Age is Only a Number
Media in sport seem to love sharing the age of an athlete with us and it usually comes along with a whole load of assumptions – if the athlete is young then they are naturally talented, and if they are old then they are late bloomers. Last week I read about “late bloomer” US pole-vaulter, Mark Hollis, who at the grand old age of 29 jumped a PB of 5.80m and moved into equal 3rd ranked in the world. Hardly a late bloomer at 29 in my view, but for some reason society seems obsessed with age in sports.
Doing it Steve’s way
Then there’s Steve Way. The man who lost 5 stone, stopped smoking, started running and found himself representing England and finishing 10th at the Commonwealth Games at the age of 40. A natural talent or just hard work and a good understanding of how to get better? In my view, it’s very much the latter and Way has shown us all how it’s done. Over an eight year period he has taken nearly an hour off his personal best marathon time and is now one of the highest ranked runners in the UK. How? By changing his lifestyle, researching how to get better, making a plan and doing the work. There’s nothing natural about running 130 miles a week around a full-time job. It’s carefully planned, structured, very specific hard work and of course, pure dedication.
The 10,000 hour theory
Another man challenging conventional development theory is Dan McLaughlin who four years ago, quit his job at the age of 30 to try and become a professional golfer with no previous experience playing the game by testing out the 10,000 hour deliberate practice theory. And it’s working! With 2 and a half years to go until he reaches the 10,000 hour target, he now plays off a handicap of 3 and is continuing to improve.
You can choose to be successful
I’m really not a great fan of the phrase ‘late bloomer’ as to me it implies the athlete has naturally just become successful after many years of trying with little success. Then again, I guess there isn’t a short phrase for ‘probably had a big setback or significant life event, realised time was running out, worked out what they wanted, made a plan then put their head down and worked hard’.
Success in sport is not a natural occurrence. Those who continue to get better do so because they choose to. A huge part of that choice is understanding how to get better, creating a plan and taking responsibility for it. For some people that decision happens at a later stage and for others it happens earlier for various reasons including physical maturation, life situations and stages, access to good advice and role models, finance, geography and many others.
I was so delighted to see that message of ‘choice’ come across in Sir Chris Hoy’s documentary ‘How to Win Gold’. This is a must watch if you haven’t seen it and if you don’t believe me, hopefully a six time Olympic Champion might convince you!
Why age needn’t be a barrier
On numerous occasions I have been described as a ‘late bloomer’ which is probably where my dislike for the phrase comes from. There is, however, nothing accidental about my performance improvements over the last few years. I finally understood what was required to become better at around the age of 27. After a performance stagnation for several seasons, I was ready to accept that I had reached my peak. Then during a 1500m race, I clearly remember hearing the commentator describing me as a “useful club runner”. It made me so angry. It made me realise I wanted to be more than “useful”.
Around the same time, I had begun researching talent and expertise with my previous job at the Sportscotland Institute of Sport. I made a decision to use myself as a case study and apply my knowledge to my sport, using everything I understood about expert athletes and their behaviours. I also decided a new event would be a great challenge to try it out on and so came the switch to steeplechase.
It was hard, but like any change in beliefs and behaviours, it takes time. Trust me though, it works! Four years ago I certainly would not have thought I’d be in contention for the Commonwealth Games.
My husband, Stuart, was in the same position after a switch to bobsleigh from athletics at the age of 30. Three years on and having represented Team GB at the Sochi Winter Olympics earlier this year, he continues to hit PBs in the gym and has adapted his training to suit his own personal development.
Just because performance starts to plateau, does not necessarily mean the peak has been reached. At some point almost every elite athlete has a period when things do not continue to improve. That is the time to review, analyse and perhaps focus on other areas that can be improved. As we get older, we have to change and adapt our training and recovery plays a far greater role. Indeed, at some point, performances will start to decline but if the athlete does not want to retire, then the goals just need to be changed and adapted.
It’s all about the backstory
Behind every athlete, no matter what age, there is a backstory. There is a reason why they have performed at that level. Age really is only a number. What’s more important is training age – the number of years and hours dedicated towards the sport. So the next time you hear or read in the media assumptions being made about the age of an athlete (old or young), have a think or do some research on why that might have happened. I can guarantee there will be an interesting story behind it!