3 Key Habits That Set Champions Apart

Over the past two years, I've tracked a group of "ultra" senior athletes who crisscross the country multiple times a year, competing in national tennis championships.

These men and women between the ages of 75 and 95 look and move like they are decades younger. How do they do it?

Longevity genes help, but I've observed that these inspiring role models share characteristics that are within the grasp of us mere mortals.

  1. They Engage

So many of us live lives driven by fear. Fear of losing, fear of looking foolish, fear of injury. But champions remember that just entering the arena can be very rewarding. Don't deny yourself the chance. The average world-class athlete retires from his sport at age 33. The average NFL player is retired by 28, and the average elite gymnast by 19. No, you may not be able to become a prima ballerina at 65, but if you love to dance, what's holding you back from signing up for a class?

Dori DeVries, a 75-year-old champion, underwent rotator cuff surgery last year. While this surgery would sideline many competitors half her age, DeVries was undeterred. Frustrated by the gentle exercises proposed by her physical therapist, Devries told him: "Hurt me. I need to get on with this." An athlete who knows her body well, she took control of her own recovery and was competing again in four months. It's a win to give your body the right kind of rest, just keep your focus on healing with the clear intention to get back into action.

  • They Connect
  • It's inspiring to see people over age 80 engaged in physical competition because it's surprising. But it shouldn't be. The key is age-appropriate competition. Just as it's not fair to pit a 7-year-old against a 17-year-old, there's a big difference in physical ability between a 70-year-old and an 80-year-old. It doesn't mean an 80-year-old can't run or swing or hit a ball, just that they should have a realistic expectation for their ability and performance level. Find an appropriate environment, identify achievable goals and set yourself up for success by defining your 'win' in advance. "Showing up is half the battle," the saying goes. But sometimes showing up IS the battle.

    National Champion Joe Russell writes:

    "There was a bizarre twist in the 85+ doubles here at Pinehurst, NC. Because of substantial delays due to rain, players bailed out and left. That, coupled with injuries befalling competitors, Joe Beeson and I received gold balls in the doubles without playing a match. Welcome to the world of senior competition!"

    Keeping your focus on the long game means you'll be there to get the gold when others fall by the wayside.

  • They Share
  • The Randy Pate Tennis Academy in Winston-Salem, North Carolina primarily serves 8- to 17-year-olds hoping for a spot on a college tennis team. But that didn't stop 81-year-old Ron Tonidandel from asking for a spot in one of Pate's junior clinics. Bringing youth and wisdom together on the court, Pate devised "The Ron Test." In order to graduate into Pate's advanced training group, the kids must beat Tonidandel in a match. It's become as defining a crucible as the swift young baseliners quickly learn the only thing worse than facing Tonidandel in court (he's a retired litigator) is handling his unpredictable lobs and drop shots. It's a fun cross-generational learning experience for both sides.

    Champions stay young by seeking out appropriate challenges, engaging socially and focusing on steady improvement. They stay engaged, connected, and pass forward what they've learned.

    Above all, they stay in the fight. Their results speak for themselves.

    Kate Keckler Dandel is a writer, producer and filmmaker based in Seattle, WA. Her documentary GOLD BALLS about the "ultra" senior tennis circuit will be released in spring of 2016. Support the film and learn more at: http://www.goldballsmovie.com

    Earlier on Huff/Post50:

    8 Exercises to Reduce the Effects of Aging