed.
In sum, a small number of studies have explicitly investigated the unique psychosocial outcomes of sport for older people in comparison to other forms of physical activity, using longitudinal designs with age-matched active versus nonactive cohorts. Although social and productive engagement outcomes are often heralded, more quantitative work is needed to substantiate the contribution of adult sport to reduced incidence of disease and disability as well as increased cognitive function. There is also a need for complementary qualitative approaches to uncover alternative and highly personalized meanings of SA derived from sport, and to contrast how serious-minded competitors describe SA differently than recreational participants.
The literature portrays older adult athletes as a worthy cohort for studies on motivation and commitment, through both a personal and social lens. In particular, Masters athletes (MAs) are an interesting cohort for understanding how adults devote to a serious goal-pursuit, how they receive social support, and how they prioritize, negotiate, or forfeit responsibilities to accomplish this. MAs show remarkable dedication to participate in sport, while the majority of their age-matched peers demonstrate a lack of adherence to physical activity. Older athletes defy broader cross-sectional trends showing declines in physical activity participation with advancing age in most westernized countries, where rates peak during early adolescence and steadily fall during the teenage years, and at each successive life stage (e.g., CFLRI, 2013). Many adult athletes disengaged following their youth sporting days and reengaged years later, whereas other older sportspersons have remarkably maintained continuous involvement in sport across the lifespan. Such reengagement and continuity in sport are both feats that require motivation and negotiation of life circumstances (e.g., professional responsibilities and familial or caregiving duties), especially during middle-aged years when adults have less free time to attribute to leisure pursuits (Thompson, Grant, & Dharmalingam, 2002).
MAs represent an attractive cohort for researchers to examine how adult sport behaviors are influenced by, and can reciprocally influence, age-related expectancies and norms for who should compete in sport. Studies of MAs offer some insight on how adults engage in goal-oriented pursuits while negotiating age-related decline, as evidenced by rich and complex age-related narratives pertaining to their involvement. The question of whether adult sport is good for aging people, and whether it affords them SA benefits that cannot be found to the same extent in other leisure pursuits, is pertinent and ongoing as psychosocial researchers scrutinize the contribution of sport to the adult physical activity landscape.
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