The Little-Known Advantages of Being an Older Athlete

The way athletes like Roger Federer and Tom Brady think can help explain why they remain dominant.

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May 8 2018, 5:00pm

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There’s a joke Mackie Shilstone likes to tell. A petite, reedy-voiced man in his late sixties, Shilstone is a fitness and nutrition coach who calls himself “the career extender” for the role he has played in prolonging the competitive primes of athletes like Peyton Manning, Serena Williams, and Ozzie Smith.

“The old bull and the young bull are sitting on one side of a fence on the top of a hill, and there are these beautiful cows down there at the bottom of the hill, basically pretty women,” he tells me over iced teas at a cafe near his home in New Orleans. “The young bull says, ‘Let’s jump over this fence and run down and go get some of that.’ The old bull says, ‘How about we just open the gate and walk down and get it?’”

Bodies slow down as they age. Sports science and medicine have gotten better at keeping those bodies healthy, and at restoring them to health when they break down, but they haven’t been able to do much about this fundamental fact. Sprinters’ race times still drift upward beginning around age 28 at about the same rate they did 50 years ago.

But for athletes in many sports, top-end speed is a little like a policeman’s service weapon: you don’t want to lose it in case you ever need it, but the better you get at your job, the less likely you are to have to use it. Younger athletes don’t run faster just because they can; they do it because often because they haven’t learned how not to have to. The game hasn’t slowed down for them yet, leaving them frantically dashing around trying to anticipate what happens next. They haven’t figured out how to open the gate and walk down.

Although he officially ran a respectable 4.8-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, Peyton Manning was one of the less mobile quarterbacks in the NFL even as a youngster. By the time he won his second Super Bowl with the Broncos, he could barely scramble or throw with any velocity, but no one was better at reading the defenders’ movements before the snap and anticipating the holes in a coverage. “After fifteen or seventeen years in a sport, don’t you think you know what that defense is going to do?” Shilstone says.

At the height of his dominance, as he racked up nine Grand Slam singles titles in five years, Rafael Nadal demoralized opponents with his peerless court coverage, retrieving shots that would have been clear winners against almost anyone else. Nadal’s slide from the top of the tennis rankings coincided with a series of knee and ankle injuries in his late 20s. But diminished speed had nothing to do with Nadal’s falloff, in the diagnosis of his coach, Francis Roig. If anything, it was the opposite: Nadal was playing like he had less time in points than he really did, rushing to the ball and swinging without setting his feet. “In tennis, if you’re too fast, it’s bad,” Roig told the Wall Street Journal. “If you’re too slow, it’s bad. You have to be on time.”

“Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” This saying is hammered into the heads of every American Special Forces operator. I first heard it from Eric Potterat, the former head psychologist for the Navy SEALs. When SEALs practice shooting, he told me, they rehearse slowing their movements down so it almost looks like they’re moving in slow motion. It makes sense when you think about the logistics of a commando mission. Marksmanship matters. You only have the ammunition you can carry with you. Wasted shots signal your position to the enemy. Better to shoot second but kill first.

“Time is not on his side.” I’ve seen this phrase used in reference to countless older athletes, from Tiger Woods to Usain Bolt to R.A. Dickey to Ben Roethlisberger. I disagree. Time is very much on the side of older athletes. It’s their best friend. So much of late-career performance comes down to the way expert performers experience time, control it, and manipulate it. How many times have you heard an announcer say a veteran quarterback is “a master of using the clock?” The flow of time becomes a weapon: the more the game slows down for you, the more you can make it speed up for others.

There’s no clock in tennis, but if there were, no one would use it more effectively than Ivo Karlovic, the Croatian player who holds the all-time record for serving aces, with more than 11,700. When Karlovic ended 2016 as the number 20 ranked man in the world, he became, at 37, the oldest man in nearly 40 years to crack the top 20. There’s nothing subtle about Karlovic’s game. It’s all geometry. At 6 foot 11, he is one of the tallest professional tennis players ever. His height allows him to hit the ball down into parts of the service box shorter players can’t reach, opening up up wide angles of the court unavailable to those who lack a 7-foot wingspan. The drawbacks of Karlovic’s stature, however, are equally obvious. Extremely tall players tend to lack agility and have trouble digging out low shots, and Karlovic is no exception. His size also means extra stress on joints and tendons.

In 2012, when Karlovic was 33, he and his coach, Petar Popovic, sat down to talk about how to get the most out of the rest of his career. The key, they agreed, was to limit his running. “We decided together that he needed to stop completely to play long points and to make a game one, two shots max,” Popovic told me. As a human ace machine, Karlovic was already playing a lot of one-shot points, but not enough. Popovic urged the big man to hit harder on his second serve, which he did, increasing the average velocity from 165 kilometers per hour to 190. They also agreed it was worth going for it in his return games, taking more big swings in hopes of ending the point faster, whether with an outright winner or a mishit. Not only has this formula allowed Karlovic to stay generally healthy, his win percentage on second serves has gone up 10 percent, says his coach, and he entered 2017 only a few spots below his career-high ranking of number 14.

