At which age a person is likely to achieve his or her peak performance?
A good question! A logical and primary place to start is with cognitive flexibility, or the ease with which one can switch between thinking about two different concepts. Maybe even think about two different concepts simultaneously. Some call it “sharpness,” and research shows it peaks between the ages of 21 and 30. This is true so long as you completely nullify practical observations and heavylifting. This is more of a tech-driven narrative that youth is the key determinant of success. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said something similar, “Young people are just smarter.”
BUT, Zuckerberg wasn’t just being impolite. He was utterly and hilariously wrong, at least according to the latest science.
According to a study conducted by MIT in conjunction with the U.S. Census Bureau, analyzed 2.7 million people who started companies between 2007 and 2014 and found that among the fastest growing tech companies, the average founder was 45-years-old at the time of founding. The study also penned down that a 50-year-old is twice as likely to have a massive success—defined as a company that performs in the top 0.1 percent—than a 30-year-old. “These findings strongly reject common hypotheses that emphasize youth as a key trait of successful entrepreneurs,” write the authors of the study. “The view that young people produce the highest-growth companies is in part a rejection of the role of experience.”
So what does that imply: fast paced or start-up dense, or both, success in business isn’t just about age-related smarts. Wisdom matters a great deal too.
Could the same be said for Sports?
Not with certainty, but contemporary performances suggest so. From a physiological perspective, research shows that athletes tend to peak in their early to mid twenties. But then again, some champions are beating the odds and making exceptions: Des Linden (34), Shalane Flanagan (36), Meb Keflezighi (38), Roger Federer (36), Anthony Ervin (35), Serena Williams (35), Novak Djokovic (31), and Rafael Nadal (32) to name just a few.
“You don’t need to be 25 years old to have your greatest performance,” says seven-time mountain bike world champion Rebecca Rusch, who, at age 47, was part of the third party ever to summit Mount Kilimanjaro via bike. “I’m still improving and having some of the best days of my career. I may not be as strong or have the same VO2 max as when I was younger, but wisdom is the great equalizer. I’m smarter about things like nutrition and race tactics, and I have a special self-knowledge that only results from years of experience.”
Alpine climber Jimmy Chin has said that perhaps his best ever performance was a first ascent up Mount Meru, which he accomplished at age 37 on an expedition with Conrad Anker, who was 48 at the time.
“Youth is wasted on the young,” says Chin. “I’ve had conversations with other climbers about surviving 28. At that age you may think you have enough experience to really go for it, but in reality, you still haven’t seen that much and whatever experience you do have can be easily outweighed by brashness and impatience.”
Shiva Keshavan, 38, is one of the most renowned names when it comes to winter sports. Keshavan, who hails from Manali, Himachal Pradesh is the current Asian record holder in Luge. He is a five time Olympian and the first Indian athlete to compete in Luge at the Winter Olympics. Leander Paes, at 41, has won eight doubles and seven mixed doubles Grand Slam titles. He is still going strong and could win a few more in the coming years. Sushil Kumar, 36, is a former World Champion and a two time Olympic medalist is currently one of the best wrestlers in the country. The list can go on.
Need I mention Mahendra Singh Dhoni? His feats and strike rate is off the charts. He is 39.
Maybe the best way to conceptualize age and athletic performance is to imagine two curves: one for physiological fitness, which peaks relatively young and then slowly declines; and another for wisdom, which starts off low and gradually rises over time. When these two curves intersect, you’re primed for your best performance.
The slope of these curves varies by task. For example, in sports that rely heavily on physiological fitness—like sprinting 100 meters—the decline of the fitness curve would be steeper than in a sport like alpine climbing or orienteering, where pure fitness matters less and wisdom gained through experience matters more.
Lots of athletes intuitively follow the logic of these curves. It’s quite common for runners and triathletes to go up in distance as they age. This makes sense. A marathon requires a lot more wisdom than a 5K and an Ironman requires a lot more wisdom than a sprint triathlon. In the study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (year 2013), it was found that the median age for a first-time ultra runner is 37 and the median age of all ultramarathon finishers is 43—seven years older than the median age of all marathon finishers in the same year.
All of this, points toward a greater theme: Peak performance is complex, and results from a combination of variables. Sometimes the variables that are hardest measure, like experience, matter the most. So try not to sulk at your next birthday—Whatever you’re giving away in age you’re gaining in wisdom.
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