Ready to Play: The Benefits of League Sports

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Think team sports are just for kids? You gotta be kidding! League sports can challenge even the fittest adults. If you’re looking for a way to toughen up your mind and muscle, take to the fields of play.

Wanted: Dependable adult for planning, strategizing and analyzing. Must be willing to sweat buckets and pulverize the competition. Aerobically fit applicants with courage and willingness to collide with others and be hit by flying objects preferred. Salary: $0. Benefits: Massive improvements in physical fitness; truckloads of motivation; a full portfolio of fun; no retirement age in sight.

This is the job description for a member of an adult sports team — a job description more and more adults are signing up for. And wisely so. After all, why leave all those exhilarating highs and gut-wrenching lows to kids’ teams? A lot of adults, both those who’ve built peak fitness in the gym and those looking to recover the sinew of their youth, are finding a wellspring of rewards on the playing field.

They’re also finding some very welcome challenges. Team sports demand strategy, spontaneity, creativity and other mental talents that aren’t usually required when you step on the treadmill or elliptical machine. The best payoff: a huge injection of pure fun and camaraderie into your exercise life. “Team sports take us back to childhood so we start to play again,” notes Cedric X. Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise.

Between 1998 and 2002 alone, participation in team sports in the United States increased more than 7 percent overall, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, and the growth in certain sports rose even more. The number of people who play soccer frequently, for example, jumped 17 percent in the past three years. And more of those players are adults: In 1999, 26 percent of soccer players were over age 18. By 2001, that number had exceeded 30 percent.

One reason team sports are popular with adults is that they raise the fitness bar: Participants find they have to train harder to play harder, and they want to play harder because their teammates are depending on them. Suddenly, working out serves a purpose and delivers a rush of satisfaction and exhilaration that just isn’t available in your average cardio class.

“Team play encourages you to let go of the idea of an exercise ‘dose,’” says Jeff Simons, PhD, a professor of kinesiology and physical education at Cal State University-Hayward. “When you’re engaging with other people while exercising, you tend to stop worrying about whether you’re doing ‘enough’ and instead just get involved in the activity because it’s fun.”

Team sports challenge and build every dimension of a person: your muscles; your joints and ligaments; your mental process; even your spirit. How? Here’s the rundown …

Brain Boost

During a typical fitness-building workout on the treadmill or in a class, your focus is on you. When you’re part of a team, that all changes. Your field of vision and thinking both widen dramatically. “There’s a huge mental shift that occurs when you go from focusing on you, the individual, to you as a member of a team,” says Karen D. Cogan, PhD, a sports psychologist at the University of North Texas in Denton. “It’s a different philosophy — you’re thinking more in terms of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.”

In team sports, every team member is expected to give his or her personal best, but the goal is a shared one, whether it’s to move the runner to second base or win the city championship. That shift in thinking, from Lone Ranger to team member, can be tough for some people to make. But your mental vigor will be tested in other ways as well.

Because team games are often head games, you’ll be forced to use your brain, often millisecond by millisecond. In fast-moving sports like team Frisbee, rugby and soccer, you’ll have to continually create, implement and revise strategies as the ball moves on the field. Plus, quick thinking and focus are called for when you have to communicate with your teammates in the midst of a key play. You may be required to play a confidence game as you face the opposing team, not letting them guess your next play or not allowing them to sense frustration.

Once you’ve given yourself up to the group and are focused on the constantly changing game, you may find yourself shifting back to a time when clocks, mortgage payments and deadlines didn’t exist.

“When you play team sports, as long as you don’t become too competitive, it relieves stress and puts you back in a childlike mode,” says Simons. “It puts you in the mindset where you do the activity for the sheer enjoyment of it.”

Motivational Push

Knowing that your efforts can affect the outcome of the game and that you’ll share the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat as a group, you may find yourself motivated to play harder to put your team in the winning category. “If it’s just you, you can decide to take it easy if you don’t feel like working out or you’re tired,” Cogan says. “But if you have other people depending on you, you don’t want to let down the team. Plus, you’ve got people saying, ‘C’mon, c’mon!’ so there’s a motivational factor, too.”

That motivation can take you beyond the level of familiarity and comfort — and into a zone where you push yourself to new limits. As a result, you might run faster than usual on the soccer field, dive for spectacular catches in softball or jump for a winning spike in volleyball. It’s not even a conscious decision, in many cases; it’s an automatic reaction to wanting to keep up with others. You just plain care more, and that can bring out the very best in you.

“It really has to do with a phenomenon in psychology called ‘the social facilitation effect,’” Simons explains. “When people do something with other people and they’re watching what other people do, they tend to put out more effort on the field or court — and it’s not necessarily because they’re competitive. We’re social animals and we like to keep up with others. So we stop thinking so much about ourselves and think more in terms of the group, which can raise the level of play.”

If anyone can attest to this, it’s Brian Wood, who works at an insurance brokerage firm in Austin, Texas. Four years ago, he realized he missed his competitive collegiate soccer days, so he joined an indoor soccer league for adults. “When I got back into it, I remembered what drove me for so many years to train as hard as I did: The game is a real motivation to keep in shape,” he says. “I find that the older I get, the smarter and hungrier I have to be to keep up with younger guys. It’s a different kind of discipline than just working out in a gym.”

Body Benefits

Just look at the hard bodies on a soccer field or basketball court and you know that team sports are physically demanding. Probably the biggest difference between activities such as running, cycling, basketball and soccer is where you put your body: On the field of play, you’ll be moving not just forward and back or up and down, but side to side, on the diagonal and twisting in two directions. This results in a deeper, more varied functional fitness.

The combination of running, jumping, diving, throwing and catching that many team sports require naturally helps you improve balance and become aware of your body’s position in space. In this way, explains Eric Sternlicht, PhD, president of Simply Fit, a nutrition and exercise consulting firm in Los Angeles and an assistant professor of kinesiology at Occidental College, it’s a form of functional fitness — training that gets your body in shape for the activities of real life. Knowing how to safely slide into a base during a softball game, for example, might help you avoid injury if you slipped and fell on a wet floor.

You’ll also train at different intensities and speeds and broaden your fitness base. “When you’re working at a fixed intensity, you tend to develop and strengthen only one system — like the heart’s ability to deliver oxygen but not the muscles’ ability to utilize it,” Sternlicht says. “During a game, you get spikes of activity, and you end up recruiting and training different muscle fibers at varying intensities, which can help with endurance, stamina, power and strength.” As an added bonus, you’ll be expending more calories (so long as you keep moving) because you’re playing at a more competitive intensity overall.

To find out how specific team sports can challenge your body, mind and spirit, read “The Scorecard” below. Armed with these details, you’ll be in a better position to decide which ones are likely to suit your skills. Then take the plunge: Try one or two and see how you do, and what you like. Pretty soon you’ll be asking if your friends can come out and play.

Stacey Colino writes and plays from her home in Maryland.

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