One of the hardest things about watching sports is seeing our favorite athletes in the latter parts of their careers, as they decline from being elite until it’s time to “hang ‘em up” and retire. In sports like boxing or MMA, a fighter seemingly gets old overnight; usually by way of an unexpected, devastating knockout. Depending on their position and personal makeup, athletes in basketball, baseball, and golf are typically a bit more fortunate and have the opportunity to “bow out” a bit more gracefully.
Without getting too scientific, I was interested in finding out when athletes become washed up in their given profession. Not just when they leave their athletic prime, because they can make up for the loss with veteran savvy for years; I want to know when their age is too much to overcome. The answer to these questions could be quite helpful for planning ahead, with regards to profiting at the best betting sites.
So, I’m going to take a look at a handful of different sports with different athletic requirements to look at some of the trends that we’re seeing in terms of retirement age and a player’s speed-of-decline in the latter years of their career.
It’s generally accepted that human beings enter their physical prime at around 25-years-old, which lasts for roughly a decade until they’re 35. Keep in mind; this doesn’t apply to a large number of sports and events, which may be dominated by younger or older performers, on average, just a player’s athletic potential in terms of overall muscle mass, VO2 max, strength, and flexibility. In fact, the average age of world record holders, across all disciplines, is 26.1.
These numbers are worth keeping in mind, since physical deterioration and injury are the two primary reasons athletes wither in their professions. When they leave specific sports will give us some insight into how much of these competitions are mental – or how much experience plays a role in success – and how much is physical.
That being said, there are a few athletic disciplines that are complete outliers in this regard. For example, when it comes to high-level gymnastics, it’s rare for a participant to continue competing through their early-20s. Aly Raisman, a member of the US Olympic Gymnastics team, earned the nickname “grandma” for qualifying for the Summer Games at 22-years-old.
Another issue with determining players’ performance declines are the massive volumes of talent turnover that happens in major leagues each year. Every offseason, another rookie class comes into the mix, pushing out experienced veterans at all levels. Many athletes are cut as a result of their overall skill level or salary demands – as compared to a cheaper rookie — before age and performance downturn ever becomes an issue.
Youth vs. Experience
The longevity of an athlete’s career can depend on a wide array of factors – too many to even attempt to account for here. While we know for a fact that physical abilities will deteriorate over time, most games require enough technique and skill for players to stay relevant for several years after hitting their peak. Sports in which the athletes retire later, on average, can be expected to require to be more cerebral or technical.
Surprisingly enough, MMA may be one such sport – though you’ve probably never thought to call it “cerebral.” With so many different disciplines to learn and approaches to fighting, an older, slower fighter can often stay at the top of the standings for years after losing some of their speed and power. However, it usually requires a competitor who’s willing to adjust their game as they age.
The freedom that fighters have in the cage, with so many different ways to engage one’s opponent in combat, lends itself well to athletes trying to overcome athletic disadvantages. For years we watched Randy Couture grind guys against the cage, utilizing dirty boxing in close that completely neutralized the speed and power of his younger, more explosive opponents. Never was this more apparent than in his first bout with Vitor Belfort.
Football is another fascinating study in the balance between youthful physicality and veteran knowledge. The positions each have such different requirements from the players. When you look at the oldest players in the NFL, they are almost all quarterbacks. Tom Brady is 41; Drew Brees is 40; Philip Rivers is 37, and Aaron Rodgers is 35. These guys are all top-tier QBs still, which shows you how much of the game is mental in their roles. The new protections for quarterbacks in the rules don’t hurt, by the way.
Runningbacks are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Teams regularly sign rookie RBs and expect them to contribute immediately, when they’re the quickest and most explosive. As the tackles pile up, these athletes slowly lose milliseconds off their 40-time. A runningback is lucky if they make it three seasons in the NFL.
While they obviously need to know the playbook, a runner’s responsibilities pale in comparison to the QB. Plus, they’re encountering physical contact with the defense on nearly every down. Besides some extremely rare exceptions like Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson, RBs seldom continue playing at a high level into their thirties.
We’re now seeing this becoming a huge problem for runningbacks. Teams are thrilled to draft these athletes as rookies and run them into the ground but are reluctant to sign them to a deal when that first contract expires. Once it’s time to make some real money, they prefer to merely turn to a new rookie instead. The position has been significantly devalued based on the short athletic peak of the players at the professional level.
Average Career Length
Out of the five major sports in the United States, the average lengths of athletes’ careers are as follows:
- MLB – 5.6 years
- NHL – 5.5 years
- NBA – 4.8 years
- NFL – 3.5 years
- MLS – 3.2 years
As you can see, baseball players are enjoying the longest professional careers on average – a full two years longer than their NFL counterparts. However, these stats still leave us with some significant problems. The biggest challenge is what the Godfather of Sabermetrics, Bill James, refers to as “white space.” As soon as players begin to decline below the top-tier professional level, they retire; making it impossible to track the rate at which performance diminishes.
