Approaching the athletic afterlife with ‘Fortytude’
Bonnie Bernstein sits with Sarah Brokaw, author of Fortitude, to get tips for athletes on surviving outside of sports.
They say age is just a number.
Really? Tell that to my 40-year-old shoulders, which feel like they have been unceremoniously ripped from their respective sockets. After watching a recent gymnastics meet at Maryland, my alma mater, I felt inspired to show off in front of one of my former college teammate’s kids by doing … wait for it … a simple roundoff. Two days later, I could still barely lift my arms. And I work out five times a week!
It’s something all competitive athletes grapple with: the reality that Father Time, impervious to our finely tuned workouts and produce- and protein-rich diets, will slowly strip us of our physical prowess. Float the Dara Torres counterargument if you must, but let’s face it — insanely shredded 41-year-old Olympic caliber swimmers won’t be dominating Planet Earth any time soon.
Whether the catalyst is age, injury, lack of pro opportunities or the simple fact that we’ve maxed out our physical capabilities, at some point weekly games or meets or matches will no longer be lining our planners. So how do you recreate a sense of self when for all those years your identity was so closely aligned with athletic success? How do we handle losing a step without losing our minds?
“You can recognize that your 45-year-old body is not going to perform the way it did when it was 35 or 25,” said Sarah Brokaw, 41, a Beverly Hills-based therapist. “But does that mean you’re any less of a person? No, it doesn’t. It just means you have to take a step back and say, ‘what am I capable of doing now?'”
[+] EnlargeSarah BrokawCale Glendening Photography
Sarah Brokaw’s book was inspired by her own struggles and those she saw clients struggling with so often.
Brokaw’s perspective on aging gracefully is the subject of her recently released self-help book “Fortytude: Making the Next Decades the Best Years of Your Life — Through the 40s, 50s, and Beyond.” While the title may imply otherwise, Brokaw’s insights are ageless.
“Fortytude is about looking at life through the lens of curiosity and confidence rather than fear and regret,” said Brokaw, the daughter of legendary “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw. “[It’s about] removing your hands from your eyes and looking at what the world can offer you and what you can offer it. In your 20s, it’s difficult to do that because we’re so self-absorbed — and we’ve been given permission to be self-absorbed. But I think to make the process easier for [younger women], it helps to have [my] five core values as guiding principles.”
Those core values — grace, connectedness, accomplishment, adventure and spirituality — were the ones most embraced by the 350 women interviewed for Brokaw’s book. It was a project she was inspired to undertake a few years ago, when she was experiencing fear and regret — the same feelings her patients often confront in therapy.
“It was my 20-year high school reunion and I decided not to go, because everybody had kids and was married, and I didn’t have kids and I wasn’t married,” Brokaw recalled. “I decided not to go because I felt like such a loser.”
But when a fellow classmate voiced his disappointment in Brokaw’s no-show, the therapist self-prescribed a dose of her own medicine. “I said, this is where I can have an ‘uh-oh moment’ and experience fear, or I can create a sparkling moment. And then I wondered if there were other women out there such as myself where the fear of aging gets in the way.”
Um … yeeeeah. Who among us hasn’t freaked just a little at the first sign of crow’s feet? Or lamented that our metabolism seems to have come to a screeching halt? Or bagged off a soiree because we didn’t feel like being the third (or fifth, or seventh) wheel — a wheel sans offspring, no less? And those negative feelings may only be exacerbated among athletes who feel the body breaking down with each additional candle on the birthday cake.
The remedy for those emotional blows, Brokaw said, is tweaking the thought process. “You can capitalize on your kinesthetic intelligence — your eye-hand coordination. It just may not be in as competitive an environment as it was when you were younger. You can pursue another sport. You can be a coach and teach other athletes about their own kinesthetic intelligence. There are other ways to tap into that intelligence you just may not be aware of.”
Beyond the ability to run the fast break, there are many other types of intelligence that we can cultivate as we get older. Visual intelligence, for example, includes the ability to draw — why not take an art or photography class? Auditory intelligence entails having an ear for music. Can you speak Spanish, Russian and Mandarin fluently? Then you have the gift of lingual intelligence (and a pretty decent shot of landing a job at the U.N.).
“There are more than 125 different types of intelligence,” Brokaw points out. “When I see older athletes who have retired from their sport, the ones I’m most inspired by are the ones who continue to be curious about life. They say it’s amazing they were able to [compete at a high level] but, ‘look what I’m learning now.'”
Brokaw has gleaned a lot about herself through sports. Despite severe scoliosis that required her to wear a back brace during her teenage years, she has become a competitive runner and triathlete.
“My legs are capable. My core is capable. My arms are capable,” she said. “I’ve been so determined to be accountable for keeping my body strong.”
One of Brokaw’s defining athletic moments came at age 38, when she placed second in her age group at a triathlon in Montauk, N.Y. “I just wanted to look at the orthopedic surgeons who told me when I was 13 that I might not be able to walk at 40 and be like, ‘look at me now!'”
That Type-A determination may serve us well as athletes, but Brokaw cautions against applying the win-or-lose mantra of success in sports to areas beyond athletics, particularly when it comes to creating work-life balance. (I know, I know, that “balance” doesn’t really exist).
“I think the No. 1 thing is, you have to give yourself a break,” Brokaw said. “We’re expected to incorporate 72 hours into a 24-hour day. You’re married, you’re employed, you’re supposed to nurture your friendships, take care of your kids. And somehow, women are expected to perform all these roles at 100 percent.
“You can’t do all of that all the time at a superior level. There’s going to be one day when you do really well as an employee. Another when you do really well as a mother, as a friend. But on any day, there will be an area where you don’t do as well, and that’s OK. It’s normal.”
(See? Told you so.)
“Fortytude’s” overarching theme is that we each have the ability to change our own narrative, a lesson Brokaw learned from her mother.
“I was having a moment of self-pity about not being married, figuring out what to do with my life,” she remembered. “And my mom just rolled her eyes and said, ‘you have been given a number of strengths on this earth. Now sally forth and capitalize on them.'”
Well said, Mrs. Brokaw. And well written, Sarah. If we approach it with a sense of “Fortytude,” growing older could actually mean more — not less — opportunity.
I’ll raise a glass to that. As soon as I can lift my arms again.
To watch this video go to ESPN.com