What keeps the best at their best for so long?
Reaching the summit of a given sport is an accolade that can be bestowed on only the smallest of sample sizes. Whilst the concept of an individual’s ‘peak’ or being regarded as the ‘best in the world’ can be somewhat ambiguous or subjective across many sports, there are a handful of athletes that standout amongst their peers for a sustained period of dominant at the very top of the modern game. This ability to sustain such an extended period of time competing as one of the very best in the world is so rare to witness yet there has been a handful of athletes that have proven over this past month that there appears to be no end to their reign at the summit of their respective sports.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo
In the past month, Lionel Messi (34) and Cristiano Ronaldo (36) took centre stage in Europe’s elite club football competition; the Champions League. In one of the most anticipated draws of the group stage, Paris St Germain hosted Premier League Champions Manchester City. In a tight game that saw chances at both ends go begging, the 34 year-old stepped up to score his first goal for his new club with a stunning individual effort to secure a crucial 3 points.
Having also found himself on the move in the summer, Cristiano Ronaldo found himself in Champions League action the following night in the midst of his return to Manchester United. With the game tied at 1-1, Ronaldo scored vital 95th minute winner. In their very next group game, Ronaldo capped a remarkable come back from a 2-0 deficit at half-time with a stunning header to secure another 3 points against their Italian opponents; Atalanta.
Lebron James and Candace Parker
At the age of 36, Lebron James has just entered his 19th season in the NBA, meaning he has now been playing in the league for over half of his life. In that time, he has been a consistent and dominant force in the league since his debut in 2003. This month, he started his 19th season by posting an opening game-high 34 points, alongside 11 rebounds and 5 assists against the Golden State Warriors. Despite it being just the first game of the season, only 3 players in the history of the game have posted that stat line at an older age; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Michael Jordan – and all took more minutes to do so.
Lebron James wasn’t the only Basketball player at the top of their sport in the past month. At the age of 35, Candace Parker found herself back in her home city of Chicago after 13 successful seasons in Los Angeles with the Sparks. In her first year, the Chicago Sky claimed the sixth seed and, after winning two crucial elimination games, found themselves in the Finals, eventually beating Pheonix Mercury 3-1. Since being drafted in 2008, Parker has grown to become one of the most feared and respected players in the WNBA, recently being named into the W25; the 25 women deemed to have the most significant impact on the WNBA in its’ 25-year history.
Whilst maintaining a peak for a decade is impressive, nearing two decades is truly unique. For Tom Brady, now 44, he is currently in his 21st season in the NFL. Fresh from winning his 7th NFL Championship with his new team the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Brady is averaging 3 Touchdowns per game through the opening 7 week; a stat which he has only bettered once before in his phenomenal career. In Week 7, Brady threw his 600th Touchdown, a feat never-before achieved in the game. With his side sitting at 6-1 and comfortably atop of the NFC South, Brady has shown know sign of slowing down and has brought into question just how long it is possible to remain at the very top of such a cut-throat elite sport.
What is the secret to longevity?
One of the most fundamental aspects of maintaining an elite level of performance is obtaining an elite mental approach to the game that allows you to commit the hours and focus required to be successful. For the likes of Brady, James, Parker, Ronaldo and Messi, it is a full-time 7-days a week occupation. The mental fortitude to maintain that level of focus, often through extended seasons for playoffs and cup finals can take its toll.
One thing that is unanimous throughout elite sport is the care that athletes take of their body. Lebron James spends a reported $1.5million per year on his body whilst Tom Brady founded TB12 as a health and wellness company, promoting his own meticulous approach to preparing his body for the physical and mental exertions of elite sport.
Such meticulous preparation however is not exclusive to American sports. Cristiano Ronaldo has been ruthlessly efficient with his nutrition as well as training routine to facilitate his elite physical performance. As a result, during his medical with Juventus, the then-34 year old had the physical capabilities of a 20-year old after the series of tests were completed.
One thing that is consistently scrutinised over with these athletes who refuse to allow their games to dwindle is that the focus shifts to the maintenance of performance and minimising of potential injuries. Ensuring a strong core and increased flexibility has been a staple component of all training routines of successful athletes. Their sole focus is ensuring that the small decisions they have to make in their every ay lives directly contribute to aiding their performance in games. Whilst this is a constant requirement to be successful, it is the process that the greats of modern sport have invested their time in to allow them to dominate for such an extended period of time. Whilst there are naturally genetically gifted individuals, the combination of genetics, mental fortitude and discipline can help those rise to the top.
Staying there, however, is a new ball game entirely.