Elite Athletes Sustaining Dominance in Their Sports — What’s Their Secret Sauce to Aging Gracefully?
Science has evolved to an incredible degree over the past few decades, and those who have invested in developing their minds and bodies have taken advantage of some of these breakthroughs. Now more than ever, top-performing athletes have extended their prime further than past generations — as older and more experienced athletes have sustained their dominance in recent years:
- LeBron James in his 17th season at age 35 with almost 50,000 minutes of game action logged led the Los Angeles Lakers to a dominant championship in October 2020; only 20 players in NBA history have played in more games than LeBron James, yet he has continued to play at an MVP level deep into his 18th season.
- Tom Brady in his 20th season at age 43 led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl in February 2021. He has effectively ended the “Greatest of All Time” debate in football with his 20+ year reign as an elite quarterback, as he has sustained his excellence with 14 conference championship appearances and 10 Super Bowl appearances and has shown absolutely no signs of slowing down.
- Serena Williams in her 25th season on the WTA tour has won the most women’s grand slam singles titles just reached the semifinals in the past two grand slam tournaments at age 39 and almost won a calendar grand slam in 2015 at age 33 (in a sport where players have peaked in their early-to-mid 20's).
- Rafael Nadal (20), Roger Federer (20), and Novak Djokovic (18) have won the three most grand slam titles of all-time by a wide margin (next closest is 14 by Pete Sampras). These three players have won 56 out of a possible 68 (82.35%) Grand Slam Tournaments played since the beginning of 2004 (in a sport where players peak in their mid-20s, they are dominating well into their late 30's).
- Lionel Messi (6) and Cristiano Ronaldo (5) have won the two most Ballon d’Or awards — arguably the most prestigious individual global soccer award — and have continued to remain at the top of their sports 17+ years into their professional careers into their mid-30's (in a sport where top goal scorers usually play for eight years and peak before age 30).
- The 2019 U.S. Women’s Soccer team, which won the World Cup had the second oldest World Cup roster of all-time at age 29-years old — 11 members of the team were at least 30 years old, including a 37-year old Carli Lloyd who scored in a World Cup-record six straight games.
Many more case studies of athlete dominance exist across different verticals; in recent years, the best have continued to remain on top for long periods of time. Regardless of the changing circumstances — especially during the pandemic — the top-performing athletes have overcome various challenges to produce at high level.
How? The 3 P’s of Preventive, Process, and Personalized methods of training help explain part of their sustained successes.
The greatest coaches have continuously emphasized that the best ability is availability — for athletes, that means taking regular measures to keep the mind and body sharp at all times — both with the training and the recovery — to maximize performance capabilities and reduce the chances of injuries.
LeBron James carries a portable hyperbaric oxygen chamber everywhere he goes— part of the $1.5 million he spends annually on his physical fitness — to help drive oxygen throughout the entire body to help remove internal body waste while improving mental alertness.
Cristiano Ronaldo has 9 rituals he does every match day including a regimented diet, sleep, and stretching schedule to keep his body in pristine condition at all times. Additionally, Ronaldo has developed consistent leg, hip, and core/stability workouts providing him with the muscular strength and flexibility to continuously perform day after day after day.
Coming back from devastating injuries is extraordinarily difficult; one major injury usually leads to ripple effects throughout the body, and it just takes one catastrophic moment to destroy a hard-earned career. We’ve seen a lot of stars struggle to stay healthy or return to past form after these gruesome injuries — such as Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Alex Smith and a host of others. An extra emphasis on daily maintenance helps prevent that one catastrophic injury while keeping the mind and body continuously sharp.
Part of injury prevention comes from routines driven from simple, repeatable processes. LeBron James in his partnership with mental fitness app Calm explains his preparation and process-driven approaches that have allowed to achieve the outcomes that he has accomplished.
Repeatability of routines that can be translated in any environment gives the top athletes the edge over the competition. Their lives are accustomed to performing in every environment imaginable. To perform at their highest, they need a lifestyle that travels well.
For instance, the world’s top tennis players often play tournaments in over 20 countries throughout the course of a calendar year. This brings challenges such as jetlag from changing time zones, climate variations, and new norms depending on the location.
Take Serena Williams, who dealt with the rigors of pregnancy, giving birth, and breastfeeding all while still maintaining peak physical condition. Incredibly impressive. Her repeatable workout and diet plan consists of several bodyweight full-body workouts (tailored to her tennis game) to keep the core strong while building the complementary muscles. Her regimented nutrition plan featured regular doses of nuts, beans, lentils, and sprouted quinoa.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic all endure similar core and movement based workouts (without much external weight training) along with a regimented nutrition plan mixing carbohydrates, proteins, and nutrients to maintain the flexibility, agility, and stamina required to compete at the highest levels.
The simple, repeatable, and translatable processes across various environments allow these top athletes to keep up with their demanding travel schedules through proper diet, exercise, and mental training work.
Physical sports come in different styles with different movements and an assortment of roles and skillsets within a particular activity, creating a strong value for customized processes unique to an athlete’s own individual body types and needs.
He has only missed NINETEEN games in his entire 20+-year career — 15 games from a Torn ACL suffered in Week 1 of the 2008 season and 4 games from the Deflategate suspension at the beginning of the 2016 season, which fueled his historic 2016 season culminating with an improbable 28–3 Super Bowl comeback win. That’s it — two stretches of missed games in arguably the most physically dangerous sport played at a mainstream level.
How can a 43-year old with an average body build dominate and remain healthy in a sport filled with many of the world’s strongest athletes?
It comes through a unique, self-made, personalized process-driven method — the TB12 Method — with a regimented health plan customized to his own body.
Through a simple and easy to remember (12 for TB12), it makes it easy for Brady to describe and explain his method anywhere he goes. He uses resistance bands to approach 90% of his strength and conditioning training.
However, this approach does not necessarily work for everyone, including those around him; the New England Patriots have linked the TB12 Method to Rob Gronkowski’s significant ankle, Achilles, and back injuries while Julian Edelman also had his fair share of troubles with the TB12 Method. They all play different positions and different styles and have different body builds, so the same body training formula likely will not work for everyone.
It works for Brady who has created his own sustained success through the TB12 method, which was designed with his name and body in mind.
No matter the activity, athletes can and should devise their own methods when it comes to training their minds and bodies. They have the opportunities to maximize training and skill development tailored to their positions and builds, such as Steph Curry and building hand-eye coordination skills while ball handling.
Preventive measures. Process-driven approaches. Personalized methods.
With scientific advances continuing to accelerate at a high rate, the top athletes have utilized principled, consistent, and unique actions to keep themselves performing at the highest level for long periods of time.
What do you think successful athletes do to age well in their playing careers?