The career of an elite sportsman or woman is generally a lot shorter than what is seen in most other industries. Just as they are really gaining insight and experience, they tend to pass their physical prime. In other words, unlike almost every other field, the experience that comes with age and practice doesn’t benefit the individual who has gained it. Instead, they go on to coach or commentate, and their hard-won lessons benefit others, but not them.
Until now, that is. Journalist Jeff Bercovici noticed that top athletes seemed to be getting older, became interested and investigated further. He’s even written a book about it, called Play On: The New Science of Elite Performance at Any Age. His view is simple, and it makes sense: if we can manage, postpone or eliminate physical decline, older individuals will have the edge because of increased practice and exposure.
The Evidence for Increased Longevity
Stellar resurgences from Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, big wins for Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, and the incredible performances from Serena Williams all point to the fact that sportspeople now seem to be getting better with age. The really interesting question is, why? What are we learning and doing differently? And what does it mean in the long term?
Bercovici’s efforts are relatively new and on going; we have more to uncover. So far the phenomenon seems to have been happening since around 2000, and to be based in new understanding of long-term physical effects on the body. As time goes by, the ability to rejuvenate and repair decreases, and so does overall strength.
This is why, for example, marathon runners have always had later career peaks than sprinters. Now that we know this and are starting to research the exact processes more, we can get better results from our bodies. Performance programmes are structured differently, as the balance between freshness and fatigue is fine-tuned.
Better technology allows us to monitor load and strain more too, so this new approach should keep being refined. We’ve always been able to use what we pick up over the years in other activities, from cooking complicated recipes to closing business deals to playing casino games. As we start to live longer and comprehend more, we are able to do the same in athletics.
The Hot Topic of Genetics
While we do know that genes influence sporting ability, age and the healing process, we still need to learn a lot about how all of these factors interact. The overall impact of DNA on longevity is also still unclear.
Accumulated injuries are the biggest reason that people retire from athletics, so the role genetics plays in the recovery from injury has already been scrutinised. The hope is that markers for common injuries will be found, just as they have been for potential talent in specific sports.
Possible Implications for the Future
Longer career lifespans could change the way individuals live and the plans they make, to say nothing of the contracts that they are willing to sign. Rehabilitation sciences have also benefited from all of this already, as more effective methods of rejuvenation are found.
In terms of genetics, youngsters with specific chromosomes may be assigned to certain arenas like swimming or running. If a predisposition to injury is found, those affected would know to be careful and possibly wear protective gear.
Of course, this kind of information could be as restrictive and inhibiting as it is empowering. What if a child hates the sport their DNA says they should play? Or loves a specific activity, but has a predisposition to injury that would affect their performance?
Crucially, what effect would knowing these things have on the market value of a player, and their contract negotiations? As with so many modern advances, it seems we have to be aware that they could be used for good or bad – and to consciously choose the former.