Karlovic’s success didn’t go unnoticed. In the summer of 2015, at the Cincinnati Open, Roger Federer started ambushing opponents with a new time-bending move of his own. On his service returns, every so often, without warning, he would take a couple of quick steps up inside the baseline and hit a half volley, short-hopping the ball and chipping it back while the server was still recovering his balance. It was a tactic that wouldn’t have been out of place in the wooden-racquet era, but in the big-serving modern game, it was completely unexpected—a sort of kamikaze attack, except that Federer’s peerless touch and ability to anticipate his opponent’s serve placement allowed him to pull it off more often than not. Commentators dubbed it the SABR, for sneak attack by Roger. Federer successfully used it in the final at Cincinnati, where he scored a rare victory over Novak Djokovic. In interviews at the US Open a couple of weeks later, he confided that he had come up with the move as a way of, like Karlovic, shortening points and games to limit his fatigue and soreness over the course of the tournament. It also had the effect of discomfiting servers, and their coaches.

The older athlete’s mastery of the clock is largely a function of complexity. That’s what makes the flow of time feel hurried for those who haven’t mastered it and leisurely for those who have. Complexity is what separates experts from novices. Perhaps the clearest example of this is in multisport events like heptathlon and decathlon. The seven events that make up heptathlon—100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200-meter dash, long jump, javelin, and 800-meter run—are all to some extent power-based, relying on the kind of quick-twitch muscle fibers that are early casualties of aging.


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Athletes in all of those individual events tend to achieve their personal career bests in their mid- to late 20s. But peak age for heptathlon as an event is older, around 30. “Generally the more technical a sport, the later one gets in terms of reaching peak,” explains Trent Stellingwerff, a Canadian Olympic coach and sports scientist. “If you’re doing seven or ten events, it takes a lot of years to master all of those, so peak age tends to be older then for any of the individual events.”

You can see it in golf, too. Thanks in no small part to Tiger Woods’s then-novel embrace of weight training, golf has gone from being predominantly a sport of technique to one in which the ability to generate power plays an ever more central role. That shift has given rise to a generation of monster-driving youngsters like Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson. But pre-Tiger golf returns for a long weekend each summer when the PGA Tour descends on the British Isles. Eight of the 10 British Open champions from 2007 to 2016 were over 35. The reason is the wet, windy conditions that confound players whose games rely on hitting towering 300-yard tee shots. “Links golf” rewards tactical discretion, patience, advance planning, the ability to read conditions and evaluate risk-reward profiles—the things that accrue with years on the tour, not hours in a weight room.

In sports where complexity is on the rise, you would expect to see older competitors having comparatively more success over time. It’s safe to say no sport has gained new wrinkles as fast as football. The NFL’s relatively small number of games, combined with the ever-growing sums of money involved, has turned it into a game-planning arms race. Playbooks that used to resemble pamphlets have ballooned to the size of physics textbooks, and now can only be contained in digital form. The chief limitation on game-planning complexity is the quarterback, who has to choose from among a mind-boggling number of places he could throw the ball in the three or so seconds he has before getting knocked over.

What’s striking is the degree to which the ones who do this the fastest are also the ones who’ve been doing it the longest. Of the 17 times a quarterback over age 34 has finished the season with a passer rating over 100 in the history of the NFL, 11 have occurred since 2010. That represents a significant break with football history. Like most quarterbacks of their eras, Joe Montana, John Elway, Dan Marino, and Steve Young all saw rapid performance decreases after age 33. Clearly, something has happened that has tilted the field toward more experienced signal-callers. Recent rule changes that protect quarterbacks from excessively violent hits are part of it, but the bigger part is the ever more cerebral nature of the job.

“You can’t surprise me on defense,” Tom Brady said in an interview shortly after winning his NFL-record fifth Super Bowl at 39. “I’ve seen it all. I’ve processed 261 games, I’ve played them all. It’s an incredibly hard sport, but because the processes are right and are in place, for anyone with experience in their job, it’s not as hard as it used to be. There was a time when quarterbacking was really hard for me because you didn’t know what to do. Now that I really know what to do, I don’t want to stop now.”

As athletes accumulate experience within their sports, they become more efficient processors of information. Put more briefly, the longer you play, the faster you think. But there’s intriguing evidence it works in the other direction as well. That is, the faster you think, the longer you’ll be able to play—because you’ll be able to avoid the kinds of injuries that cut athletes’ careers short. That’s what a kinesiologist named Charles Swanik has spent the last few years proving.

