I’m not one for hyperbole, but have you noticed how much younger athletes are achieving incredible things in certain sports? Jordan Spieth, the newest Golf sensation, is one such example. Following hot on the heels of our very own Rory McIlroy (or at least he is until he competes for Ireland at the Olympics next year!), Spieth is doing incredible things in Golf. Commentators are putting him in the same bracket as Jack Nicklaus already. Dina Asher-Smith might not be a world-beater yet, but at only 19 years of age in a sport where athletes traditionally don’t mature and achieve excellence until their mid- to late- 20s, the new British Record holder over 100m is another such example (at least if she stays injury-free!). I’ve just witnessed a 17-year old, Max Verstappen, finish in fourth at the Hungarian Grand Prix. OK, so the car has a lot to do with that, but some of the greats of Formula 1 didn’t even debut in cars at that level until their mid-20s – Jenson Button started racing before Verstappen was even born! How, just how, is this even possible?!
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the older generation are doing some great things. Serena Williams and Roger Federer are cases in point. Still winning (and getting to finals!) at an age where previous generations of Tennis players were heading to the lucrative Seniors Tour or hanging up their racquets to enjoy retirement in a non-tax paying country! The fact that Serena is on course to complete a grand slam of Tennis victories at the age of 33 is impressive, but Federer making the final of Wimbledon (not to mention his demolition of Andy Murray in the semi-final) is nothing short of a miracle, given the strength in depth of Men’s Tennis at the moment. Gianluigi Buffon is still representing Italy and Juventus, eighteen years after his first Italian cap. Of course, there have been plenty of ‘grand old men’ in the Goalkeeping brigade over the years (Dino Zoff, Peter Shilton and Pat Jennings spring immediately to mind), but to be doing what he does in an era where most professional Footballers reach their prime in their late-20s is still quite remarkable. Does the MLS in the US, with the string of recent high-profile signings such as Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo, prove that there is life in the old dog?!
So, why is this happening? I appreciate that certain sports have always had protégés and a history of success at an early age, like Gymnastics (before the rules were changed), Tennis and Swimming, whilst others have had successful older athletes, like Golf, but the examples provided here suggest that age is becoming less important as a factor in determining success in sport across the board.
I can explain the older athletes still performing at the highest level, or at least I think that I can! It’s simple really. Modern training methods, and accompanying advances in nutrition, recovery and biomechanics (that’s the study of movement, to those of you not au fait with ‘sport science speak’), have increased the shelf life of modern athletes. I often cite Ryan Giggs as an example of an athlete, often dogged by injury in the early parts of his career, who managed to play professionally at a high level until his late-30s. How? Well, there’s no doubt that those injuries, more often than not his knackered hamstrings, gave his body time to recover from other knocks, but he often talks about how a change in how he (and Sir Alex Ferguson and his team of support staff) managed his training and recovery led to his longevity at the highest level of professional Football. Sir Steve Redgrave undoubtedly received support of the highest calibre as he reached the twilight of his Olympic Rowing career. Managing Diabetes and Ulcerative Colitis required significant know-how and management of training and recovery – would the last of his five consecutive Gold medals been possible if medical science hadn’t developed an understanding of the two conditions? Even with his remarkable resolve and tenacity, I doubt it!
But younger athletes dominating their sports? Well, I’ve spoken on here before about the 10,000-hour rule of practise, and how questionable the notion is (I like to think that these young performers support my skepticism), but I really can’t explain it with any certainty. How can the likes of Verstappen, Asher-Smith and Spieth produce such awe-inspiring results in sports that traditionally take many years to master? Are they at a biological advantage – Verstappen’s father, Jos, wasn’t bad at driving fast cars! – or were they lucky enough to find sports that they excelled at at an early age – Spieth first picked up a Golf club at 18 months of age, to keep him busy when his brother was born? If anyone reading this has an answer, leave a comment because I would love to know!