Last night, Frank Lampard achieved the huge milestone of playing for his country for the 100th time. At the age of 35, the midfielder has also found himself back in the Chelsea first-team after what many people thought would be his last season in 2012/13. Both Roberto di Matteo and Rafa Benitez regularly left ‘Lamps’ on the bench, thinking he was too old for the pace of the Premier League, but the returning Jose Mourinho sees things a lot differently. Lampard has started all 4 competitive games this season for his club and his performances clearly show he still has a lot to offer football – he scored on the opening day of the season against Hull and also captained Chelsea (and scored in the penalty shoot-out) in the European Super Cup. The question is, then, why do people assume that players approaching their mid-30s are ‘past it?’
It’s been scientifically proven that when people do reach the age of 30 their physical attributes start to decline. Speed and reflexes are two that rapidly decline, while others such as agility and co-ordination drop away more gradually over a much longer period of time. But that doesn’t mean that professional footballers will just become rubbish – most adapt their game with their vast experience and can become even better. While the certain aspects of their game might not quite be as good as when they made their debuts, many use their previous experiences to make sure they are in the right place at the right time. Lampard is a prime example – he no longer makes driving runs forward from midfield but if Chelsea do attack then he will find a position in and around the penalty area where he knows the ball is likely to arrive. As a result he has scored exactly half of his league goals for Chelsea since 2008/2009 (71 out of 142 in just over 4 seasons)– he scored the other half over a period of seven seasons. Rather than decline, Lampard has become a better player and he isn’t the only one.
Football is, in essence, a non-contact sport where professionals are reliant on skills such as co-ordination and knowing where to position yourself. Although you need to be in good physical shape, you don’t need to have an extremely strong heart, develop huge muscles or have an extraordinarily low heart rate in order to succeed. There are some sports, though, that do rely on some or all of these attributes, meaning that participants will be younger at the elite level as it is much harder to keep them up over the age of 30. At London 2012, there were 14 different events that didn’t include a single male or female over the age of 40. The eldest male and female triathletes (where exceptional endurance levels are a must) were both 37, while badminton and swimming included just a handful of athletes between the age of 35-40. Both of these sports are supposed to be ‘lifelong activities’ and are promoted by the government to get everyone partaking in a balanced, active, healthy lifestyle but, with reflexes and speed being crucial across the two events, only the youngest will succeed at the top end of the sport. 15 year-old Ruta Meilutyte summed this up perfectly, beating many athletes a lot older than her to claim the gold medal (as well as the Olympic and World Record) in the 100m breaststroke.
Although there were athletes in all of the other sports over the age of 35, only 3 managed to get into double figures in terms of the number of 40 year-olds competing. These were sailing, shooting and equestrian. Not the most physically demanding events but they still command extreme skill. Shooting, especially, is seen as a sport for middle-aged men and women so it was a huge surprise for me, then, that only 1 out of 15 golds across both sexes was awarded to someone over the age of 40, while only a 5 out of 30 ‘minor’ medals went to men over that age – no woman born before 1973 won a single medal in any of the disciplines. This seems to suggest that, while co-ordination is a skill that doesn’t reduce as drastically as other skills, it still declines to the point where the elite have little chance of winning a medal despite all their experience.
Looking at equestrian, the stats looked much more favourable as 5 golds and 11 other medals went to those over the age of 40. However, all these medals came in the team events, showing that when alongside those in their 20s and 30s they can use their experience to win but on their own they have can no longer compete at the top level. Golf is another example – many players in their 40s and 50s play a big part for their respective sides in the Ryder Cup but when it comes to Majors they cannot come close to the likes of Adam Scott. There are some exceptions, such as Phil Mickelson, but overall it seems this ‘game for old men’ is actually dominated by those not long out of their teens. Even cricket, arguably one of the least demanding sports, has very few players at the top level of the age of 35. Both Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting have recently proved that once a batsman gets to a certain age they will struggle against the best, no matter how good they were.
So, is it actually possible for older sportsmen and women to succeed at the highest level? I think that in team events such as football and equestrian, where the emphasis isn’t on physical capabilities such as endurance and speed, then the likes of Frank Lampard and Nick Skelton can carry on at the highest level until they are well into their thirties and far beyond. However, in all individual events it is hard for the ‘elder statesman’ to compete against youth, no matter how good they were or how much experience they have. They just can’t keep up.