Swanik, who goes by the nickname Buz, studies the neurological basis of injury-proneness. The vast majority of existing research into sports injury risk factors focuses on physical ones: the accumulation of fatigue; range-of-motion limitations, and inefficient movement patterns; genetic variations that influence the strength of tissues like bone and collagen; deficiencies in nutrients like vitamin D and magnesium.

Swanik thinks that list is missing a big one: how well your brain models the world around you, and how quickly it responds when that model changes. He began to suspect that was a bigger factor than anyone realized while doing research for his doctoral dissertation, which focused on the effects of injury on proprioception, the body’s ability to detect its own position in space. When a muscle or ligament tears, so do the nerve fibers embedded in that tissue. But nerve cells regrow more slowly than other tissues, often requiring a year or more before they recover full function. A badly sprained ankle or knee may be mechanically sound after a few months of rehabilitation, but the feedback it sends to the brain about its position and the forces being placed on it is incomplete. That’s one reason the biggest injury risk factor of all is previous injury.

If a communication breakdown between brain and limbs is responsible for many reinjuries, Swanik reasoned, might it play a similar role in new injuries? Tissue damage, he knew, happens in the blink of an eye: from the time loading forces are applied to when a sprain or strain occurs is only 70 milliseconds. That’s faster than a human reflex, which requires about 80 milliseconds. Every time we encounter a sudden force and don’t get injured, then, it’s not because our lightning-quick reactions are saving us, but because our brains were able to anticipate the force and coordinate an appropriate muscle-activation strategy.

“Before an injury happens, the brain has already planned out and modeled that person’s physical surroundings, the local environment,” Swanik told me. “But if something changes in the middle there, you essentially are executing some kind of strategy that doesn’t match your environment.” In his lab at the University of Delaware, Swanik has conducted a series of experiments to show what happens when people are caught by surprise in the middle of an action. He has asked blindfolded subjects to jump onto a platform without knowing its height or land on an unstable surface. Electrodes attached to their muscles captured the results.

In a normal jump landing, the muscles fire in a smooth cascade that transfers force harmlessly up the kinetic chain from ankles to knees to hips. An “unanticipated landing,” however, typically results in a startle response, in which muscles tense and release in a random, uncoordinated way; think of how your body jerks when you step into a pothole you didn’t see. “When an injury happens it’s always so surprising because literally the brain did not anticipate what was about to happen,” Swanik explains.

Swanik knew that athletes who suffer concussions are subsequently at higher risk for all sorts of musculoskeletal injuries, not just more concussions. What if, he wondered, it’s not the concussion itself that’s to blame but impaired cognitive functioning that makes the brain too slow to react when something unexpected happens—the ball takes a deflection, the player you’re guarding throws a sick shoulder fake, that sort of thing—resulting in an awkward startle response? If that were the case, he thought, nonconcussed athletes who are innately slower processors should also exhibit a higher injury risk.

To test this hypothesis, Swanik and his research team administered tests of neurocognitive function to nearly 1,800 college athletes. The athletes, who included football, soccer, lacrosse, and field hockey players, took computer tests that measured their memory, reaction times, and processing speed. Over the ensuing season, 80 of the 1,800 athletes sustained noncontact ACL injuries. Compared with the control group of demographically identical noninjured athletes, the ones who tore their ACLs, it turned out, had on average performed significantly worse on the cognitive screen, demonstrating slower processing, longer reaction times, and worse memory.

“That was kind of proof for me that you can have the biggest muscles and whatever, but if you neurologically have a breakdown somewhere in this system, you’re going to injure yourself,” Swanik told me. “All this time we’ve been measuring biomechanics, which is really an outcome. What we should be looking at more is the processing, the underneath neurological strategy that resulted in the biomechanics we saw.”

All of the above suggests that, all else being equal, the kind of expert veteran athletes who process game situations most efficiently should be better at modeling their environments and avoiding injuries of uncoordination than less-experienced younger players.

That’s exactly what Swanik suspects. “If you accumulate that kind of sensory experience over time, that gives you a better prediction of what you need to do next,” he says. Often, he notes, the goal of strategies in sports is explicitly to negate the advantage of experience by making the familiar appear unfamiliar. When football defenses disguise their coverage and blitz schemes or present unscouted looks, they’re trying to slow the quarterback down enough that a pass rusher has a chance to surprise him and force an uncoordinated response like a fumble or a bad throw—or an injury.

All else isn’t equal, of course. Older athletes don’t just have bigger mental databases to draw from. They also have the physical baggage that goes along with it—fewer quick-twitch motor units, slower-recovering muscles, more general wear and tear. It’s also worth remembering that age and expertise are two different things. Still, if you’ve ever wondered how athletes like Tom Brady or Carli Lloyd or Jaromir Jagr are so successful avoiding injuries after 20 years in high-intensity sports, it appears at least part of the answer is just that: because they’ve been doing it for 20 years.

This story is excerpted in part from Play On: The New Science of Elite Performance at Any Age, out now.

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