Family Affair

Teaching Old Dogs New Sports

Even with a steep learning curve, taking up a sport you never played before can be exhilarating — especially if you follow these five tips

Watching the World Cup brings it all back. When I turned 30, I made one of the best decisions of my life: I started playing soccer.

Sports stopped being part of my life in the fifth grade. That's when the boys in my class decided that girls shouldn't play anymore. They kicked us out of their recess dodgeball game and I never made my way back. I've never admitted this to anyone, but in college, to fulfill the phys. ed. requirement, I took bowling.

You can just imagine the kind of person who would do such a thing. Like my fellow bowlers, I was a pale-faced, book-reading, headache-getting type of gal. But when I was 29, I started dating a man who was of the let's-go-on-a-hike-on-our-day-off variety. A few months after we hooked up, he organized a pickup soccer game in the park. I don't know if I was inspired by him or just ready to try something new, but I decided to say good-bye to the fragile pushover who had kept me off the field.

Playing a new sport was exhilarating. Despite the steep learning curve, I felt like I was a crack athlete. No matter that I couldn't dribble to save my life and hovered around the opposing team's goal until someone kindly explained how it was frowned upon, not to mention against the rules. The act of learning and improving, particularly as it translated on the soccer pitch, was unadulterated fun. I got all the benefit of a workout without any of the boredom. And the icing on the cake was that it built my self-confidence.

Now I want to do it all over again. I'm remembering the thrill of sweating for two straight hours, and the satisfying ache of my sore muscles after the game. I want to experience that high of teaching my body to do new things, and working on a skill until it becomes second nature. I want to do it again, but I know this time, it will be different. I'm not 30 anymore. I'm not even 40. As much as I want to recreate the fun, I have to accept the body I have now and work with it.

So I've consulted with my friend who's a fitness instructor and she offers these tips for someone taking on a new sport. Many of these apply to everyone, at every age, but they're even more important as we get older.

1. Start slow.

Sports are fun! Like a kid, you may want to plunge right in. But if you take the time to learn, train and teach your body the correct stance and movements, you'll be more likely to keep playing — because your body won't feel like it's been hit by a truck the next day — and less likely to get injured.

2. Meet your body wherever it is.

My yoga instructor advises first-time yogis to start with one position — downward dog — and master the placement of the hands and feet for the entire first session. Though we're talking about sports rather than yoga practice, the idea is the same. You'll want to build your skills, strength and endurance slowly, over time. And the great thing about sports is that you'll see yourself improve over time as well, which is a terrific motivator to keep going.

3. Stretch.

Everyone does it — even teenage athletes with practically indestructible joints — and so should you, before and after each game. If you take it slow and figure out (either with a trainer or through research) how to stretch correctly, this can be a luxurious part of any workout.

4. Find something you love.

There's a lot out there — watersports, salsa dancing, cross-country skiing. There may be a sport that you've always wanted to try, or perhaps you have a friend who's also interested in playing. The more fun it is, the more motivated you'll be. This isn't about dragging yourself to the gym.

5. Take up Pilates.

This overlaps with the first tip, and it's about doing the movements properly. My friend says this is the absolute most important piece of advice. Most people get injured by moving incorrectly, she says, particularly when they're older. It's worth it to take the time and teach your body how to move correctly. Pilates is an ideal way to do this. What you learn in Pilates won't just help you play your new sport — it will help you walk, sit and move better in general.

And with that, let's get ready to get back on the field. Because you're never too old to play.

Tags: aging

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