Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance.
A Sport Psychology Approach to Age and Ageing
By David Barracosa (PSY0001733584)
“Age is no barrier. It’s a limitation you put on your mind”
– Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
Whether an athlete is young or old, their age is often used to explain both outstanding and subpar performances. We are impressed by the play of athletes like 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios when beating Rafael Nadal on route to a Wimbledon quarterfinal, awed by the soccer players at the 2014 FIFA World Cup such as Andrea Pirlo and Mario Yepes who continue to hold a team together well into their 30s. But what impact, if any, does age actually have on the mental toughness of athletes, a skill necessary for those who want to grow and develop their game?
For athletes early in their careers, the focus on age by commentators and fans can seem a double-edged sword. When they compete with great efficiency and success, it can be attributed to their youthful exuberance and ability to play without fear due to people having lower expectations of their performance in relation to a more experienced opponent. But at the same time, when the overall quality of their performances drops and with it some of their success, their maturity and lack of experience is used as an explanation. Immediately I think about the critique of athletes who do not transition well to the pros following a one-and-done college career in the USA, or AFL experts commenting on the number of preseasons a player has under his belt. It may be true that some younger athletes have more work to do in developing maturity and mental toughness, but to suggest all young athletes cannot handle the pressures and expectations of elite sport due to immaturity is wrong. Maturity can be a reflection of someone’s mental toughness, which is developed, regardless of age, through focusing on the five key mental targets: communication, concentration, confidence, emotion and motivation.
At the other end of the spectrum, the comments made about sports veterans’ ages are usually about how their experience gives them wisdom, the ability to outsmart opponents and influence the game to suit their style. These factors often allow them to continue to compete at the highest level against opponents sometimes half their age, if not younger. However, these abilities are not just due to their experience, but rather a concerted effort to approach their chosen sport with mental discipline, reflective of a high degree of mental toughness. An athlete can play a sport for decades without developing the mental skills necessary to develop and grow. This at times is visible in those athletes that are on the fringes of major success but are unable to rise to the occasion and have the mental application to their sport.
But despite the attention given to the age of athletes, from a sports and performance psychologist’s position, age is just a number. We can’t control the date we were born; nor is our age something we are able to change.
At Condor Performance, we believe mental toughness is something that can be developed. It does not simply come with being a veteran of a certain sport, nor does youth preclude athletes from having a strong understanding of it. Children, teenagers and adults, regardless of how little or how long they have been playing a sport, have the capacity to build and maintain mental toughness if they chose to work on it. This allows younger players to perform at higher levels than would otherwise be possible and means older individuals can continue to play despite physical limitations. To highlight this idea, consider the work of 17-year-old Dominic Solanke who recently made his UEFA Champions League debut for Chelsea as well as the likes of 36-year-old Dirk Nowitzki who is still regarding as one of the best scorers in the NBA or even Colombian goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon who became the oldest player to compete at the FIFA World Cup when he was brought on at the age of 43.
Those with higher levels of mental toughness acknowledge what they are experiencing in the present moment and focus their attentions on making the most of these circumstances. Worrying too much about how many candles are on their birthday cake does not provide athletes or coaches with much benefit when it comes to training or competition. A more useful mindset would be to focus on an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, which can shift as they transition through their career, and plan ways to optimise these through execution of effort. Being too young or too old is no excuse for someone to give less than 100% in their respective arenas. At the end of the day, it simply comes down to the choices people make. It is for this reason that age does not affect a person’s capacity to develop mental toughness.