"Life is good. Life is what you make it" The significance of a third place: an ethnography of Masters swimming.
Conference: Bournemouth University, School of TourismAbstract:
The aim of this research is to explore the Masters swimming culture and to bring meaning to the lived experience of the Masters swimmer. The research is of particular relevance since the county of Dorset, where the exploration takes place, has an ageing population which is well above the national average. Furthermore, the National Governing Body for swimming is endeavouring to increase sport participation by ensuring that more people swim regularly.
Masters athletes are viewed as being unique as they continue to take part well into old age. The principal challenge of the research was to make sense of the Masters swimming culture in order that a more informed dialogue of “active” sport participation, ageing and sport-related customs could be composed. A key consideration for the research design arose from the nature of the study which centred on leisure experiences and active participation of older swimmers. In order to explore both the structures and interactions within their cultural context an ethnographic design was applied. This allowed for the collection of extremely rich data. A sample of thirteen informants were interviewed and observed over a two year period along with other older group members who enjoyed swimming as a leisure activity.
Five significant themes were explored in the research which included: the meeting point or “Third place”, active lifestyles, ageing, serious leisure and exercising to excess. The key message emerging from the data highlighted the complexities of a relatively small locale. The findings concluded that older swimmers benefitted from being part of a social world, where they could enjoy participation with like-minded people. More importantly, the significance of having a meeting point or “Third place” in which to socialise and interact was paramount. It was evident too that participants were able to escape from the pressures of home and work which underlined the importance of the social world. Swimmers played an important role in the swimming community as each individual had a personal tale to tell as they aspired to achieve their individual challenges and goals. The challenges faced were wide-ranging and diverse. For some participants, their interest in swimming was so important that it was described as: “a way of life”. With regard to ageing, there was a sense of undesirability towards growing old evidenced in feelings of resistance and personal empowerment. Other themes emerging from the data analysis related to the advantages of adopting and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. The research also exposed the multi-faceted relationship between ageing and the serious aspect of leisure as older athletes were looked upon as being role models. The findings concluded that older participants were minded to resist their ageing bodies and live satisfying and personally empowering lives. In addition to the positive aspects of physical activity, a negative side of exercise was uncovered which related to obsessive exercise behaviour and deviant leisure lifestyles. Participants expressed feelings of suffering and pain in their determination to live life to the full and to keep going. Furthermore, the management of identity amongst older athletes hinged on the tensions between expressing one’s competitive nature, negotiating the norms and performance standards of the older swimmer and resisting the ageing process in the desire to stay young. In addition, once swimming was learnt it was never lost and so they were dedicated to swimming “for life”.
Telling the stories of highly active older participants allows for the talk and practices of a group of people to be examined. Also, the experiences and actions of the group have the potential to influence dominant cultural discourses. The study emphasises the value of attaching to a “Third place” or “great good place”. As a consequence, this study extends knowledge. As swimming providers look to increasing participation, a theoretical framework for Masters swimming is offered. The framework has the capability of guiding leisure organisations, policy makers and National Governing Bodies in making both adequate and appropriate provision for the needs of older clients. In particular, it highlights the need to provide adult sports programmes which are varied, challenging and inspirational.
Preferred by: Janet Hutchings