Why Are Older Players In Professional Sports Still Thriving?

Jon Z.Correspondent IApril 1, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO - OCTOBER 30:  Defenseman Ronnie Lott #42 of the San Francisco 49ers makes a tackle during a NFL game against the Minnesota Vikings at Candlestick Park on October 30, 1988 in San Francisco, California.  The Niners defeated the Vikings 24-21.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

“Jimmy Key? What’s he like, 45?” -- Seth Hayes (1997)


They say that 40 is the new 30 and 30 is the new 20.  


I’ve always wondered who “they” are, since “they” tend to say a lot of things that make no sense to me.  


In an age of high school players entering the NBA and students getting scouted before high school, there’s a growing number of athletes who not only outpace their predecessors in career longevity, but who have maintained a consistently high level of play well past their supposed primes dictate.   


How?  Well, here are a few possible considerations.



A. “Supplements”


I’ll dispense with the cheap shots first. It would appear that the potency, quality and inability to test and/or detect certain illegal performance-enhancers are a part of the equation. When I open my in-flight magazine and see a 70 year old guy jacked like a 25 year old bodybuilder boasting the effects of HGH supplementation, that’s enough for me.  

You know what picture I’m talking about -- the bald guy with glasses and a tank top.


It’s more than just Crisco, Bardol and Vagisil these days. However, I think we can all agree that 100% of athletes in major sports are not and were not taking illegal substances since the beginning.


To do so would be an insult to players past, especially those from decades ago that exceeded expectations for career longevity like George Blanda, Gordie Howe and others.


There must be other explanations. Let’s find out.



B. Training, Nutrition & Technology


Anyone who has read about or played sports decades ago knows that the ability to weight train in certain sports was shunned for years.


Concerns about a decrease in flexibility, injury, and a perceived inability to shoot or pitch effectively hampered one’s ability to maintain strength, which ironically, prevents future injury. 


Back then, coaches gave endurance athletes salt tablets before practice. (Some of you reading this are probably scratching your head, but it happened).


Today, you have sport-specific regimens tailored to each athlete, personal trainers (who actually stay out of jail), plyometrics, speed schools, parachutes, etc.


Proper nutrition is literally off the charts these days, and the protein shake of today pales in comparison to products touted 5 years ago. Elite athletes adhere to stricter diets created by nutritionists that focus on mineral and oxygen levels, among other things. 


Something tells me that this new method of training and eating trumps burgers, fries and beer, which has been an admitted staple of some the best players from years past.  But they still got the job done, so not all is lost. 



C.  Work Ethic & Talent


When you put aside all the latest compression fabrics, shoes, supplements and other gadgets, it seems to me that the majority of older players continually excelling at a high level is based on work ethic and talent—the type of things that sporting good companies can’t sell you just yet.


As someone who first grew up watching sports in the early 80s and always being interested in sports history, I’ve loved to hear stories of guys who gave their hearts and sometimes, their extremities, to play a game. And I was always intrigued by the fact that players 10 years younger than Jerry Rice couldn’t handle his hill sprint workouts.


In my opinion, with some exceptions, modern players don’t exude the same work ethic that older players had. Too many players expect the world to come to them.  Twenty years ago, the phrase “short arming” a pass likely didn’t exist in the sports vernacular.  (Here come the fact checkers).


Back in the day, and whatever your day is, players seemed generally tougher. Sure, you always heard about a "lazy" player, but it was relative, and for the most part, players played for the game. They didn’t play for the endorsements, because they weren’t around. And if they were, players did their business on the field first.


Announcers love to use the term “gym rat” these days. To me, it’s simply an exception to the rule of the modern player, as opposed to the standard. 


At the end of the day, some people are simply genetic freaks of nature who don’t age as quickly as others, who are able to maintain muscle development into older age, and have the experience to dominate their peers based on better technique and ability.


Just like the guy in the tank top.




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