Team sports winning big

The Blackheart Dragons, a competitive squad, is one of nine team in The Villages that belong to the Grand Masters Dragon Boat Club.

The excitement of a home run doesn't mean much if there's no one in the dugout to celebrate it.

A dragon boat can't power across the finish line with just one paddler.

The splash of a volleyball diving into the water isn't the same without a high-five or fist bump in celebration.

Across The Villages, a culture of team sports is engrained into the lifestyle embraced and created by residents, helping to mold the way active seniors are aging physically, socially and mentally.

With more than 20 team sports available throughout the community, more seniors than ever are turning to group activities for both exercise and camaraderie.

And the relationships forged in those competitive and recreational team environments are bonds that move beyond the playing field.

"They've almost become like your brothers," said Doug Goslee, president of The Villages Recreation Softball League's Division 1. "I seriously mean that. I trust these guys. If I have problems or anything like that, I talk to them about it. You get really tight with these guys. It's almost like you're in a foxhole somewhere and these guys will bail you out."

Physical Benefits

Over the past week, seniors across the globe took part in celebrations of Active Aging Week, an event put on by the International Council of Active Aging to honor seniors who promote and participate in an active lifestyle.

The week was started in 2003 and is now celebrated in 57 countries across the world, said Colin Milner, the founder and CEO of the council. And daily, The Villages stands as a shining example of the lifestyle that Active Aging Week encompasses.

"For older adults I think playing sports is a wonderful thing, because it not only builds not only their physical capabilities, but it also offers social connections," Milner said.

Those connections can be found in everything from softball to dragon boating in the extensive team sports scene in The Villages. And the benefits of playing those sports are clear.

Dr. Kevin Vincent, of UF Health, has had a working relationship with The Villages for nearly a decade and has worked with many athletes from the community. His background is in physical medicine and rehabilitation with a sub-specialty in sports medicine, and he has earned a Ph.D. in exercise physiology.

Vincent said that many often think of the physical benefits of sports from an internal perspective, such as improving cardiovascular health But one aspect that's just as important as internal physical health is external physical health.

Vincent said an important thing to remember as people age is that their muscle fiber changes. Seniors can still possess strength, but due to the aging processes if someone starts to fall they are sometimes unable to generate power fast enough to catch themselves before they hit the floor.

The effect can go so far as a person's vision, and difficulty seeing small steps up or drops in the ground, which leads to an even bigger importance on sports to help maintain a person's functionality as high as possible as they age.

"A big thing we notice is physical function and loss of independence. So what we're trying to focus on, particularly with older adults, isn't just the idea where they say go for a walk or something like that because it's good from the heart disease standpoint," Vincent said. "It's maintaining strength and physical function so you can live independently."

Team sports that possess a variety in the type of movement required such as doubles pickleball or softball are activities that help keep the body guessing, which can lead to better results from exercise.

"Your body loves to act in a multi-modal action. Not just one exercise, but stress it in multiple different directions," Vincent said. "By having to adapt quickly to an environment - like a ball is hit toward you and you move - you keep up your strength, you keep up your power. You keep up your ability to ambulate without trying or falling."

Those immediate health benefits are noticeable for those who participate in the sport, too.

In addition to softball, Goslee, of the Village of Lake Deaton, also plays water volleyball at the advanced level and as someone who is around plenty of high-level athletes. He said he continues to be astounded by the age and competition level of some of his fellow athletes competing in team activities.

"Being here you'll see some of these guys, and you think they're 55 years old and they're 65," Goslee said.

Mental Benefits

With all the physical benefits of team sports in particular, one aspect that can often be overlooked are the social benefits provided by those competitions.

"When you're engaged in physical activity, you see that depression is lower, self-efficacy, or the feeling of what you can do and your own capabilities are higher. People have less anxiety as well," Vincent said.

Playing team sports can give a person a sense of community and create and develop plenty of friendships.

A December 2020 study in the Journal of Sport and Health Science reviewed nearly 30 other studies related to senior athletes, attempting to uncover the primary motivation for seniors to play sports. And of those studies, 83 percent of them identified factors related to community or friendship as a motivating factor.

"Regardless of the sport played, being around others who also engage in that sport fosters a sense of community and encourages development and/or strengthening of friendships," the study read.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, mental health has become a more worrisome topic, especially for seniors. With more people either in mandated lockdown or choosing to stay at home because of the coronavirus, the risk of isolation and loneliness has grown, increasing the chance of depression, including among seniors.

"Prior to COVID-19, the World Health Organization had expected by 2020 the second-leading cause of premature death and disability was going to be depression," Milner said. "So there's a global issue with mental health. And for the mature older population that's an issue like everyone else."

Team sports have helped move many senior athletes toward decreasing that risk, finding a group of friends that they can rely on in both competitive and non-competitive environments.

Waking up every day with teammates relying on your contributions to help achieve victory can push someone to exercise or keep participating in an activity. And even outside the physical exercise, sometimes the joy of simply being around friends is enough motivation.

"One of the things that makes exercise successful is to have a successful partner or people you're engaged with to keep you accountable," Vincent said. "If you're by yourself it's easy to say you're not going to go to the gym today you're not going to run today. But if a group is counting on you and you look forward to it from a socialization standpoint, your compliance with that activity goes up."

Camaraderie and Trust

One of the best examples of that team dynamic in The Villages is dragon boating.

