Science tells us that in terms of ageing, from around the mid 20s there is a gradual decline in cognitive and physical abilities. This has always been the case, and as ever the enemy of aging athletes has been their age itself. While the advances in fitness, nutrition and recovery strategies has pushed the deadline back a little this decline is inevitable. For most team sport athletes the mid 30s represents the end of the road. In a sport such as tennis you are deemed to be ‘over the hill’ once you pass 30 years of age. The broader psychological literature highlights that normal ageing from around the age of 25 impacts upon the efficiency of cognitive, perceptional, and psychomotor functions. Linked to these cognitive limitations both physical fitness and motor performance are also shown to decline from the same age.
However, the last couple of weeks have presented some great examples of just how it is possible (through the accumulation of experience) to push this decline back. In the recent Australian Open the ‘washed up’ Roger Federer at the grand old age of 35 won his first ‘grand slam’ tournament title since 2012 by beating Rafael Nadal in a five set encounter in Melbourne. Also, yesterday the spritely 39-year-old Tom Brady led the greatest ever come back in Super bowl history, with the New England Patriots recovering from a 25-point deficient to beat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28. But how is this possible?
The sport psychology literature suggests three main possibilities. First, the literature suggests a genetic advantage that these ‘superior’ athletes are born with ‘super abilities’. This means that even though the athlete ages the development of higher performance levels help sustain performance as the athlete ages. Second, that experts maintain superior performance as general abilities decline through compensation. This suggests that experts acquire domain-specific compensatory strategies to offset decline in other areas. This could be characterised by changing position, or changing general gameplay approach. Finally, that experts can maintain higher levels of performance through sustained practice. However, the crucial aspect of this practice is that it is ‘smarter’. Successful older athletes develop an understanding of which aspects of practice have the greatest beneficial effect, and then choose to focus on them.
While athletes like Federer and Brady appear to be the exception rather than the rule it is important to understand exactly how these individuals have maintained their position at the top of their respective sports for such a long period of time. In particular, it is important to understand how these individuals have maintained overall performance levels despite declining physical and psychological abilities.
A better understanding of these processes could be transformational in enabling far more performers to continue to be competitive in their sports well past the current period of decline that spells the end to many sporting careers.
Horton, S., Baker, J., & Wier, P. (2015). Career length, ageing, and expertise. In J. Baker & D. Farrow (Eds.) Routledge handbook of sport expertise. Oxford: Routledge.
Horton, S., Baker, J., & Schorer, J. (2008). Expertise and ageing: maintaining skills through the lifespan. European Review of Ageing and Physical Activity, 5, 89-96.