Billie Jean King rallies support for active aging
The champion athlete discusses her new role promoting active aging and shares her advice on living well at any age
To view Colin Milner's interview with Billie Jean King, click here. (Image and video courtesy of Atria Senior Living, photography Rick Lopez)
To read the Journal on Active Aging interview, see below.
by Colin Milner, founder and CEO of the International Council on Active Aging®.
American icon, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, social justice advocate, tennis champion and Olympic delegate—these are but a few of the honors and titles given to Billie Jean King over her lifetime. Yet, today I am meeting Billie Jean King, Active Aging Ambassador for Atria Senior Living, a leading provider of independent living, assisted living and memory care services in the United States. And I am here to learn how King is set to help shift perceptions of aging.
Unveiling King’s new role, Atria CEO and Chairman John Moore called the renowned athlete “extremely inspirational.” She “has spent her life breaking down barriers and succeeding without compromise, and she is now committed to helping us realize that we can improve the way we age.” Moore added that King’s “wisdom, life experience and drive to improve opportunities for all people will be an asset to our residents, families, staff and professional partners, and will help shape and define how all of us view aging.”
Will Billie Jean King influence change, as Moore suggests? Only time will tell. But, having watched her excel at life over these past decades, I would certainly give her my vote of confidence.
So, what can we learn from this 70-year-old icon? What advice or guidance can she provide that will benefit you and your customers in leading healthier, longer and happier lives? King talked to me about successful aging, physical activity, life lessons, and numerous other topics during our interview for the Journal on Active Aging®. Let’s dive right into the conversation.
CM: Billie Jean King, Active Aging Ambassador for Atria Senior Living. How did this role come about?
BJK: It came about because my partner’s mother, who is from South Africa, was looking for a place to live. We brought her over to the United States, and we wanted to find a place close to us that would be the ideal fit for her. It had to have people around, as she likes people. It also had to be in New York City. The Atria community on 86th Street fit these criteria perfectly.
Over time, we got to know the staff, and when we met John Moore, we just hit it off. During our conversations, I would ask a lot of questions about how the community works, so the company asked, “Given our common goal of inspiring people to stay active and engaged in life, why don’t we join forces? So I became their Active Aging Ambassador.”
CM: What do you want to accomplish with this new role?
BJK: I’d like to inspire the people at Atria to really rock—to have fun, to maybe think about themselves a little differently. Society keeps giving us these messages that when we get older we’re finished. We’re not finished. Every day is a new start. Every morning when I wake up, I have my gratitude list, and I thank God for all of these wonderful things. I have another opportunity today to be challenged, to learn, to solve problems, to really engage in whatever I want to do. So it’s a real privilege for me to be the Active Aging Ambassador for Atria.
CM: Let’s talk about aging. How do you personally define successful aging?
BJK: There’s so much emphasis on outer success today—looks or youth, for example. But I’ve found the one thing about being older is that I’ve had more years to observe and to experience [life]. I believe there are three things required for inner and outer success:
1. Relationships are everything. That means relationship with yourself and others.
2. Keep learning. And, keep learning how to learn. With technology, you have to keep learning how to learn now—it keeps your brain active.
3. Be a problem solver. As humans, we’re solving problems daily. If you’re driving a car from “A” to “B,” you’re always adapting, always adjusting. I have two sayings that I use all the time in coaching: One is “Champions adjust or adapt” (I mean champions in life, not athletic champions); the other is “Pressure is a privilege.” Because there’s pressure on us every day, so it’s how we respond or react to it. I learned all that through my sport—and you don’t have to be number one in the world to understand it.
CM: Pressure as a privilege—that’s an interesting concept and title of your book. Can you tell us more?
BJK: It’s what do we do with pressure that makes it exciting. I remember a match point when I was playing mixed doubles in World Team Tennis at Madison Square Garden in New York. The score was six-all. It was down to one point, sudden death. I went over and told my partner, Ray Ruffels, to get ready as I may lob the ball. He was looking at me as though he were thinking: Are you crazy? You can’t lob in here; it’s going to hit the ceiling. So I said, “The guy is hugging the net. They don’t think there’s any way I’m going to try a lob. I might not, but be ready.” I hit a lob and it went in—and that was a great feeling. When you learn to adapt to things and learn how to execute, you make better decisions in business, and in life.
CM: Sport seems to offer us many life lessons. Which ones do you think apply most to growing old and aging well?
BJK: I learned through my experience as a professional athlete to really encourage myself to think positively; stay in the solution, one ball at a time. Those [lessons] can be helpful, whether in business or in relationships. I also feel like people aren’t really engaged a lot of times, and that’s the most important thing: being in the now, being present. For instance, when I had to have a knee operation, I definitely wasn’t thinking of winning Wimbledon again. My most important thought in that moment was, Can I bend my knee a quarter of an inch today? I’ve got to break down the scar tissue. That was my task at hand, if I ever wanted to reach that goal over there.
We need to pay attention to our dreams and goals, but the process of life is very important. Everybody thinks that holding up a trophy or something is the ultimate. It’s not. The journey is the ultimate. The process of getting to it is the ultimate.
CM: Be in the moment, no matter what the moment is?
BJK: Totally. Because when the ball is coming to you, you’ve got to pay attention, and you have to make a decision—and then you have to live with that decision. You learn the consequences because of that. Every ball I hit has a consequence. Every action we take in life has a consequence. That’s why it’s important to be in the moment and don’t take it lightly. You learn to adapt.
CM: So is Atria like a good athlete? They keep adapting?
