Old professional athletes that outperform their younger counterparts captivate and bewilder sports fans. Take Tom Brady’s last season for example –at the age of 40, Brady took the NFL by storm with one of his best statistical seasons to date. Despite a crushing Super Bowl loss, Brady’s record-breaking performance on such a huge stage changed perceptions around athlete career longevity. These athletes that compete into their thirties and forties continue to defy odds, convincing audiences that age might really be just a number.When watching older players like Brady dominate their sports, fans should know how rare career longevity is, across all sports.
It is easy to watch these older players thrive late in their careers and assume all professional athletes comfortable career longevity. Athletes like Brady overshadow though the reality many pro athletes face – that their career will not last nearly that long.
Looking at the four major US sports, the average pro athlete only spends three to six years in their respective league. Further, the average athlete age in each of these sports highlights how rare it is to play professionally for such long amounts of time. Athletes like Brady, Carter, and more continue to alter the perception around athlete age. This leads to the important question though – how did they beat the odds to continue playing so long?
For Tom Brady, his success over nineteen seasons is unparalleled. At age forty, Brady threw for thirty-two touchdowns on the way to winning his third Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. Other than baseball player Barry Bonds (who used steroids), Brady is the oldest MVP in major sports history.
Explaining Brady’s success is difficult though. Some of it can be chalked up to his position as a quarterback, where he takes notably less hits then a receiver or running back. Also, Brady has played under hall-of-fame coach Bill Belichick for his entire career in a system that rewards quick, short passes to keep Brady safe. Brady is by no means physically dominant; with a 5.28 40-yard dash time, he qualifies as the slowest quarterback among all active starters. What Brady lacks in athletic ability though, he more than makes up for in preparation and training. His work with trainer Alex Guerrero, though controversial, may help better explain Brady’s incredible longevity.
After a major groin injury in 2006, Tom Brady started working with unconventional trainer Alex Guerrero. Guerrero, who has a Master’s Degree in traditional Chinese medicine, was known for his unorthodox healing methods and their apparent rampant success. Known as Brady’s “body coach,” Guerrero designed extremely strict diet plans and workout regimens to keep Brady performing at his peak level for as long as possible. With methods including “food diaries” and anti-gravity treadmills, Guerrero’s training is far from normal. Even in season, they work together almost every day, sometimes more. With Brady on pace to play well into his forties, it is hard to not attribute some of his success to his meticulous training with Guerrero.
Clearly though, Brady’s training is not the only factor- playing the position quarterback under a coach like Belichick minimized Brady’s chances of injury and maximized his pedestrian athletic ability. For Vince Carter though, his success over twenty-one seasons is characterized by a career of highlight reel dunks showcasing his incredible athletic ability.
Though similar in career length, Vince Carter’s storied career in the NBA is much different that Brady’s in the NFL. With his 2000 NBA Dunk Contest victory, Carter emerged as one of the league’s best, most athletic dunkers. Unlike Brady, Carter’s athletic prowess carried him for a lot of his career.
That being said, Carter’s position, small forward, took less of a toll on his body than other basketball positions (namely center). Towards the end of his career though, he began better taking care of his body before and during seasons through careful nutrition and constant workouts. While not on the same level as Brady’s training with Guerrero, Carter’s teammates praised his off-court habits and their positive health benefits. Same as Brady though, it is hard to pinpoint one defining factor that set Carter up to play sixteen seasons longer than the NBA average.
With both of these athletes, there is not one reason that causes them to be able to play for so long. For Brady, position and coaching helped him stay healthy while his vigorous work with Alex Guerrero further boosted his career’s longevity. For Carter, a combination of explosive athletic ability and healthy habits have him throwing down dunks at age forty-one that players half his age cannot.
These two are not the only players to defy the odds though; running back Frank Gore has far surpassed the average career length for a running back by almost twelve seasons. In soccer, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is pushing age norms with his transfer to Paris St. Germain, one of the best soccer clubs in the entire world, at age forty-one. Power forward Dirk Nowitzki enjoyed success for twenty seasons in the NBA, almost four times more than the average length.
Looking at these athlete’s success, it might seem that modern day players are playing longer than past players, but historically, there have always been outlier athletes with extremely long careers. MLB pitcher Satchell Paige pitched a game at age fifty-nine, NHL legend Gordie Howe made two all-star teams after turning forty, and NFL hall-of-famer Brett Favre remains the only quarterback to win a playoff game older than age forty. These examples rule out the idea that modern day athletes are more durable than past athletes, further showing that this phenomenon may simply be random combination of controllable and uncontrollable factors – that these athletes are outliers.
These uncontrollable factors include position, sport, coach, and innate athletic ability, and they all clearly impact an athlete’s career. That being said though, there is a positive correlation (not causation) between specialized training and how long a pro athlete can play. While this holds true across the the major US sports, average athlete age changes drastically based on the sport.
While the athlete age trends in major U.S. sports are pretty similar, other popular sports across have much different average ages and outlier athletes. For sports like golf, the average PGA Tour winner age is thirty-three years old. With winners like Jordan Spieth (nineteen years old) and Davis Love III (fifty-two years old), outlier winner ages are substantially further apart from the average. Having winners so old and so young highlights the benefits of both youthful athletic ability and prior experience playing professionally.
In Olympic Gymnastics, the average athlete is much younger than in any of the major sports (nineteen years old for females, twenty-three for males). That being said, there are still outlier athletes – in 2016, Oksana Chusovitina competed in the Olympics at age forty-one. For Olympic marathoners, the average professional athlete age is older than most major U.S. Sports. In 2008 though, Sammy Wanjiru placed first in the male group at age 21, and Constantina Tomescu-Dita won the female group at age thirty-eight. This variance between average and outlier shows that no matter what sport, there will always be athletes that defy odds and push the boundaries of our perception of age and ability.
With different types of sports like ESports, the influencing factors on average athlete age are different. Instead of physical factors such as athletic ability and durability, ESport athlete age is better determined by factors like game type and release year. In some tournaments, ESport athletes as young as thirteen-year-old Jun Tae Yang have won on a professional scale. On the other hand, thirty-one-year-old ESport player Ken Hoang has also won professionally. Because ESports has only recently seen a massive popularity strike, it will be incredibly interesting to see how the average athlete age changes or remains static and its implications as the sport grows. Further, ESports emergence as a non-physical sport may allow players to extend the average career length, overshadowing the small average career lengths of the current major US sports. Or, maybe the popularity of ESports will reveal that while some outliers can play for decades, others face shorter average careers because of health concerns from extended screen time or overuse of hands.