They Don't Play Harder — They Play Smarter
For all of us, the only real bright spot about getting older is getting wiser. And it's the same for pro athletes. "I liken it to Spider-Man," says Woodson. "When Spider-Man's in a situation, everything slows down. That's how it is for an older player. Things are moving fast around you, but you have that extra sense."
Athletes also use their talents in more focused, strategic ways. "Early in my career," says Steve Smith, "I had a coach tell me, 'Technique beats speed every time,' and I was, like, 'Man, that's what slow people say.' Now I understand that it's not about how fast you can run that one route one time, it's about how consistently you can run it perfectly. Like, I don't have to run 100 miles an hour; I just have to understand the defense and utilize my technique at the beginning of the route to put doubt in that cornerback's instincts, so he doesn't know what I'm doing. Then at the end of the route, I do utilize my speed — but just enough to get that separation."
Wisdom also means developing emotional intelligence. "Some of it is a matter of these people being incredibly internally motivated," says Joyner, of the Mayo Clinic. But even motivation takes cultivation, and many older athletes talk about maintaining it just like they work to maintain muscle. "In my own draft class, there are guys who got picked in the top 15 whose careers were over seven years ago," says Smith. "But guys like me and Reggie Wayne and Santana Moss, we're still playing and still relevant. And sure, there are days where I'm like, 'I don't know why in the hell I'm doing this, I can just go home!' But I've learned to pull motivation from somewhere else — like being grateful, or telling yourself they just drafted a kid who wants your job."
But perhaps the best source of motivation is pure and simple love of the game. "I think of it like an old-school car, at a car show," Smith says. "Only the owner knows how much time it took to warm that baby up and to get it to the show — how you had to change the old-school spark plugs and wiggle that battery. But the fans don't care, and once you put on that uniform, you're saying, I'm ready to play."