Why You Should Pick Up A New Sport in Middle Age

Why You Should Pick Up A New Sport in Middle Age

Shane BarnhillMonday,14 April 2014

The Snap:

About six months ago, I started playing hockey. Even though I had participated in a variety of other sports while growing up — such as baseball, basketball, soccer, football and track & field — I had never played hockey before, either as an child or an adult. Hockey just wasn’t a very big sport in Phoenix when I was growing up, and neither of my parents played hockey (and thus didn’t encourage it). But I have become increasingly interested in the sport over the past several years while watching my oldest son play in the house league at our local rink. So one day, on a whim, I signed up to join a league, and bought a hockey stick, helmet and pads.

The Download:

I’m now in my second season in a beginner-level adult league, and I’m enjoying hockey more than any sport that I’ve ever played. After flailing away as a right wing for several games in my first season, I volunteered to switch positions and play defenseman. The results have been positive, both for myself and my team. I’m good with geometry, and have proved adept at forcing advancing players into difficult shooting angles while also filling in passing lanes to break up scoring chances. Plus, I understand the game better after playing both forward and defenseman, and I’m able to anticipate the moves of opposing players a bit more. I’m wouldn’t call myself a “good” hockey player just yet, but I’m contributing to my team and having fun.

I continue to learn more about hockey with every game, but my most important lessons learned so far are applicable both on and off the ice. To me, they illustrate why it’s a good idea to pick up a new sport — one that will make you feel confused, vulnerable and out of your comfort zone — in middle age. Reflect on the lessons that this new sport will teach you, and you’ll find that they apply to your life and career as well.

For me, those lessons include:

1. Be honest about your weaknesses. I’m terrible at shooting the puck in hockey. Shots come off of my stick like a crawling tortoise, inching along the ice at a painfully slow pace. So after several games of taking weak, easily defended shots, I had to be honest with myself — I was doing more harm than good by continuing to shoot the puck at every opportunity. Consequently, I have adjusted my approach. I look to pass the puck off to better shooters on my team whenever possible, and I shoot only when teammates are around for rebound opportunities. This won’t always be the case, of course. I’ll get better at shooting the longer I play. But for now, I add more value to the team by playing tough defense and distributing the puck to other players instead of forcing shots.

2. Invest in the right equipment for the job. From a professional standpoint, I’ve known about the value of good tools (e.g. software) for a long time. But when I decided to take up hockey, I bought the cheapest stick that I could find at Wal-Mart. Little did I realize how important a good stick is for a hockey player. The curvature of a stick’s blade greatly impacts a player’s ability to lift and control the puck, and some sticks are made from special materials that make them easier to grip and control. But with my Wal-Mart special, I could barely lift the puck an inch off of the ice, and I had limited command of my most important on-ice asset.

So one day, I took the plunge and invested in a mid-range (read: only kind of expensive) composite stick with a sharply-curved blade, and I became a more effective player overnight. My newfound ability to lift the puck a few feet (or more) off of the surface of the ice meant that I could flip it over the sticks of advancing players; furthermore, the “sticky” grip served as a constant reminder to keep both hands on the stick — which shaves invaluable milliseconds off of a player’s reaction time.

3. Ask for help. Before my first hockey game, I bought the Kindle edition of Hockey For Dummies, and I read the book end to end. While I was partially motivated by a genuine desire to learn the game and its terminology, I was also motivated by fear. I didn’t want to be “that guy” — the one who didn’t know the basic rules, and who was always out of position — and so I never let on at first when I was confused by referee calls or in-game situations. But I’m not one to let fear get the better of me for long, and so finally, I started speaking up about what I didn’t understand.

My teammates, of course, have been more than happy to help. After all, the more I know, the better our team becomes, and the more games we win. Plus, the guys who have been playing the game for decades seem to feel good about teaching some of the sport’s nuances. Bottom line: everybody wins when you ask for the help you need.

4. Win or lose, people want to work with other good people. In my first season of hockey, my team lost about a dozen games in a row before finally winning one game to close the year. It wasn’t a winning season. But when it came time to sign up for the next season, we all opted to return to the same team, because we enjoyed playing together so much. Every player on the team was pleasant and hard working. Win or lose, we wanted to do it together. That wasn’t the case for some of the other (better) teams in our league. Even though they delivered better results on the ice, they didn’t really like each other, and they split apart after the season. The bottom line is that team players want to compete alongside people whom they like and respect; furthermore, high-performing teams can rarely sustain good output when they don’t trust and respect each other.

5. Keep your head up. It’s easy to focus on what is directly in front of you, instead of surveying the landscape and planning a few moves into the future. But this short term focus can hurt you, as I found out the hard way a few games into my first season of hockey. I was following the puck, and skating with my head down. Consequently, I had no idea that our league’s notorious goon was skating towards me at full speed. I looked up just in time to see him hit me and send me flying backwards; I landed on the back of my head. Even though I was wearing a helmet, the impact was enough to cause a mild concussion, and I didn’t feel right again for a few weeks. Looking back, I realize that I’ve been making this mistake — focusing mostly on the very short term — both on and off the ice in various aspects of life.

6. Communicate. It may be cliché to emphasize the importance of good communication, because we’re all constantly being reminded about how important it is for good relationships — in love, at work, etc. But playing hockey has reminded me how valuable good communication habits are for establishing trust and understanding. It’s easier to take calculated risks when you’ve communicated backup plans with colleagues and teammates.

The six takeaways above are just a small subset of what I have learned over the past several months while playing hockey. I value not only these lessons, but also the camaraderie, exercise and fun that comes from learning a completely new sport. It’s never too late to pick up a new activity to challenge yourself to learn and grow in new ways.

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  1. […] About six months ago, I started playing hockey. I’m wouldn’t call myself a “good” hockey player just yet, but I’m contributing to my team and having fun. I continue to learn more about hockey with every game, but my most important lessons learned so far are applicable both on and off the ice. Read more on The Snap Download… […]

  2. […] Why You Should Pick Up A New Sport in Middle Age | The Snap Download […]

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