I Don’t Want to Become a Stiff, Sore, Old Person

I don’t want to become an old person with sore joints.

Is this inevitable?

Maybe. Frankly, I’m already a middle-aged person with sore joints.Mariah in the pool, post-swim

But I have a hypothesis: Stiff, sore people get that way by “baking” muscular tension into their (our!) bodies.

Whatever we practice, we reinforce. By “practicing” chronic tension, perhaps we create necks, backs, and shoulders that become permanently tight and tired.

Josh Hanagarne, who has Tourette’s, explains in The World’s Strongest Librarian that it’s “exhausting” to experience a continual onslaught of muscular contractions. Maysoon Zayid, a comedian, uses the same word – exhausting – to describe what it’s like to “shake all the time” due to cerebral palsy.

Might all of us be exhausting ourselves by inadvertently contracting, clenching, and clamping our shoulders, backs, and necks – not just at work and home but in the water, too?

As a Total Immersion student, I’m learning to swim and relax at the same time. (This one-lap video  illustrates that attempt.) During the recovery phase, for instance, Terry Laughlin teaches that the leading hand should dangle as it skims above the water.

Now I find myself wondering what might constitute a “recovery phase” on land. Can I achieve what Terry calls “effortless endurance” here, too? When walking, for instance, do I need to marionette my shoulders up toward my ears? When working, must I vice-clamp my jaw?

Not surprisingly, Terry’s way ahead of me.

“Since I started focusing on pinpoint relaxation (relaxing neck muscles to hang head, hand muscles at all times, the ulnar muscle for a ‘suspended’ forearm,) I find I’m much better at being conscious of unintended, unproductive muscular tension at all times, often related to ordinary living stress,” he explains.

I studied Tai Chi in college, and one day my teacher invited an 80-year-old Japanese master to demonstrate. Before he began moving, she said proudly, “Look at his flaccid muscles!”

Flaccidity had never been my goal. But she made a good point: Muscles are for motion. To tense them unnecessarily is to fatigue and even injure them.

This is not an argument against strength training. It’s an argument for conscious, efficient movement, in the water and on land. I don’t know if we can become flexible, pain-free, energetic old people, but I suspect that the actions we take – and don’t take – right now might make all the difference.


This is a guest post for Terry Laughlin’s “Swimming That Changes Your Life” blog

A former Stanford and professional basketball player, Mariah Burton Nelson is the author of six books about female athletes, including We Are All Athletes and The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football. She’s in charge of innovation for ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership.

2 Responses to “I Don’t Want to Become a Stiff, Sore, Old Person”

  1. Michelle > Abbadessa Says:

    Ms. Nelson, I have used your Adventures in Equality essay (“The Fight for Football’s Life”) (1999 ?) as part of my instruction on persuasion and argumentation in my writing classes for years. I have a student this year who has questioned why you don’;t mention the other male sports teams that are also perhaps slighted by the football programs’ bloated resources/funding. I responded to him that it seems as thought it was the collegiate football programs/community raising up their swords in response to nudging by women’s sports programs, Title IX advocates, and Supreme court ruling not any of the other male sports programs. This student believes the argument would have had more credibility had you also argued that these other male athletic programs/teams are being slighted as well. If you could respond to me, I would appreciate, and it would be a great teachable moment! Thanks!

    • Mariah Burton Nelson Says:

      Hi Michelle,

      Despite the fact that Title IX passed 43 years ago, boys and men still have many more opportunities to play high school and college sports than girls and women. Male college athletes still receive millions more dollars each year in scholarships than female athletes – even though more women attend college.

      Women comprise the class that has been the target of discrimination for centuries, and the class that, despite many gains, remains illegally discriminated against in this post-Title IX era.

      I do take your student’s point that male swim teams, wrestling teams, etc. are sometimes unfairly eliminated when athletics directors try to balance the numbers to move toward Title IX compliance; if they choose to retain a football team with 100 members rather than a few “minor” male sports teams with 20-30 members each, the athletes in these “minor” sports (and I use those quotes deliberately) justifiably feel slighted.

      My request would be that those men use that experience of feeling slighted to increase their understanding of what it feels like to be a female athlete who never had that opportunity to play in the first place.

      That’s on the micro level – addressing how individual male athletes (white, straight) might reflect on the emotional experience of discrimination, and how it hurts them occasionally, and more often it hurts women and minority men. So the main problem is not that we need more male swimmers on college scholarship; it’s that we need gender parity: a number of female and male athletes that is proportionate to their population on any given campus.

      On the macro level, colleges should stop protecting football at the expense of other sports, whether those sports include male or female athletes. In the vast majority of cases, football does not “make money for the school” – it doesn’t even make money for the athletic department; most programs lose money year after year. Besides, no judges in Title IX cases have ever accepted a financial argument to justify discrimination.

      A few brave universities have simply canceled their football programs, thus saving the players and the programs many headaches, literally (concussions) and figuratively, due to football players’ increased propensity to commit rape, gang rape, and domestic violence. Once you eliminate those 100 or so positions for football players (and their highly paid coaches), it’s fairly easy to balance male and female athletic opportunities in swimming, lacrosse, etc.

      I hope that helps provide some more food for thought! 🙂

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