Tearin' it up: How this 52-year-old learned to snowboard in middle age
Taking up a hobby has huge psychological benefits in later life — the more difficult, the better. Just ask this 53-year-old snowboarder.
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In just one year, Linda Huang’s life has totally turned around — literally, she can do a 360 now.
Last winter, she decided to try her hand at snowboarding, after hearing clients at the Vancouver salon where she works talking about it. Now, at almost 53, she can execute a perfect 360 — completely schooling her husband and her 29-year-old son, who only know how to ski.
She’s living proof it's possible to take up, and excel at, something extremely difficult and totally new, at any age.
Her philosophy, in her own words, is, “Everyone can do everything.” That belief may have been the ticket to her success.
And there's science to back her up.
Sure, people’s minds and bodies decline as they get older, said Anne Wilson, a professor at Wilfred Laurier University who runs a psychology lab that studies goal setting and motivation.
“But, a lot of times people assume that happens more readily, and in a more limiting way, than it actually does,” she said. “The psychological barrier can sometimes be, 'Well, I'm too old to take on something new.'”
Yet there's no evidence our brains ever stop learning, Wilson said. Plus mastering a new skill has tons of psychological benefits — the more challenging, the better.
Huang knows all about physical challenges. As a hairdresser, she's on her feet for nine hours most weekdays. She lives for Tuesdays, her morning off, when she gets to shred in peace for three hours on an almost-empty ski hill. And when her work week ends at 6:30 p.m. every Friday, she hops a shuttle bus and hits the slopes.
Almost always, she’s by herself. She stays until the lift operator calls to her that the hill is closing and it's time to go home. Last season, she clocked 32 visits to her ski hill.
When she’s not there, she’s watching videos of snowboarders on YouTube, studying their tricks. She has the basics down — ollies, S-turns, the 360 — and has her sights set on rail tricks and jumps next.
“I don’t know if I can or cannot. My body's very young,” Huang said. “I want to challenge myself.”
She didn’t always have that attitude. During her first snowboarding lesson, things rapidly went, well, downhill.
Huang was the oldest person in the group. She couldn't keep up.
“I wanted to give up. It was all young people. I didn't want to waste the teacher's time,” she said. “I told (him), 'Don't wait for me. I don't want to continue.'”
But the instructor, Sam, looked down at Huang, slumped in the snow, and asked her a simple question: “Why?”
“I didn't have an answer,” Huang said.
So she got up. And she kept going. Today, snowboarding is a huge part of her life. She even got a second job — one day a week at the hill’s rental and equipment shop — so she could spend more time in the mountains.
As impressive as Huang is, there’s no indication she has superpowers.
According to Wilson, for years experts assumed that some people are just better at making themselves better; inherently blessed with more motivation and “stick-to-it-iveness” that can’t be learned.
“But emerging research really suggests that … is a lay belief,” Wilson said.
In other words, it's bull. A myth, but a powerful one.
“As people age, they tend to start thinking of themselves as more unchanging rather than more malleable,” Wilson said. “They tend to interpret initial failure as evidence that they just can't do this thing.”
It may sound hokey, but it's a fact: One key to learning something new, and doing it well, is believing you can change.
“People who believe they're malleable take failures as evidence that they need to try harder, put in more time, and try different strategies,” Wilson said. “Forget about the fact that you've tried and failed at this before. Start thinking about failures as part of the process of eventual success.”
Huang has a bit of advice for new snowboarders. Be careful, because it’s hard at first: Scary. Slippery. You need a basic level of fitness, and all the recommended safety equipment. After that, it's just patience and practice.
“You have to spend the time. That's important,” Huang said. “No time? Don't try.”
What keeps her going? She just loves the mountains that much. She recently took herself on a trip to snowboarders' Mecca – Whistler, B.C. — and she can’t wait to go back.
“The mountains are beautiful,” she said. “Magic.
“When I dream now, I dream about snowboarding.”
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