Just What is a Master Athlete?

Our friends at Wikipedia define masters athletics as a class of sport for veteran athletes age 35 and up and progressing in 5 year increments to over the age of 100. But what is a master athlete?


Does merely being 35 years of age or older automatically make one a master? That is a question I’ll pose first. I’ve always thought that was a peculiar term. In reality, everyone is a human, and virtually anyone can be an athlete if they approach training and competition in the appropriate manner. But I don’t think simply getting older makes one a master. Certainly wisdom, patience, and mastery of skill can come with maturation, but to truly be considered a master of any craft or sport there must be a significant barrier to entry. I’m all for exercise, fitness, training, sports participation, and competition…and I would agree that there is a degree of fairness when we do so with our chronologically-matched peers, but merely being an older-than-35 human athlete does not necessarily make one a master (IMHO).


I propose that we take master in a more literal term when we consider aging athletes, myself included. The basic definition of “master” is a skilled practitioner of a particular art or activity. The word “sport” could easily be inserted in place of or in addition to art or activity. Before we start haphazardly applying a word like master to every athlete who is middle-aged and up, we need to ponder that definition a bit more. In virtually every licensed trade or profession, a master is someone who has demonstrated the highest level of proficiency in their given field. They usually have been verified, certified, and recognized to be the “top of their class.” Yes, most of them have a requisite amount of time in their craft, but time alone is secondary to the ability to perform exceptionally well. If you hire a master plumber or electrician (to work on your house), clinician (as a healthcare provider), or baker (for your daughter’s wedding cake), do you gauge their merit only on their experience and age, or do you vet them in terms of abilities, references, and recommendations? I thought so.


I’m sure our friends in the sports governing bodies had nothing but good intentions when they all adopted the word “master” for us older, even if not veteran, athletes. I believe they thought they were showing respect and honor for anybody who kept at it (sports) after the glory of their 20’s faded. But that gets me to the point of this week’s little op/ed piece: mastery. Regardless of age, shouldn’t we all be striving for mastery in our given pursuits? Competency is good, but excellence is better. I’m not saying that we can all be masters of everything; we all know that’s ridiculous. But if we can find an athletic endeavor that fits our bodies, minds, and lifestyles – wouldn’t we want to, and shouldn’t we aspire to to study, learn, and execute to high and even highest levels? Let’s all be athletes, but let’s try to be masters not because we are old, but because we are good.


This week’s podcast really inspired me to visit this concept. A listener asked a series of very insightful questions about how I approach being a master athlete, and how he can achieve greater success in his pursuits. I also offered up a perspective in this week’s video. Trying to stay mobile, functional, durable, strong, fast, fit, and healthy isn’t necessarily easy and it gets more interesting and challenging with age. But it can be done and we should do it. I for one do not want to be called a master based solely on how long I’ve been on the planet. Make me earn that label. What say you?

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