Regaining a competitive edge is difficult for any athlete after a long layoff, but research shows it can be especially challenging for older athletes, said Loretta DiPietro, a professor of exercise science at George Washington University and a 64-year-old field hockey player. “As you age, you have to work a bit harder to stay fit.”
I talked with some of the older players about how they got through the pandemic and safely resumed tournament play, at a place where temperatures exceeded 95 degrees. Here are their tips, along with advice from experts, for having a Covid Comeback — or returning to competition after any other long layoff.
Maintain a sense of purpose during your downtime
Many older competitors, especially those willing to crisscross the country to play sports, get a sense of purpose in life — goals and direction — from exercise. That helped the seniors I interviewed commit to staying physically active through pandemic shutdowns, all the way to the Palm Desert tournament.
“Exercise can contribute to a sense of purpose through different channels,” said Ayse Yemiscigil, a researcher at Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Program who led a recent study of middle age and older adults that found links between purpose in life and physical activity.
Yemiscigil said one way that sports and exercise may instill purpose is by encouraging people to challenge themselves. With tournaments canceled last year, Wendell Pierce, a 67-year-old from Oakland, Calif., set a goal of hitting tennis balls against a wall for two hours each day. “All by myself on that backboard at 8 o’clock at night, I was staying a step ahead of the pack,” he said.
Pierce had faced an even bigger obstacle in 2016, when surgeons fused the bones in his right wrist because of a ruptured ligament. The former top player in the 45-and-over division could no longer swing a racket; quitting would have made sense. Instead, Pierce set a new challenge for himself: to learn to play left-handed. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life,” he said. “I practiced endlessly.”
For Phil Landauer of Naples, Fla., sport serves a dual purpose: achieving longevity and staying social. The 70-year-old has borrowed Toby Keith’s lyrics for his personal motto: “Don’t let the old man in.” During covid shutdowns, he and his friends rigged a makeshift net in his driveway so they could continue to play.
Not everyone focused on tennis. “I would expect people with purpose to be more resilient to the pandemic,” Yemiscigil said, “and more agile in finding other activities” if their top choice was unavailable. Tina Karwasky, 68, practiced her serve alone during a Los Angeles shutdown until police made her leave the court. But she could still run along a nearby horse trail and ride her stationary bike. Without tennis, Paul Wulf, a 69-year-old Oregonian, worked out by chasing his grandkids. “I get more steps with them than on the tennis court,” he said.
Not that the hiatus from tennis was easy. Throughout 2020, tournaments were scheduled and canceled on short notice, repeatedly raising and dashing people’s hopes. “It was get ready to play, then cancel, constantly,” said Carolyn Nichols, winner of 41 championships, who lives in Florida and California.
Finally, in March, Evans announced that the Palm Desert tournament would proceed. “I was shocked and nervous,” Nichols said. She and others had stayed purposeful and fit, but she was mindful that tournaments require multiple matches per day.
Prepare for tournament conditions
At least Nichols had been training. “My concern is people who try to just start playing again” without first getting back in shape, DiPietro said.
DiPietro urges everyone, no matter their age, to begin training at least two months before events. “You want to build up general fitness, increasing intensity and duration, with some rest days,” she said.
You also want to get back into the habit of hydrating, which is critical. Evans provided plenty of water in Palm Desert, plus liquid IVs and long breaks between matches. And if you travel to a hotter location this summer for your comeback event, exercise there beforehand. Wulf, accustomed to 50-degree weather in Oregon, arrived early in Palm Desert to spend time acclimating to the 40-degree jump in temperature. He had suffered heat stroke at a tennis tournament 10 years ago. “Theoretically, you learn as you get older,” he said.
Still, it’s difficult to physically simulate the intensity of events. Todd Trappe, a professor of exercise science with Ball State University’s Human Performance Laboratory, noted that the unfamiliar demands of real competition can cause muscle soreness during an event that lasts several days. Preparing for that, however, is more of a mental than physical adjustment. “It might mean accepting a decrement to your performance — that this was your comeback event where you adapted and got on track,” Trappe said.
Brush up on your mental game
Research shows that mindfulness meditation also can be psychologically beneficial when athletes are questioning how they’ll perform, said Caroline Silby, a sport psychology consultant who has individually trained multiple Olympic gold medalists. “When we hit moments of uncertainty,” she said, “the brain scans the environment for everything we need protection from. But with mindfulness, you focus on what you need to.” She recommends daily meditation for at least one month before competition.
Bob Litwin, a 72-year-old from Boulder, Colo., picked up meditation early in the pandemic and practiced it throughout, twice daily. In Palm Desert, he said, he felt distracted in the opening rounds, but his meditation practice — and some close matches — helped him focus on the present moment later in the tournament.
Silby also encourages using visual imagery before an event. Studies show that basketball players make more free throws after mentally rehearsing successful attempts.
Know your strengths and limitations
Some view aging as a liability for athletics, but Wulf’s heat-acclimation practice shows the benefits of knowledge gained over the years. Seniors also have more experience with returning to sports after long breaks. Landauer knew he could bounce back from the pandemic because he had overcome knee replacement surgery in 2019 and prostate cancer the year before that.
Wulf’s men’s 70s singles semifinal against Litwin, then a 25-time champ, was “a terrific match,” Nichols said. Wulf’s aggressive volleys and Litwin’s pinpoint accuracy were as breathtaking as the heat. And as relentless; the three-set battle lasted three hours and 15 minutes.
Wulf prevailed, but his legs were mush. Knowing himself too well to continue, he withdrew from the singles championship — though he and his partner did go on to win the doubles final. “You don’t want to jeopardize your health long-term,” he said. “I accomplished everything I was hoping for.”
After returning home, Litwin stuck with the meditation practice he discovered during the pandemic, allowing him to bring an even clearer mind to a national tournament this month in Irvine, Calif. — where he captured his 26th championship.
Matt Fuchs lives in Silver Spring, Md., and writes about health and culture. Follow him on Twitter.