9 July 2015

HIGHLIGHTS IN THE TWILIGHT: LONGEVITY IN ELITE SPORT

Daniel Gallan

There are some special athletes around the world that seem impervious to the touch of Father Time. These men and women not only refuse to let the advancing years hinder them; they embrace their age with wisdom, skill, and invaluable experience. One such athlete is Victor Matfield; the imperious South African rugby forward who is not only the most capped Springbok of all time, but at 38, is still one of the most indomitable sportsman on the planet. CONQA Sport explores how older athletes maintain excellence, how they adapt their game, and the emotional maturity that is needed in order to remain at the top.

Victor Matfield wins a line out for South Africa against Ireland during their international test match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin November 8, 2014. Despite his age, Matfield remains one of the world's leading locks. Image supplied by Action Images/ Cathal McNaughton

Victor Matfield wins a line out for South Africa against Ireland during their international test match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin November 8, 2014. Despite his age, Matfield remains one of the world's leading locks. Image supplied by Action Images/ Cathal McNaughton

 "Back, back to the days when boys

Were men, still hopeful, and untamed.    

That was then: a gay  

and golden age ago.

Now in vain, domesticated,  

Men try to be boys again."

- Excerpt from Rugby League Game by James Kirkup

Jason Gillespie, a retired Australian cricketer and one of the most successful Test bowlers during the early 2000s, claims to be a patriotic, true-blue Aussie. But after recent comments concerning his countrymen ahead of the current Ashes Test cricket series against England, one might start to doubt that.  

“They’re Dad’s Army,” the head coach of Yorkshire told the Mirror last month. “I’d be thinking, ‘let’s keep them in the field. Let’s get them tired, they’re old blokes. We can put these guys under pressure’.”

Australia won the last Ashes series 5-0 early last year with much the same squad as they’ve taken to England this time around. It’s easy to understand why captain, Michael Clarke (34), and wicket keeper, Brad Haddin (37), didn’t take Gillespie’s observations to heart.

“There is a long list of people who have criticised this team. Might just add Dizzy (Gillespie) to that queue of people,” said the Baggy Greens skipper. When asked about the age issue, Haddin joked, “We need to get the coaches to mash up our food sometimes, because we’re old, but mate, that’s just how it is.”

The average age of the England side for the first Test is 27.3 years, with the Australians averaging 30.9 years between their 11 players. That is a difference of 3.6 years per player; hardly a massive gap, but at the elite level of sport, even the smallest margins are amplified.

“There is a perception in most professional sports that when a player gets into his thirties, then he is over the hill,” says David Milner, Physiotherapist at reigning South Africa Premier Soccer League champions, Kaizer Chiefs. “It’s a perception that needs to change because so many players are given the impression that they’re not good enough because they’re getting older and it simply isn’t true.”

Competitive sport is one of the few professions where entering one’s thirties is seen as approaching old age. Ryan Giggs, Wayne Gretzky, Paula Radcliffe, Brett Favre, and many others, have proved that age really is just a number if you’re able to retain a high level of competitiveness and excellence.

One player who can be mentioned in the same breath as these timeless legends is South African Springbok rugby player, Victor Matfield. The towering lock turned 38 in May and remains the most influential line-out practitioner in world rugby today. He says there are no short cuts when it comes to fitness and that as an older player he has to work even harder than his younger teammates.

“You need to train harder the older you get,” says the most capped Springbok of all time, with 121 appearances in the famous green and gold. “There is a risk with older players that if they don’t work even harder than the younger guys, they’ll fall behind from a fitness perspective.”

However, the reality is that the body’s ability to take knocks and exert force does diminish as it gets older. According to Milner, “there is a natural attrition of muscle strength. From about 26 we find there is about a 1% decrease in muscle strength annually.” Matfield is 38 which equates to 12 years of decreasing strength that he has had to manage.

Yet, he is captaining his country against a combined World XV this weekend and, barring injury, will most certainly be an instrumental member at the Rugby World Cup in England later this year. His inclusion is not based on sentiment or his ability to encourage and motivate others. In rugby, there is no place to hide weak or physically inept players, and Matfield remains a force on the field. How has he been able to do this?

