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How Old Is Too Old To Be a Professional Athlete? Part 2

If you follow any professional sport, you know that most of the players are going to be up to their mid-30s or younger.  It is comparatively rare (though not entirely uncommon) to see a player continue into his late 30s, or even into his 40s.  Still, there have been more than 40 professional NFL footballers who have continued to play into their 40s as well as more than a few association football players who have done the same. 


In the first instalment of the series How Old Is Too Old as an Athlete? Part 1, I talked a bit about how the press tends to throw scorn at older players, but how they sometimes still manage to outperform their younger counterparts.  Now I want to take a closer look at the negatives and positives that go with aging and how they could impact a player’s ability.  This will help you to handicap older players and the teams that they are on.


Disadvantages for Older Athletes

Let’s start out by looking at the negative ways in which getting older can impact a professional athlete’s career.  Most people assume that age is always a negative, so we’ll begin with the obvious.


  • It’s harder to stay in shape.  When you are young, your metabolism is high and so are your testosterone levels.  It is easy to keep off the fat and pack on the muscle.  The older you get, the more you struggle with both.  It is going to be significantly harder for a 40 year-old athlete to stay in peak physical condition than a 20 year-old athlete.  That being said, it can be done, and there are sometimes 40 year-olds who are in better shape than men ten years younger. 
  • The body loses its resiliency to damage the older you get.  This means that older players are usually a lot more susceptible to injury than younger players.  This is why older players often find themselves sitting out a lot of games over the course of a season.  The longer an older athlete plays, the greater the risk they are exposing themselves to that there will eventually be a serious injury which will put them out of the game for good. 
  • There may be other declines in physical and mental performance as well as a player gets older.  For example, a player’s reflexes may start to deteriorate, and he may react less quickly to events on the pitch.  This may cause him to make critical errors, which may cost his team a game.
  • There is also a psychological impact which goes with aging.  Older athletes are held under a microscope by the sports media.  For whatever reason (perhaps because any famous person will always have detractors, and we live in an ageist society to begin with), there are always people out there who are just rooting for them to fail.  So there is a considerable amount of pressure to cope with, both by the player and his team.


Advantages for Older Athletes

While the effects of aging are largely negative, they are not entirely so.  Here are a few positive impacts of aging for athletes:


  • Other teams may underestimate them.  It is common for opponents who are facing older athletes to assume that they are dealing with a player who is on his last legs and isn’t going to be much of a threat.  As a result, they may under-prepare for the encounter and not bring their best game—especially when the older player is a key team member such as a quarterback or striker.  This can play to the advantage of the team with the aging player. 
  • Age also brings wisdom and experience.  Aging athletes have been known to make mistakes, but oftentimes getting older actually has the opposite effect.  Consider the limited experience and knowledge of a 22 year-old athlete fresh out of university, and contrast that with the depth of experience gained by an athlete who has been playing professionally for fifteen years.  Rookies make a lot more mistakes than veterans. 
  • Older athletes may have excellent leadership abilities and command tremendous loyalty.  Professional athletes who have been around for a while, especially those who have been playing with the same team for a very long time, become legends.  As such, they have larger-than-life charisma and a lot of strong relationships that they have built over the course of a career.  Sometimes intangible factors like these can make all the difference in the world for a team that needs that strong center to play cohesively.


So how old is too old to be an athlete?  For some athletes, it may be 30, for others 35, for others 40, for others still—older than that.  The oldest NFL player in history was George Blanda, who retired when he was almost 49.  The oldest professional association football player is still playing.  Kazuyoshi Miura is 48 years old and currently plays for Yokohama F.C. 


When you are handicapping athletes like these, do not assume that their best days are necessarily behind them.  Do the research and figure out what the real impact of age will be for a given player.  I will talk more about this in How Old Is Too Old To Be a Professional Athlete? Part 3.


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