For all the advances that have been made in sport science, and tools like biofeedback and data analysis, there is one striking element of sports performance that the science cannot emulate or shortcut – tactical experience, and the wisdom and cunning that accompanies it.
The deciding factor between top and average athletes is often not physical or technical abilities but the intellectual capacity to foresee what is going to happen on the field in the next few moments.
A capacity that is arguably impossible to coach but can be the by-product of years of hard yards.
Now that funding and science has made the average sporting career longer, athletes are staying in the game longer, conceivably boosting this capacity.
Research would suggest that cumulative game time and racing experience can somewhat buffer physical decline, making the increasing average age of athletes in some respects an advantageous phenomenon.
Roger Federer is a great example of what a highly tuned anticipatory capacity can achieve. Based on numbers from Australian Open tournaments from 2014-16, Federer’s time to read and react to a serve is just 0.618 seconds.
Federer’s recent Wimbledon conqueror Djokovic, for the record, is seventh on the list of fastest returners at 0.638 seconds.
NASCAR is a motorsport series in which tactics and understanding what the car is doing are deemed as major elements of racing. Reflexes and daring are still needed; however Pontiac driver Johnny Benson argues, “It isn’t so much how far can you take a car into the corner as it is how can I make our tyres last so that they will still let me go into the corner the same way on lap 60 as I did in the first few laps.” Can only time on the tarmac teach you this?
Rugby is a sport which expects to lose large numbers to injury and has a normal professional career of just seven years. However, of the oldest 10 players at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the average age was a lofty 36.
With more than 1000 caps, that year’s All Blacks team was the most experienced team in international rugby history, and, at an average age of 29 years and 276 days, it was also one of the All Blacks’ oldest international teams.
Sport science would say the inevitable physical decline that comes with that age should have meant they lost.
So, was the deciding factor their tactical knowledge and ability to read the game that comes with those years?
This year, the current New Zealand men’s rowing eight has boosted both its average age and notably its performance, by including ‘veterans’ and Olympic Champions who have been winning since 2004.
The 2019 Silver Ferns World Cup squad called several players out of retirement and made few changes from their 2015 team. However, they defeated both the competition and the skeptics, perhaps with that accumulated and collective game play wisdom, in winning the title.
Research into this phenomenon is minimal. A UK study analysed 14,503 football matches played between the start of the 2008-09 season and the end of the 2015-16 campaign.
The quest was to see how performance differed between age groups. At first, the data seemed to support the idea that all age groups improved in performance as the season progressed, with the older players improving most.
Most notably, the improvement took place right at the end of the season, with a spike in output in the last two weeks. As this coincides with finals and the need for peak performance, does it imply an experienced capacity to perform under pressure?
The group that performed least well in the study was aged 21 or under, in this case proving experience really does count.
A 2006 study into Handball found “Age-declines seem to be more related to motor rather to perception skills”, while a 2011 study proved older road cyclists show better visual attention than sedentary older adults.
A lengthy 2014 research project showed the extended practice of martial arts was related to better peripheral vision and reaction speed over time.
And as an example of non-academic backup, in the words of the infamous football manager Jose Mourinho in criticising his player, “He is not reading the game properly. As a striker he must read. You have to play not when you have the ball, but when others have the ball. You have to anticipate things and read the game faster. Everything is an accumulation”.
The ‘art’ of reading the game, your opponent’s next move, or an intrinsic understanding of race tactics appears to be a vital part of competitive sport. Indeed, the ability to win, especially under pressure seems reliant on it.
Without it, all the physical training in the world may not make up for the experience that time in the game can bring.
However, for reasons yet unknown, some athletes have this vital game-reading, anticipatory cognitive skill that defies their youth.
Mike McRedmond coached 19-year-old Kiwi Campbell Stewart to two silver medals on the velodrome at the Commonwealth Games last year.
McRedmond, who won a silver medal himself in the sprint at the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games aged 24, said Stewart’s scratch-race ride displayed his ability to get in good positions.
“He has an ability to read a race really well. He is very aware of what is going on around him and where he needs to be at a particular time”.
And just to make the point of this entire article, by quoting McRedmond; “That’s something you cannot coach.”