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Prime Time is Only a Construct

Professional Sport Needs to Re-Evaluate Every Athlete’s Prime

Patrick Kane celebrates after scoring the winning goal against the Blackhawks at the United Center on Sunday. AP

On Sunday, Blackhawks legend Chris Chelios joined his family, friends, and thousands of fans as his jersey number was officially retired. A recurring theme throughout the ceremony was not just his on- and off-ice performance, but the sheer length of his NHL career. Chelios, who eventually retired at the remarkable age of 48, holds the record for most games played by a defenseman – a staggering 1,651 games. During his speech, he turned to Patrick Kane with a playful challenge: "Just don't go stealing my thunder today!"

A few hours later, 35-year-old Patrick Kane did just that. He reminded everyone in the United Center that he's still Showtime, burying the puck (and the Blackhawks) in an overtime breakaway. The deafening roar of the crowd made one thing clear: every Blackhawk fan knows Kaner's still got it.

Time is Not the Enemy

Professional sports often view injuries or declines in veteran players as inevitable – a result of aging. They quote “Father Time is undefeated” and assume there's nothing to be done.  And, in the broadest sense, that’s true. The greatest players of any generation will eventually retire and younger players will take their place and the cycle will repeat itself. But this oversimplification ignores our rapidly changing world. A decade ago, Uber and online dating were radical; now they're commonplace. Teams need to adapt just like we have.

Today's athletes are different from past legends. They train with a level of sophistication unimaginable in the 20th century. Think of Babe Ruth's wasted potential – now picture what he could have done with modern sports science. We understand biomechanics, nutrition, and the complex factors driving performance more deeply than ever. Greatness doesn’t happen by accident. The amount of time, energy, focus and effort that elite athletes like Patrick Kane put into their body and their craft is remarkable. In the off-season, Patrick Kane works with us at Tomahawk Science for two hours a day on different facets of performance and that’s just 8% of his 24-hour daily process. 

LeBron also proves why blaming decline solely on age is a fallacy.  People wonder how he's still so dominant at 39, but time itself isn't the problem. Time impacts the body and the brain: stability loss can lead to injury, imbalances reduce explosiveness, fatigue hampers reaction speed, and decision making is poor when the brain runs out of oxygen. These are the factors to address, not some arbitrary timeline. This change in thinking is crucial. Anthony Davis remarked that “LeBron sleeps more than anybody I know.” Tomahawk Science athlete and soon-to-be-NBA-star Matas Buzelis gets 11 hours. Shohei Ohtani gets 14. LeBron, Matas and Ohtani get it.

Limiting assumptions about a player's "prime" harm us all. We sweep the real, fixable issues under the rug, failing the very athletes we cheer for. Without pinpointing the root causes, how can we expect improvement? This outdated mindset has negative consequences throughout the entire world of sport.

How it affects players...

  1. I’m Only Young Once. Many younger players don’t get ahead of their self-care and training because they’ve already put their careers in a time box. If you were told you had one more year to live you might start smoking cigarettes and get into bungee jumping. And why not? If we redefine the narrative that players can play longer, we could foster new expectations that prioritize preventative care so athletes no longer wait until there’s a problem and then furiously work to turn back the clock. 

  2. Over-reliance on Invasive Solutions. Athletes who suddenly start running into limitations as they age often end up deciding on more drastic and high-risk solutions like surgery as a quick fix vs. a more intentional plan that sets them up for long-term success. 

  3. Talent got me here - talent will keep me here. Many athletes believe, “Doing more of what I’ve always done will keep me performing at a high level…..If I can’t do what I’ve always done, I’m done.” Addressing this one-dimensional mentality opens up new pathways to success that complement natural changes in physiology and performance.

  4. The Power of the Mind. if you’ve convinced yourself you’re old, you set your sights on not getting worse vs. getting better. Age is just a number. A 35 year-old player is not an old human being.

  5. Ageism. After the Lakers’ 2020 NBA championship, Tom Brady tweeted, “Congrats to my brother @KingJames on winning his 4th championship. Not bad for a washed-up old guy!” Sadly, like in many professions, ageism is part of pro sports. Brady, quite justifiably, isn’t buying into it. Tom Brady gets it.

How it affects trainers...

  1. A Use it or Lose It Mentality. Because of the perception of limited prime years, sacrifices are often made for short-term results that lead to long-term, career-limiting (or ending) conditions. You can open a door with a sledgehammer but then you’ve got a broken door. Strength coaches used to beat the body up (no pain, no gain), and bent science to fit their agendas, but now there are sound theories, methods and tools that can safely get professional athletes to peak physical performance and keep them there. 

  2. Impersonal one-size-fits-all Training. Every athlete is unique. But a broad assumption around career length can create a group support mentality that doesn’t take into consideration the individual player’s unique factors for success, often resulting in assessment and training and even nutrition plans that are suspiciously similar for a 6’ tall, 200 lb 22-year-old as a 5’ 9” 175 lb 34-year-old in totally different sports. In truth, at the professional level, every athlete deserves solutions personalized to their individual needs.

How it affects owners and management...

  1. It’s only a rental! The business of sport has many organizations treating players like rental properties rather than long-term investments.  When we acknowledge players have more long-term value we are more likely to take care of them.

  2. Overlooking a major competitive advantage.  In many sports, teams are limited by how much they pay their players. They’re not limited in how much they can invest in making sure those players are able to play in their prime for as long as possible. A select few organizations have started to invest in sports science personnel to maximize their returns on athlete performance. While encouraging, this trend is only scratching the surface of what should be standard across sports.

Time is on Our Side

The reality is there is an inflection point in every athlete's career where their physical performance naturally declines. This drop off is often met with a relative increase in intelligence quotient AKA the player’s mental mastery of their sport. For instance, tissue naturally changes with age - it is finite, so the deciding factor is prolonging tissue quality as long as possible. If we can delay these physiological drops and make prime physical performance better align with players’ increasing mental mastery we end up with athletes like a 30-year-old career-best Patrick Kane and a 35-year-old NBA champion LeBron James.  

In fact, LeBron didn’t mince words when asked about how he’d stack up against his 27 year old self, saying, “He would dominate him." and even with “all that super athleticism” that younger LeBron would have “no chance.” But that’s not without a reason, reports say LeBron spends $1.5 million per year on his body because he, “treats it as an investment.” Not every individual athlete requires that level of investment (this is LeBron we’re talking about) but the concept of proactively investing in your body will benefit every athlete.

The simple fact is if we resign ourselves to not proactively helping players and chalking loss of overall performance up to the inevitability of time we’re shortchanging every athlete’s potential and limiting their peak.  

Ultimately we need to focus on building a better understanding of how much these remarkable athletes truly have to give and be there to support them on their journey.  You can call what we do at Tomahawk Science biohacking, body engineering, holistic training or even “Jedi shit”. But the reality is athletes are high-performance humans ready for high-level solutions. The resources are available, the incentives are clear and sports science is ready to take everyone to the next level. Human beings used to live to 70 and play until 30; now we live to 100; so why can’t we play until 50? I know that’s Patrick Kane’s plan. Because in the wise words of Prince, “Time is a mind construct. It's not real.”  And if we start treating it that way we’ll all win. Or as “Prince” also said, “Game, blouses.

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