“The most important thing for older players and prolonging a career is recovery time,” says Milner. “It’s all about having the correct plan and knowing when to rest players because the higher the intensity during training and matches, the more recovery time is needed.”

Dad's Army: Shane Watson, Michael Clarke, and Brad Haddin of Australia, celebrate a wicket during last year's triumphant Ashes series against England.

Dad's Army: Shane Watson, Michael Clarke, and Brad Haddin of Australia, celebrate a wicket during last year's triumphant Ashes series against England.

Matfield retired after the 2011 World Cup but returned after a two year hiatus with the sole goal of playing in this year’s showpiece. “All my preparation has been completely focussed on the World Cup. It’s all come down to this tournament.”

For older players, knowing when to peak becomes crucial and understanding one’s body is a skill that develops naturally over time. Milner points out that, “Older players become more street smart and are intuitive to their body’s needs.”

“I’ve lightened my weights at the gym,” says Matfield. “But I’ve upped my reps so I can still work on my speed and fast twitch fibres.” As mentioned before, whatever work is put into training and on match day needs to be balanced with sufficient rest. By reducing the weights that he pushes, but upping the amount of times he pushes them, Matfield is able to control how much energy he exerts while still giving his body enough time for that crucial rest period.

Perhaps one of the most crucial aspects when ensuring longevity in sport is the professionalism of the individual and the emotional and mental maturity of the player. All the great athletes with long careers have had to work harder as they got older. “When you’re young, your only focus is centred on playing your sport,” says Matfield. “When you get to my age, you have a family, kids, maybe a business that you’re involved in. Now I have to focus on so many things which means when I focus on rugby, I need to give it my all.”

For older athletes, maintaining a healthy lifestyle becomes crucial. Matfield admits that when he was younger, his diet was not something he paid too much attention. As he’s gotten older, he’s needed to encompass a standard of living that lends itself to his rugby career.

Older players also need to adapt their game as they get older. Milner uses Giggs as an example of a player who adapted his game perfectly. The Welshman started his career as a speedy winger who used his raw pace to ghost past opposing fullbacks. Towards the end of his career, former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, moved him into a central midfield role. He used his intelligence to take up clever positons on the field and used his distribution skills that he honed over the years to great effect.

Matfield has done the same. “As you get older you start to become a bit smarter with your game,” he says. “You figure out how to put yourself in positions where your strengths come into play and you reduce the scenarios where your weaknesses are highlighted.” Milner tells me that Kaizer Chiefs once used Shaun Bartlett, an out-and-out striker, as a centre back for a few games a couple of seasons ago. “Coaches will always have an influx of young, strong, fit, and fast players,” Milner adds. “What he will always crave is an older, experienced player who is able to adapt his game. The truth is; the older players who are unable to do this become irrelevant.”

When Matfield first started training with the Blue Bulls from Pretoria, older players like Joost van der Westhuizen and Ruben Krüger were two players who were always leading the team and pushing themselves harder than anyone else. “I remember being very tired at a practice session early in my career and those two came down hard on me,” says Matfield. “They told me, “If you want to play here, you have to work as hard as everyone else”. They showed me that the older players are the ones that have to lead by example. I’ve found that the older you get, the tougher you get. Older players are able to push through pain barriers that younger players can’t.”

Lastly, an older player needs to find the motivation to work hard. He or she might already have achieved fame, success, and wealth, and must therefore still be driven by passion in order to succeed. Both Milner and Matfield agree that the older athletes who are able to achieve longevity are the ones that want it.

“They also have to feel wanted,” says Milner. “I wish we could change the perception that older players aren’t good enough because it affects so many of them. There are so many people that give them a hard time about their age that they eventually start to doubt their ability, even though their skills have actually improved and their knowledge of the game has increased.”

When it comes to age, a shift in perception is indeed needed. Sport is all about functionality. A player’s role and influence should be determined by what he or she achieves while on the field. Yes, a younger player may be able to cover more ground than an older player. That’s not important. What is important is what that player did in the ground that was covered.

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