The sport typically requires 22 people working together to be successful – 20 paddlers sitting in pairs, a steersman at the back and a drummer on the front, keeping the entire team rowing in rhythm.

Without everyone working together, the boat can't possibly move to its fastest potential. And it's that movement in unison that builds a relationship among teammates not only on the water but once the race is over, as well.

"The team sport utilizes everyone on the team's special skills," said Cheryl Moran, of the Village of Mallory Square. "It takes into account everyone's skills and applies them as needed."

Moran is the president of the Grand Masters Dragon Boat Club in The Villages, which encompasses nine teams - the Blackheart Dragons, Dirty Dozen, Dragon Sisters, Paddling Patriots, Silver Dragons, Sparta 70, This Boat Rocks, Village Dragons and Leatherneck Warriors - all of which compete at various levels both across the Sunshine State and beyond.

Moran also rows for the Blackheart Dragons team, which is a competitive squad that needs everyone on the same wavelength at all times.

"We want to win medals, so we do work on and off the water to put us into a competitive position," Moran said.

Pam Stevens, of the Village of Fernandina, is one of a half-dozen or more members of the Dragon Sisters team who have survived breast cancer. She said the bond shared between those teammates provides a support network that she is grateful to have.

"You can share a story, or just listen when somebody needs to talk about it," Stevens said. "These women are amazing. From minute one, I knew they were amazing."

The Villages' robust softball program also serves as a shining example of the affinity for team sports in the community.

There are nearly 20 leagues available for residents to play in, at various levels of competition. The leagues in The Villages Recreation and Neighborhood divisions play three seasons a year, in the summer, fall and winter. And for many of the leagues, teams are drafted anew ahead of each season, allowing players to experience that team-building relationship with a wide variety of residents over each year and over multiple years.

"Changing teams is tremendous," Goslee said. "It's so nice to play with different guys every season. Because you get to know these guys a lot better when they play on your team."

Gary Rima, of the Village of Mallory Square, plays on The Vintages baseball team, a squad of 60-and-over baseball players that still prefer the old-school hardball game to softball. Rima said that his passion for the game is aided by being able to share a bond with his teammates daily.

"To do this again and get to play with this group of guys is just a ton of fun," Rima said. "I can't wait to get up in the morning and come to practice."

And for many team-sport athletes, it's that love of the game - and a love for their teammates - that keeps driving them on a daily basis.

"That's the most important thing. I think all these guys play for the love of the game," said Lonnie Levy, of the Village of Bonnybrook, who runs The Villages Men's Basketball Club. "At this age, nobody is going to sign any contracts, so we're here for the love and the camaraderie."

In fact, that desire for team sports is such a driving force in the community that sports that seemingly feature individual activities have been turned into team activities, such as with The Villages Running Club or the Villages Aquatic Swim Team.

Even if the competitions aren't team-based, the socialization at team practices and the support of teammates during a workout or a meet can make a big difference for athletes in these sports.

VAST head coach Bob Jennings, of the Village of Winifred, said he appreciates the relationships that have formed through VAST. He is also a runner in The Villages and sees just as much team-building from the runners, as well.

"It's the best thing in the world (being on a team)," Jennings said. "The camaraderie is incredible. The buddies and the friendships are incredible."

Availability and accessibility

With so much activity going on across the community, The Villages Recreation and Parks Department aims to provide as many opportunities for active living as it can for residents.

Avis Vaught, of the Village of Belvedere, has played and coached sports her entire life. She was a collegiate athlete at Florida State University and has never stopped her active lifestyle.

She moved to The Villages 18 years ago and was involved with sports in The Villages even before she moved. While here, she has helped develop and run many difference women's sports. She has particularly been a big influence in softball, even recently creating a league for women who lacked previous experience and wanted to learn the game.

"When I got here, it was like, 'This is physical education heaven,'" Vaught said.

As someone who is an accomplished athlete and has been involved in many places over her life, Vaught said the recreation department is one of the best at setting up residents for success.

"The Villages recreation program makes it very easy," Vaught said. "I've been around a few states and places, and one thing they've been able to create is an environment with easy access to play."

While seniors looking to stay active in other communities may struggle to find ways to participate in team sports, The Villages Recreation and Parks Department provides a robust structure both organizationally and from a facilities standpoint that feeds a burgeoning demand for team-sport offerings.

Andrew Esposito, sports coordinator for the department, said department officials are always looking to add new sports and activities when they see a willingness from the residents to participate.

"One of our roles is to support our residents and the sports they enjoy participating in," Esposito said. "We often hear from our residents that guests are blown away by the number of activities offered and the high quality facilities we have."

For some, that level of organization and access to team sports are part of the reason why they moved to The Villages in the first place. Before Goslee moved to The Villages seven years ago, he was visiting his parents in Ocala. They took a day trip to The Villages and when Goslee saw the softball complexes teeming with activity, he knew that he wanted to move here.

No matter if it's doubles pickleball, or softball, or dragon boating, being active in a social aspect is one of the most important factors to staying healthy for seniors. When Milner founded the ICAA, he wanted to celebrate the abilities and contributions of people over 50 and also wanted to change the perception on aging.

And athletes across The Villages are taking that message and running with it, improving their lives from both a physical and social perspective daily.

"I encourage people to use that as a motivating factor to start living the life they'd like to live if they aren't currently. And if they are living that life, to continue to do so," Milner said. "I've said this numerous times, 'Live better longer'. Because that's what it's all about. It's not living longer. It's about living better longer."