Elite athletes are getting older. We know that players can give their best performance levels for longer now than they could a few decades ago. Training has become more sophisticated, players take better care of themselves and science has helped to understand what we must do to make fewer mistakes. In tennis, for example, the average age of the top 100 male players in the last decade has gone from 26.2 to an all-time high of 27.9 years old.1 In football, the average age of the players who took part in the Champions League between the 1992-1993 and 2017-2018 seasons, has increased by 1.6 years. Going from 24.9 in the first season analysed to 26.5 in the last one.2
However, we know much less about the age at which footballers reach their peak performance level, or about how much and in what way their performance level decreases from then on. Several recent studies could provide some proof on the relationship between age and performance in football. The conclusions of these studies suggest significant aspects to have in mind:
- There is a clear loss of physical performance in players over 30 years compared to younger footballers. After analysing 10,739 players from the Spanish La Liga during the 2017-2018 season,3 researchers discovered that the total distance covered by players over 30 is 2% lower than that covered by younger players. The distance covered, the number of high intensity efforts or sprints and the maximum speed reached also decreased significantly, between 5 and 30%. The loss of performance is especially drastic in those over 35. This trend was noted across all positions, even though players on the wings (wing backs and wingers) appear to experience a lower loss of performance level. This evolution of performance has also been observed in players taking part in the German Bundesliga.4 The total distance covered, the number of sprints (faster than 6.3 m/s for at least 1 second) and the number of fast races (faster than 5.0 m/s for at least 1 second) decreased by 3.4%, 21% and 12% respectively in players over 30 compared with younger footballers.
- However, the technical-tactical performance appears to be better in older players. The percentage of successful passes is 3-5% higher in players over 30 compared to players between 16 and 29 years old. It is possible that the deterioration in physical performance of younger players is compensated by an improvement in other skills such as decision making and game intelligence. Another study4 suggests that the synchronisation of the most senior players during competition (i.e. the coordination of their movements during the game) is better than that of younger players and improves with fewer training sessions.
The practical implications of these findings for training are:
- The combination of youth and maturity in a squad of players may be the best formula for success.
- It would seem necessary to individualise as much as possible the players’ preparation according to their age: they don’t all need the same training to reach the best version of themselves.
- When signing new players, the demands of the specific position must be considered. Perhaps clubs should not only sign very young players. When a deeper knowledge of the game is required it would be better to sign older players, and when a higher physical performance level is required then younger players should be signed. An experienced footballer would also perhaps need less time to adapt to a new club and would give their best from the beginning.
- Clubs could adjust the salary of the players to the expected performance levels according to their age.
- This is something that should always be carefully considered. Every player is unique. Their needs must be adapted to.
Carlos Lago Peñas
1 Kovalchik, S. A. (2014). The older they rise the younger they fall: age and performance trends in men’s professional tennis from 1991 to 2012. J. Quant. Anal. Sports 10, 99–107.
2 Kalén A, Rey E, de Rellán-Guerra A.S & Lago-Peñas C (2019) Are Soccer Players Older Now Than Before? Aging Trends and Market Value in the Last Three Decades of the UEFA Champions League. Front. Psychol. 10:76.
3 Rey E, Costa PB., Corredoira FJ. & de Rellán-Guerra AS (2019) Effects of physical match performance in professional soccer players. J Strength Cond Res. Awaiting publication.
4 Folgado H, Gonçalves B, Sampaio J. (2018) Positional synchronization affects physical and physiological responses to preseason in professional football (soccer). Res Sports Med. 26(1): 51–63.