BJK: They do. They keep asking questions. And if there’s something not right, they try to make it right; a lot of people don’t. That’s all you can do: just keep adapting. Try to make it better. And most importantly, you have to listen to what people’s needs and wants are, because you’re in the customer business and the customer is everything. Never stop reinventing yourself, or learning new things.
CM: Any other key lessons?
BJK: I think self-awareness is important, especially in the aging community; I know it’s very important to me as I age. It’s also important that no one puts limitations on people. Never underestimate the human spirit at any age. We all have our dreams, and we have to stay connected to them, though we may have to change and adapt our goals. For instance, next year my goal is to play more tennis, maybe once or twice a week, because when I play tennis, I feel so connected and I feel so centered afterwards. I love feeling the ball against the strings. It’s not about competing. There’s the esthetic value—it’s like dance.
We can keep reinventing ourselves, no matter what our age. As the Active Aging Ambassador for Atria, I go out and meet people; I go to different Atria communities throughout the country, and I meet people in their 90s or older. I listen to these individuals. I see that they’re vital. They may be working, or writing, or starting to publish something.
I just think it’s important to keep going, because what choice do we have? I can be a complainer today, or I can pick myself up. That’s one thing I learned by being in athletics or sports when I was a young person; I learned that daily discipline and how to be resilient and keep bouncing back.
CM: We have talked a fair bit about the mental aspect of aging, so let’s now look at the physical aspects. Tell me your thoughts on being active as we age.
BJK: Active is a word I like. Active aging! Because we do age, whether we like it or not. I have no control over the chronological part, but I do have control over what I can do with the time. When I work out, for instance, I feel better. When I eat better, I feel better.
We all know that from when we are born, we start decaying, but how do we keep that at bay? I think the best way is exercise, connections with others, and doing creative things.
Sure we’re not quite as quick, not quite as strong. When I go to lift weights, I realize that I’m not lifting what I used to, but it doesn’t matter. The intensity from within is probably more in some ways. I have to work really hard to do what I probably did when I warmed up back in the old days, but it’s a great feeling to give so much of yourself. It’s important to bring all of yourself to something every day.
CM: So, you strength train now. When you were playing, was strength training part of your actual regime?
BJK: You have to understand how long ago this was. I was trying to find someone to help me with weightlifting back then, but I couldn’t find anybody. I would say near the end of my career, I was strength training. I also made sure that the next generation, like Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and some of the guys, did it. They became maniacs with fitness. They were the first generation that had enough money for trainers, physiotherapists, osteopaths and doctors. Now players even have their own stringers that travel with them and string their rackets every day.
I`ve been maniacal about strength training ever since the late 1970s. As soon as I understood what to do, I started really kicking butt, but I was already 30 by then. I played until I was 40—so I was quite old when I retired—and I was in great shape. I really worked hard.
CM: Speaking of work, has your work schedule changed?
BJK: I’m still working full-time. I work more now at 70 than I did at 60. So I think people have to not put labels or restrictions on others, because you don’t know each individual.
CM: What is a typical day for Billie Jean King?
BJK: It’s not the same every day. That’s probably good for me with my brain, because I like to jump around a little bit (probably too much) and to learn about different things. WorldTeam Tennis is my core business. That’s a professional league that we have with the best players in the world. I don’t have to run WTT; my partner, Ilana, does. And, I do quite a few speeches, whether it be diversity, inspirational or motivational.
I do commencement speeches quite often. Colleges are very interested in me, and here I am at 70. The college kids are mostly 18–22. They’re fantastic! When I was their age, I loved being around people older than myself, because they had so many great stories to tell. That’s another thing about aging: As we age, we have so much more history that we can help young people more. A lot of young people actually ignore older people; that’s a real mistake for their own lives, and it’s not good for us either. Young people should take advantage of these different age groups and the pearls of wisdom they can offer.
CM: How do you, yourself, mentor the young?
BJK: When I founded the Women’s Tennis Association, which brought all the top players together as a union in 1973, the most important thing to me afterwards was how I was going to keep the generations connected. And to this day, we have done that. When rookies come up, they learn about the history. I meet with them; I get other players of all ages to meet with them—and that way we all know each other. I want them to know about history, because it’s not just about the past, it’s also about the change. I always tell young people that the more they know about history, the more they know about themselves. It’s about them. Because now it’s their turn to shape the future.
As we age, we can continue to shape the future, or influence it. An example of this is Louise Hay. She was upset because she couldn’t get a book published, and guess what? She started her own publishing in her 80s, and has a huge publishing house now. We can do so many things at any age, and we don’t realize it. We just have to shift and adapt our goals.
CM: What’s the next big thing for Billie Jean King?
BJK: Well, I’m going to be starting a King Leadership Initiative. I knew 10 years ago I had one big thing left in me, and this is it. I think it’s important to inspire future generations.
It was Billie Jean King’s own mother who always told her: “Keep moving or it’s over.” And move King has. It’s been many years since she’s played competitive tennis, but she’s never stopped being active. She believes we have a responsibility to lead by example especially when it comes to being fit and taking care of ourselves. The advice she offers is straightforward. All we have to do is implement it.
Billie Jean King’s 10 tips for successful aging
1. Relationships are everything.
2. Keep learning. Keep learning how to learn. Stay curious.
3. Be in the moment and focus on the process. The journey is the ultimate prize.
4. Be resilient and engaged in life. Keep moving or it’s over.
5. Accept pressure as a privilege and face it head on.
6. Be a problem solver. Champions in life adapt or adjust.
7. Reinvent yourself on a regular basis.
8. Exercise matters.
9. Be a positive person.
10. Never underestimate yourself, or those around you.
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Atria Senior Living video: Colin Milner interviews Billie Jean King
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