Sports and aging

Fascinating and terrific article in this past Sunday’s NYT magazine about sports and aging through the lens of Derek Jeter.  Even if you are only a casual sports fan (or have any interest in the physiology of athletic performance and aging) you should definitely give it a read. Really.   Lots of stuff, I really enjoyed learning about, especially how natural deterioration with age that we don’t notice at all with most activities, is crucially important to hitting a major-league-pitched baseball:

The pitcher-hitter confrontation is weighted against any hitter, but particularly older ones, because the batter’s success depends almost entirely on attributes that decline with age — eyesight, visual processing and fast-twitch muscle. Most big-league hitters tend to have good eyesight (they’re young), but even if they retain it into their 30s, it has probably already degraded in subtle ways. “There’s 20-20, and there’s amazing 20-20,” Don Teig, a Connecticut optometrist who works with professional athletes, told me. “You may still be able to read the line on the eye chart, but after your early 20s, you probably won’t see it with the same clarity and detail.”

According to Teig, the “visual-motor system,” as he called it — nerves and muscles that control the focusing of the lens, as well as the lens itself — becomes less supple with age. At the same time, an athlete Jeter’s age is going through changes in muscle composition that make him less explosive. Human muscle is made up of fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibers, which people have in different proportions. No matter what your starting mix is, you lose fast-twitch fibers before you notice a decline in overall muscle mass.

The article also looks at how steroids are uniquely well-suited to overcoming these aging effects and helps explain a lot of the amazing performances that baseball players in the 30’s had during the steroid era, when otherwise, players almost universally perform worse in their 30’s than their 20’s.  Good stuff.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to Sports and aging

  1. itchy says:

    I know there are tragedies throughout the world every day, but outside of those, this is the most personally depressing story I’ve read in a long time.

  2. Great article. I hate the Yankees, as I think you’ve heard me say many times; but if any fan doesn’t appreciate what Jeter has meant to baseball, then that fan just doesn’t understand baseball. I think Jeter has meant more to baseball, in the last 15 years, than anybody since Cal Ripken, who single-handedly saved baseball after the baseball strike in ‘95-’96.

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