Conventional wisdom tells us that 53 years old is the exact wrong time to learn how to do a 180 on your skis. But you just saw a nearly 50-year-old Kelly Slater win the Pipe Masters a year ago and started to think that you want to stay rad while you grow old? You’re onto something.
Peak performance as you age is becoming the norm, not the exception. But there’s a method to the madness of learning new tricks in the second half of your life — and Steven Kotler is pioneering it. Kotler is an award-winning journalist who you know as the author of West of Jesus. In his latest effort Gnar Country: Growing Old, Staying Rad, Kotler trades in a surfboard for a pair of skis and learns to do park ski tricks (like safety grabs and nose butters) at the age of 53.
“Action sports are phenomenal anti-aging tools,” says Kotler. “Peak performance aging gets your biology to work for you, not against you. Even if you’re in your 80s and you start training your physical abilities, you can improve your health and longevity.”
We all understand the general nuances of park skiing: tricks off jumps, boxes, rail slides, and wall rides. It’s acrobatic – and it can get kind of gnarly. There’s plenty of risk for injury. It’s often seen as a young person’s game and not Jerry friendly.
Kotler challenges the traditional “long, slow rot” idea of aging — which says our physical skills and mental skills decline over time and there’s nothing to do about it — by applying the latest findings in embodied cognition, flow science, and network neuroscience. The results show that the key to peak performance as you age starts with a positive change in mindset, and ends with old dogs learning new tricks.
Somewhere in the middle lies proper training, recovery, and an establishment of rules of engagement. The major aspects of athletic performance — agility, balance, flexibility, stamina, and strength — are use it or lose it skills that you can train to retain, and even improve. But you need to know your limits; train and recover like a pro; and stay socially connected — social ties are one of the key ingredients for longevity in life, not just athletic performance.
In Gnar Country, this method works for Kotler, but could it work for you? Kotler backs up his own “ass on the line experiment” with a study conducted via his Flow Research Collective. The goal was to teach 17 adults (ages 30 to 68) how to park ski and snowboard. Most of them were total beginners with zero park-skiing priors. The experiment broke down park skiing into eight core movements: crouching, jumping, riding switch, slashing, grinding, 180, 360, and a shifty.
Riders learned two new movements a day over four days on the mountain. In traditional “monkey-see monkey-do” fashion, the riders watched an experienced skier perform the motion and then played a game of follow the leader. But the emphasis was on slow and steady progression. Riders were able to choose their own tempo and could scale down the movements to what they were feeling that day – and overall, were comfortable with.
“Start with a skill that you can do with zero fear,” says Kotler. For example, many riders learned how to use a basic skill they are confident with — a hockey stop — and apply it to a slightly raised surface to learn how to grind a snow bank.
This safer approach paid off, as none of the adults reported injuries, and instead all saw rapid acceleration in progression, amplitude, variety, execution, difficulty and flow.
One 57-year-old rider said, “I mean seriously, on that last run, those two 180s were so comfortable compared to the first day when my heartbeat was going just thinking about even trying it.”
Adult learners can benefit from this slow and steady approach when they are in a novel play environment, surrounded by others doing the same thing. “Don’t skip on the social part,” concludes Kotler. “Having someone to push you, root for you, and maybe even record you can make all the difference.”
The formula for success as you age is one of dynamic play, the outdoors, and friends. Gear up and enjoy, because chasing your dreams in the second half of your life — even your golden years — just became a reality.