Baseball Prospectus dug deeper into these numbers. They used multiple regression analysis and estimation models to fill in as much of the “white space” as possible. Ultimately, they found that in baseball, players of all positions tended to peak at 29. After that, their performances, on average, begin to suffer. For most players, the slightest drop-off is enough to end their careers. It’s only the intensely talented few who are able to continue into their late-thirties and forties.
Basketball players average 4.8 years in the NBA. However, we know this number is skewed by the enormous annual roster turnover. Many prospects enter the league between the ages of 19 and 22; after five years they’d just be approaching their peaks as players. This figure includes tons of statistical noise based on talent washing out well before their athletic primes are over.
In fact, for many players, the NBA is the first time they aren’t able to dominate the competition based on athleticism alone. Tons of gifted prospects breeze through the high-school and AAU levels before playing a single season in college and getting drafted. For the vast majority of their journey, they’re simply too big and fast for their opponents.
Once these players reach the top level, you see the limitations of physical “measurables.” There have been plenty of athletes in the NBA who could jump higher than LeBron James, and probably some who were quicker or even stronger as well. Very few, however, see the game as well as him. That’s why nobody ever called Stromile Swift, “King.”
To control for some of this noise – though nowhere close to all of it – we can look at the careers of Hall-of-Fame-level players, to observe when they were producing the most. These superstars at least had the luxury of staying in the league long enough to reach a definite peak and ride-out their decline long enough to collect some useful data.
Looking at the careers of 71 Hall of Famers, MVPs, and recent All-Stars, we find that 27.16 is the average age that these premier players turned in their most productive seasons. This typically occurred 5-years and 3-months into their pro careers.
Earlier, we discussed how different positions in football are impacted unevenly by aging. While running backs only have a brief window to maximize production before wear-and-tear and decreased speed end their careers, quarterbacks can overcome any physical limitations with experience and intelligence for much longer.
The statistic claiming the average length of an NFL career is 3.5 years is valid, but it doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about athletic decline. Instead, we are better served to take a closer look at the numbers above.
If you only include football players who make their team’s opening day roster their rookie season, the average raises to 6 years. Athletes who stay in the NFL for at least three seasons, last a total of 7.1 years, on average. First round picks remain in the league for 9.3 years, while Pro Bowlers typically stick around for an average of 11.7 years.
So, it appears that the shortened lifespan of an NFL career has as much to do with the incoming talent each offseason as it does athletic decline. There are also dramatically different responsibilities for each position, which makes finding anything concrete, especially challenging.
It’s likely that there’s a much stronger correlation between the physical demands and impacts per play for a position and career length. As I said earlier, I’m not sure runningbacks are declining so rapidly due to their age – it has more to do with the number of times they’ve touched the ball (and thus been tackled).
This is backed up by the consistent disappointment Alabama RBs have been in the NFL. A year or two prior to their rookie season, they’re a Heisman candidate but come into the league after being driven into the ground by Saban. By the time they’re facing pro defenders, they’ve been taking shots in the SEC for a couple of years.
When you look at the wide receiver position, there are some interesting variables at play as well. The effect age has on a receiver’s production largely depends on their natural playing style. Smaller, speedier, more explosive players tend to have a shorter window since they can’t afford to lose a fraction of their athleticism.
The WRs who have an easier time extending their careers are the expert route runners and possession receivers. In the past, this was a smoother transition for the bigger targets, but this new breed of tiny, shifty, slot/possession receiver is able to keep themselves on the field as well. They have a skill; an ability to use guile and veteran tricks to stay productive.
What it all seems to come down to is how much an athlete’s position or sport is based on physical attributes, and what percentage is determined by strategy and skill. The more you rely on athleticism and measurable traits, the shorter your career is destined to be – in most cases, anyway.
Combat sports tend to follow some of the same trends as other athletic endeavors, when it comes to performance and age, they deserve their own section because of the more jarring way it happens. Boxing and MMA both have seen their fair share of a generational superstars seemingly turning old and mortal overnight.
Although I must point out – boxing and MMA appear to be similar to football; it’s not the age of the athlete that dictates their decline so much as the damage they’ve absorbed and accumulated over their career. It all adds up, and there are permanent prices that are paid for every shot that lands, much less knockdowns and KOs.
As a quick aside, do you know why CTE is still more prominent in boxing than in MMA? The jab. Between the gloves and threat of kicks and takedowns, boxers aren’t standing in the pocket eating jabs nearly as often. Those sustained sub-concussive blows can be worse than a few flash knockouts when it comes to keeping your faculties into old age.
Anyway, depending on the fighter, the drop from champion to has-been can be blindingly steep. If a boxer’s fighting style is heavily predicated on speed and reaction-time, particularly if their quickness allows them some bad habits, their fall from grace will often be dramatic and alarming. Roy Jones Jr. versus Antonio Tarver comes to mind. He only had to slow down by a tiny fraction for what was a whiff a year ago to become a knockout punch.
