How do sportsmen deal with ageing, other than raging against the dying of the legs?

Competitiveness – against peers or past greats – may prove the initial motivation. But how long can it drive a life or a career?

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At the Hay Festival this past week, Kazuo Ishiguro used a sporting metaphor to explore artistic responses to old age. Let me reverse the idea: do the same stereotypes apply to the pitch as to the printed page? How do ageing sportsmen reach an accommodation with “late style”?

As a young man Ishiguro believed novelists peaked at about 45. How much easier it is in football, Ishiguro pointed out, where tyros can reinvent themselves as maestros. “It’s simple – you drop back into midfield, don’t run around too much, put your foot on the ball and point a lot.” Now aged 60 and reluctant to accept his earlier thesis about novelists and old age, Ishiguro is “trying to think what the equivalent is for a novelist”.

He has identified three artistic models for responding to old age. The first is distillation, concisely summarising the themes of a career, represented in Ishiguro’s mind by Philip Roth’s Nemesis. Second, in the tradition of Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind and Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty, late works can “embrace the ageing process and beautify it without quite evading the inevitable sorrow”. (Poor old Sorrentino must be distraught. He’s only 45.) Finally, there is majestic denial, the “Neil Young method”: keep bashing on enthusiastically.

Ishiguro’s triad also illuminates sport. Distilled concision is a classic feature of champion athletes in their autumnal years. First, technical mastery usually eliminates the unnecessary. The Steve Waugh on-drive, once a full swing of the bat, became an iron-wristed punch; his cut shot morphed into a dismissive slap. He shrank his game and expanded his contribution.

Watching old footage of great players, you notice how much was refined before full maturity. Flowery bat-swings in cricket, exuberant ball tosses before the serve in tennis: stylistic frills, like unnecessary plot diversions, eventually are culled. Even artistic sportsmen understand that techniques must have something of the machine. As technique simplifies, the mind becomes less tolerant of waste. Late style is not about how many lines are spoken but about how many scenes can be shaped.

The Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso plays at a walking pace. “If, in the middle of that frenetic pace, you’re good enough to apply pausa, put the brakes on, feint and send the opponent flying ten metres past,” he says, “that gives you a real advantage.” Rather than more touches of the ball, he wants each touch to have greater impact. As the conceptual artist Dan Flavin said of his own work, it is at once minimalism and “maximalism”.

The weird aspect of sporting maturity is that it happens so early in life. An athlete’s career is played out in fast-forward. Professional and emotional maturity are wildly out of sync. Andrew Flintoff told me recently that his cricket career was practically over before he felt at his most confident as a person. Many sportsmen feel the same. By the time they’ve grown up, it’s gone. The period of critical decision-making and the exercise of power arrives frighteningly early. Only when they retire do sportsmen become young again as they rejoin civilian time.

In some careers, inevitably the longer ones, the emotional journey visibly informs the playing style. Alan Ross captured it well in his poem about David Gower:

                                   . . . A hedonist

In his autumn, romance lightly worn,

And now first signs of tristesse,

Faint strains of a hunting horn.

Late Gower’s gorgeous languor could not conceal an internal struggle. What I am doing out here? Why bother, after all I’ve been through? Is it still worth the effort? For the team management, it must have been difficult to observe such ambivalence. In Gower’s phrase, it either clicked or it didn’t. For discerning fans, however, the sense that Gower was following his will rather than leading it deepened the aesthetic experience.

The Neil Young method, cheerfully banging on, is the hardest for athletes. Jimmy Connors managed it, playing with the same willpower, even as he was being overtaken by the next generation. More often, when the losses begin to mount, caricature proves irresistible. Self-parody offers two forms of self-defence. First, it provides psychological removal from events (it isn’t really me out here: it’s an actor playing “me”). Second, it can distract and disarm the opponent.

Muhammad Ali’s increasing clowning around was designed to cloak his underlying decline – like a drunk who practises slurring even when he is sober. The act became the man and even those closest to him lost the ability to protect him from himself. Yet there was some method to the madness. In the late 1970s, the Ali circus tottered between competitive sport and pantomime – unless, of course, you were the boxer on the receiving end of a knockout punch.

Above all, sport and the arts share an odd relationship between ageing and competitiveness. Competitiveness – against peers or past greats – may prove the initial motivation. But how long can it drive a life or a career? In cricket, some batsmen play the bowler, plunging themselves into the duel. Others play the ball, neutrally removing themselves from the context of battle. Over a long career, most travel towards the latter position. Similarly, only a very few artists, such as Tom Wolfe, never lose the appetite for a good scrap. Most would prefer one last perfect achievement, however miniature.

In my own cricket career, my competitiveness declined as my technical accomplishment increased. By my late twenties I was a “better” player, but other aspects of life were becoming more fulfilling. So my performance remained consistent but the two engines never quite fired in tandem. This is the crucial distinction between sport and the arts: sport is less likely to sustain its practitioners for such a long time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article appears in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta