At UFC on Fox 29, a battered and bruised, long time MMA favorite Carlos Condit was choked unconscious. The former champ found himself the loser of his last four fights and questioned himself post-fight on whether he “still had it or not”.
On the same fight card, a young, dangerous prospect and title contender, Justin Gaethje headlined the card against a long time, surging veteran and fellow title contender, Dustin Poirier and they put on an instant classic. It ended violently for Gaethje and in his post fight loss, he explained how he is not in it for titles but in it to put on a violent show for the fans and that based on this mentality, he has about 5 more fights left in what is a relatively young career.
On the hardwood of the NBA playoff basketball court, a resurgent Dwayne Wade, once again reunited with the team synonymous with his soon to be hall of fame career was able to go back in time to his athletic prime and single-handedly carry his team past a surging young Sixers squad that had a ton of momentum and had not lost in over a month.
I was always fascinated with the affect of age on high level performance, especially when it comes to athletics. Diminished physical, athletic ability with age is an inevitable reality for the athlete. At the highest professional level of sports, the difference between winning and record setting, is incremental and even fractional. It’s somewhat redundant, but diminished physical abilities with age affect an athletes ability to perform at the same level as in their prime as well as maintain their position as an elite performer, record holder, or even a victor in competition. How much of this is the physical degradation of the athlete versus the mental aspect of the athlete when it comes to age?
Is the youth and vigor that leads an athlete to be aggressive and attacking vs cautious and calculated what causes the athlete to lose their position on top of their sport? There are countless examples of the old athlete channeling the youthful mentality and energy on a given night and performing as if in their athletic prime, i.e. the aforementioned Dwayne Wade. Perhaps the bigger questions is how frequently can this be channeled and how sustainable is it for the aging athlete?
Since flow states of peak athletic performance seem to be achieved instinctively and subconsciously, is it possible for the aging athlete, despite their compromised physical attributes, be able to deliberately get into this peak state at a moments notice and sustain it for long periods of time, or as long as their physical body will allow barring catastrophic injury? When we see an athlete like Carlos Condit on what appears to be an athletic down slide and facing brutal consequences, is it because his physical gifts are so compromised that the results are inevitable against younger competition, or is this a mental state that has the aging athlete consciously acknowledging the diminished gifts and as a result conceding defeat before each contest takes place?
Does a guy like Gaethje solve the aging athlete dilemma? He has decided to fight with an unbridled intensity and violence like sort of a young hungry animal, regardless of the stage, the opponent, or the circumstances. His priority is not a victorious outcome or sporting prize or accolades, but rather recreating this intensity with each contest. This mentality is to the point where he realizes he is on borrowed time or has a limited window to sustain this approach, or “five more fights” as he said. If he makes good on his goal it is an approach and mentality that is counter to that of the conventional aging athlete. The conventional aging athlete’s mind set and approach seems to be to get into a peak state and channel their youth for select moments depending on the stakes at large and their current compromised, physical state. This puts the the aging athlete in a precarious spot as far as when they can channel this youthful performance and at what cost. Gaethje’s philosophy removes the arbitrary and unpredictable nature of the conventional aging athlete’s approach by believing that there is a limited window in which the athlete can consistently sustain peak performance so that the performance will only take place within that window and not after that window closes. This is an interesting philosophy that is a pure, honest assessment of what the athlete is and what the athlete will be capable of, nothing more or nothing less. It avoids the delusion and denial that is prevalent with many aging athletes about where they are athletically in their career and what they are capable of at an advance age and which many times leads to tragic results.
Seeing a guy like Dwayne Wade defy age and critics and channel his prime self is something to behold and addresses one of the fundamental appeal of sports,which is seeing someone physically defy the odds. At the same time, seeing a guy like Gaethje who knows the limits of his ability and chooses to approach it with wreck less abandon is equally fascinating. Regardless of which philosophy the athlete believes and which approach they choose to take, the affect of age on the athlete can’t be denied and inevitably age becomes the athletes biggest opponent.