At first glance, it seems like the players running across the field at The Villages Senior Soccer Club have an obvious mission: score more goals than their opponents. However, if you spend just a few extra moments watching these adults compete, you’ll quickly realize that there are much bigger goals at hand. This set of over 55-year-old footballers is decreasing social isolation and staying physically fit at the same time. They’re finding their tribe by making new friends while increasing their health span.
Soccer is the most popular sport in the entire world. Most experts estimate there are around three to four billion fans of the sport across the globe, with over 250 million people playing soccer themselves.
The passion for the game is cemented at The Villages, a unique collection of retirement neighborhoods in the heart of Florida known for its amenities serving adults who want to lead active, healthy, and engaged lifestyles. Their club meets four days per week, using two different fields.
While the participants of the Senior Soccer Club at The Villages haven’t lost an ounce of competitive spirit, the head coach of the program, John Ellis, says that he has redefined victory for the group.
“Enjoyment here isn’t just winning. It’s being together and enjoying each other’s company,” Ellis said. “You’d be amazed at how talented this group is. Maybe not in soccer, but in their own careers, they’ve been brilliant doctors and all sorts of things. And they come out here and they play the game of soccer. I want them to just enjoy themselves and participate – that’s a much bigger thing than whether they win or whether they lose.”
Ellis is a world-renowned expert in the game. A player and coach for Royal Marines soccer teams around the world, he is most known for his work on the U.S. women’s coaching staffs that won the silver medal at the 2000 Olympic Games and gold at the 2001 CONCACAF Cup. His daughter, Jill, famously followed in his footsteps to lead teams of her own, coaching the United States Women’s National Team to two consecutive FIFA Women’s World Cups.
After a lifetime of winning, Ellis’ message of simply enjoying the game’s social benefits has inspired the participants of the club.
“I enjoy the exercise, but I also enjoy the collegiality,” Debbie Wile, a 62-year-old participant said. “I enjoy hanging out with the folks and doing stuff. I’m not very good at just sitting around and schmoozing, but I love being able to be out and calling for the ball and being supportive of people on the field and playing a good competitive game.”
“I saw the [team] out playing one day, came up here and decided that it’d be a great exercise. And I just enjoy the comradery and just love soccer. I love the sport,” Rick Rahm, a 64-year-old player explained. “I think mentally being here on a team sport, we get the interaction and the camaraderie and the socialization. Last year we were gone [because of the pandemic] and it was just mentally draining, not being able to get out here and see the guys and run around and sweat the beer off.”
Forming adult friendships can be especially challenging for adults who decide to relocate in retirement. However, finding a social group with a shared passion is recommended as one of the best ways to make new friends. Loy Urbina, a 63-year-old participant who just moved to The Villages, encourages other adults who decide to relocate to get out and play a sport.
“I’m new here. I just moved here [in December,]” Urbina said. “To be with [this group] is a great way to meet people that you never met before. It’s a way to get new friends in The Villages, which is a lot of people. Usually, your friends come from activities that you do or people that you meet. So, because I’m new, I’m meeting new people here.”
The Impact of an Active Lifestyle
Social Isolation is one of the biggest problems facing older adults today. By joining social groups like The Villages Senior Soccer Club, older adults can increase their health span. According to the CDC, a collection of studies showed that:
- Social Isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death
- Social Isolation was associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia
- Poor social relationships were associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke
- Loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.
In addition to the clear social and mental health benefits, this group of 55-and-up soccer players is getting great physical exercise over four days per week.
“I am 63 years old, but in reality, I’m 63 years young,” Urbina said. “By keeping active, I keep myself young, my spirit and my physique. It’s not just the way you eat, but it’s also your activities. I’ve lost about 30 pounds.”
Alex Pringle, 73, is a former professional soccer player from Edinburgh, Scotland. He told Growing Bolder that he stopped playing the game for years after retiring from his pro career, but thanks to the program at The Villages, he’s found his way back to an active lifestyle.
“I mainly just try and stay in shape. In The Villages here, we have a lot of activities. I like to ride my bike, I like to go swimming and I play golf, play soccer, but I just think getting the exercise helps keep you in shape,” Pringle said. “I feel good. When I go to the doctor I get good reports. So everything’s good right now.”
Studies have shown that staying physically active as we age is key to creating more healthy years in life’s later stages. Whether it’s running, swimming, joining a team sport or even just walking your dog, finding a form of regular exercise is vital for people of all ages.
Growing the Game
The number of Americans playing soccer has steadily increased over the last few years. According to NPR, it is now one of the top five most played sports by adults in the United States.
The Villages stands as an established example of how an adult soccer club can impact a community. It’s a model that Coach Ellis hopes expands participation in the game he has loved and promoted his entire life.
“The attraction to the game of soccer is the fact that the player makes all the decisions and they either get it right, or they get it wrong. And by those decisions, they get a sense of achievement,” Ellis said. “When you’re playing the game, you don’t realize the fitness that you’re getting, because you’re concentrating on making the decisions. I could go on all day about what are the pluses: the friendship, the competition. These are all things that make it a great game.”
Whether you are looking to stay in shape, make new friends or just have fun, soccer is yet another option to consider when trying to find your tribe.
Click here to watch more stories and complete episodes from “What’s Next!”