Two thought provoking sports stories crossed my desk this week.
The first was about 81-year-old marathon runner, Joy Johnson of San Jose, California. On Sunday, November 2nd, Joy ran in her 21st consecutive New York City Marathon, where she not only successfully defended her age group (80 to 90) title for the sixth time in twelve years, but trimmed nearly an hour off her year-earlier time by finishing in six hours five minutes 58 seconds.
What is so interesting about Joy's story is that she never exercised or played sports while growing up in Minnesota and only began to run when she 57!
The second was an article in the November 5th edition of USA Today about Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, two 19-year-olds from small villages in India who are preparing to compete in a pitching contest that may land them Major League Baseball contracts.
Former Texas Rangers pitcher and current University of Southern California pitching coach, Tom House, has spent the last six months working with Singh and Patel, neither of whom had thrown a baseball until they were 18 years old. House remarked, "This is like medical science. It's turning raw athletes into pitchers. You wouldn't believe how far they've come."
To me, it is not so much medical science as it is common sense. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the arm of an 18-year-old with 50 innings under his belt is likely to be a lot fresher and a lot less injury prone than the arm of an 18-year old who has been throwing 300 innings since he was ten years old, like so many of our young pitchers.
In my book, Home Team Advantage, and on this website, I write extensively about the dangers of early specialization and the need to not only delay specialization but to limit participation and take time off from sports. I suspect that Joy Johnson is running marathons today in her 80's precisely because she wasn't an athlete when she was a child and thus didn't experience the sports burnout and crippling overuse injuries so many of our children are suffering today; burnout that turn them off to sports as adults and injuries that may make participation as adults physically painful if not impossible. I also suspect that Singh and Patel may succeed precisely because, and not in spite, of the fact that they only recently took up the game of baseball.
As one sixteen-year-old baseball player who had to undergo so-called Tommy John reconstructive surgery on his elbow after starting a mind-boggling sixty-four games one summer for a travel baseball team told The New York Times, "I'm [a] living example of someone who did too much. I would tell young kids coming up now, ‘Don't be such a hero. Take a rest. I look back now on all those games I won when I was fourteen or fifteen. They weren't worth it."
The lesson to learn from the stories of Joy Johnson and Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel? It's never too late to achieve success in sports, whether one is in their eighties or a fresh-faced nineteen year old.