Then consider how magnificently Floyd Mayweather was still fighting in his 40s. With his highly defensive style, Mayweather hasn’t taken much damage at all during his career. He was never knocked down, and only seriously hurt a couple of times. While Father Time certainly cost him a bit of speed, later on, Floyd never fully deteriorated.
Compare that to the beloved Muhammed Ali. Ali was in a handful of some of the all-time nastiest battles in boxing history. His incredible comeback win against George Foreman and the third bout against Joe Frazier are what cemented the GOAT’s legacy but also cost him dearly. By the time Ali fought Larry Holmes, he was already showing signs of Parkinson’s and was only 38!
Just like in boxing, an MMA fighter’s style has more to do with their longevity than their age. If anything, Mixed Martial Arts skews older, with the majority of the top champions in the sport’s short history in their mid-to-late-thirties. There could be a million explanation for why this is, but I believe I narrowed it down to two key reasons.
First, with so many different required skillsets, it takes a long time to master the many facets of MMA. You have to be able to punch, kick, wrestle, stop takedowns, clinch, and use submissions – or at least learn how to prevent them. By the time you’ve filled in all the holes in your game and learned how to put all the skills together, you’ve already been training for a decade or more.
An older fighter can stay relevant for much longer by leveraging their experience in the cage and advanced game plans or techniques to close the gap in speed or strength. The ability to grapple and clinch is a massive equalizer that often benefits a slower, stronger competitor over the quicker, more explosive one.
My second key reason is simply that the sport is very young. The UFC only re-emerged from being labeled “human cockfighting” by John McCain and banned outside of tribal casinos in 2001 after it was purchased by Zuffa. Without any mainstream attention or popularity, there weren’t many hot young prospects entering the sport.
At the very least, the young athletes that were flocking to MMA were all coming from specialized backgrounds. In the early Zuffa years, there were fighters beginning to round-out their skill-sets, like Tito Ortiz and Frank Shamrock, but nowhere near the level, they do today. Every competitor seemed to spend the majority of their life on a single discipline, then tried to learn the rest as quickly as possible.
Today, you’re seeing fighters enter top-level MMA that have trained in everything from the very beginning. The more they flood into the sport, the lower I expect the average age of champions to be. As everyone reaches a similar level of technical ability, athleticism will become more of a deciding factor again.
No matter which of the mainstream events you’re talking about, it seems that peak production in sports is reached between 27 and 29 years old. There is a gradual decline that lasts until the athlete is 32, at which time it speeds up significantly. Only a select few – usually in low-impact positions in their given sport – continue on through their late-30s and early-40s.
But how much longer will that be the case?
Looking at the data sets used for many of the statistics shared here, it doesn’t seem that advances in sports science have been considered. They merely pull numbers – in many cases decades old – from that athlete’s place and time, and tell us what age they were when they produced the most. Similarly, the average career lengths for each sport just pulls the breadth of every player’s career going back years, without highlighting any changes over that span.
I suspect that advances in medicine, dietary information, and exercise will lead to longer primes and later retirements in the near future. We’re already seeing this happen. It wasn’t long ago that a torn ACL took an entire year to recover, and then several more months before the player was anywhere near their old self. These days we’re seeing athletes make it back in 7-8 months, with many returning as good as new.
LeBron James says he invests roughly $2-million per year on his body, which includes a dietician, cryotherapy chambers, and a team of trainers and specialists keeping him in top condition. That combined with the NBA’s new philosophies on resting players and “load management” will undoubtedly result in longer, more productive careers.
There’s no easy answer to the question of “at what age do athletes begin to decline;” players in different positions in the same sport won’t even have the same answer. That being said, for most of the major professional sports in the US, a decent answer would be “32-years-old.” In most athletic endeavors, professionals enter their most productive years between the ages of 27 and 29. After a few years of gradual age-related decline, 32 marks that age when things begin to fall apart fast.
However, an athlete may begin to wither much sooner or later, depending on a variety of variables. In physical sports like boxing, football, and MMA, the amount of damage a competitor receives will directly impact their longevity. Defensive / elusive fighters who haven’t absorbed many shots to the head will retain their reflexes and sharpness for many more years. At the age Mayweather fought Pacquiao, Muhammed Ali was already showing some symptoms of Parkinson’s.
Similarly, an athlete’s longevity in football is primarily dependent upon the position. Runningbacks, which receive the most punishment – in terms of tackles and hits – have extremely short careers, and often lose their value after only a couple high-volume-carry seasons. Meanwhile, two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL are entering the 40s, aided by a pass-happy league and rules protecting them from hits.
The more an athlete depends on their raw athleticism to excel, the shorter their prime will be. Father Time always wins eventually, it’s just a matter of how long experience, technology, discipline, and skill can stave him off.