As a 63 year old weight trainee involved in Canadian masters weightlifting, naturally I am interested in why former athletes often end up making a comeback. Some come back not too long after they supposedly retire. Others may abandon their sport for years and finally do a sort of prodigal son return decades later. This pattern is so common that it is now unusual for someone to quit once and for all time. That being the case, why is athletic recidivism so high?
As a 63 year old weight trainee involved in Canadian masters weightlifting, naturally I am interested in why former athletes often end up making a comeback. Some come back not too long after they supposedly retire. Others may abandon their sport for years and finally do a sort of prodigal son return decades later. This pattern is so common that it is now unusual for someone to quit once and for all time. That being the case, why is athletic recidivism so high? And more important, what should we be aware of when a comeback is contemplated?
To some it is a case of unfulfilled dreams calling. One might have dropped out of the sport to go to school, taken a demanding job, or marriage and family put rest to their dreams. When life slows down a bit it may be an opportunity to get back into one’s former sport. This is especially true when one’s goals in that sport were not realized. If they are young enough they may decide to give it one more try. Many are successful. Think of boxer George Foreman. After a ten-year retirement he came back, to general hoots of derision as he was by then 37 years old and much heavier. He persisted and ultimately regained his heavyweight title at age 45.
Some are not young enough but still do it. The most inspiring story I know is of Texas rodeo barrel racer Lee Ann Rust. She raced in her youth, and then married and the dreams died. Decades later she found herself divorced and with too much time on her hands. So she decided to go back to her first love – at age 53. This is generally a teenagers’ sport but Lee Ann won rodeo’s rookie of the year award, placing high in rodeos all over Canada and the United States.
One Last Hurrah
Many athletes should retire and do. But they may often take one more shot at athletic immortality (if only to themselves) and make a comeback, if not a series of them. Some like Sugar Ray Leonard are successful. Others like Jim Jeffries and Naim Suleymanoglu are not. Of course it is the ego that is the main driver here. Pride is what drives one to succeed in one’s early and prime years. Without it success would not be possible. But in the twilight of athletic excellence, pride is increasingly no longer on one’s side. It starts to betray its owner, convincing him or her it is still possible to pull off heroics that are indeed no longer possible. Gamblers know that Lady Luck is a fickle mistress. With athletes, it is their ego.
Those whose sport kept them in good condition during their active career may get so detrained in retirement that their health is compromised. Finally getting a true reading on their condition they may decide a return to action will set things right. This is one of the major motivations for masters competitors. Sagging muscles can be returned to active duty, backs can straighten, and more importantly much of one’s old form can return. It just feels good to pull that singlet on again.
Being a weightlifter, or a participant in any other sport, is often a huge part of the identity of many trainees, regardless of the level obtained. Your friends know you as a lifter; you are always asked to show your above average strength. In many ways your identity as Joe the Strongman cannot be ignored. The idea that in retirement one will inevitably get weaker is hard to take. So the iron is hauled out again while the masters schedule is Googled “just for fun.”
With many people they just can’t quit. It is so much a part of their identity and entire life that full retirement just does not work. Lifter Norbert Schemansky, boxers Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson are good examples, not quitting until the opposition forced them to. An exception seems to be boxer Bernard Hopkins. He was still world champion at 46 because his opposition has been quite unable to convince him he should forsake the big money for the pipe and slippers.
Some professional athletes return after retirement simply because they need the money and have no other way to produce the required funds in a short period of time. This happens to many boxers but we have also seen it occur in the team sports. Remember Lyle Alzado trying out for the Raiders at age 43? Sometimes we see it for the opposite reason, that of someone begged to return to the sport in order to help their team or in response to an offer too good to pass up.
So for whatever reason let’s say that you the reader are planning your return to your sport. What are the main considerations?
- First of all, how long have you been gone? The longer that time is, the more realistic one has to be. Don’t expect to return to your old form immediately. You may not ever if it has been too long since you last were in a gym.
- Your goals should be appropriate. They should be high enough to be challenging but not so high as to risk injury to the body or, more important to the unapologetic athlete, injury to the ego.
- For the Olympic lifter age is important. Explosive strength drops off dramatically in the mid-40s. No matter how hard one trains the quick lifts will drop and there is nothing to do but accept this miserable aspect of aging. Absolute strength does not drop though so things aren’t all bad. Big power-type lifts can still be made.
- Be aware that the infrastructure can be a special problem to the old-timer. Even retired lifters will find their muscle memory working to their advantage. Strength returns, even after a long layoff. You will get strong faster than the untrained oldsters in your gym. This is all very encouraging but problems may soon develop with sore tendons and ligaments if one pushes too hard. Tendons and ligaments do take longer to get back into shape. It is better to keep the lifts rising slower than desired for the first few months so that these structures can catch up. It took me six months for my infrastructure to catch up to my muscle when I returned to heavier training.
This whole discussion leads us to the main lesson to be learned here for the older weight trainee. The best way to make a comeback is to never fully retire in the first place.
Photos courtesy of Becca Borawski.