Book Review: Play On: The New Science of Elite Performance at Any Age

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© Copyright – 2018 – Athletics Illustrated

Title: Play On: The New Science of Elite Performance at Any Age

Author: Jeff Bercovici

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

ISBN: 9780544935327 – e-book

ISBN: 9780544809987 – hardback

Genre: Sports Science – Life Science

Pages: 248

Journalist Jeff Bercovici delivers a book for the ages. Well, he delivers a book for people who want to age playing sports at a competitive level or at the very least wish to remain very fit. This 248-page research project could sit on the bookshelf right next to the very popular Endure: Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of the Human Performance written by the former scientist and popular journalist Alex Hutchinson. Endure graced the top of the New York Times bestseller list in 2018.

Both books are written with plenty of first-hand experience by the authors as well as citing credible scientists, athletes and coaches.

While Endure was all about top-end performance and the next frontier, Play On is for athletes and coaches nearing the end of their peak age as well as competitors age 40 and 50 and beyond.

Play On is a contagious read from a scientific perspective. The book helps re-shape our understanding of age-related decline.

While Bercovici cites basketball star LeBron James, tennis legend Serena Williams and ageless marathon runner Meb Keflezighi, he also references top Canadian exercise physiologist Trent Stellingwerff as well as Dr. Bryan Kelly out of New York.

Kelly is a specialist in sports medicine injuries and serves as Team Physician for the New York Rangers, Orthopedic Consultant for UFC, Physician for the New York Giants and the New York Red Bull’s MLS team.

Stellingwerff is the Lead of Innovation and Research and Senior Physiologist working with the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific. He provides physiology and nutrition expertise primarily to Canada’s national track and field team, as well as leading Canadian Sport Institute’s Innovation and Research division.

Bercovici wasn’t fooling around when he was conducting research for Play On.

An overarching question that the author may be asking, is, how much of longevity is due to genetics versus modern training, science, and technology?

It is a fascinating question. If anti-aging is a modern-day holy-grail-like search, then slowing the decline in aging athletes is a quest for fire – very doable.

Seeking the answer, Bercovici commits considerable time with scientists, athletes, and coaches.

Examining changes that take place as we age, Bercovici writes about a broad range of exercise programs and the results. He also considers technology and dives deep into sports medicine.

Bercovici talks to Stuart Kim, a Stanford University professor who studies the connection between genetic inheritance and aging. Kim has identified over 10 million SNPs or Single-Nucleotide Polymorphisms.

“SNPs,” he writes, “are one-letter variations in the three-billion character novel that is the human genetic code.” Be prepared for some seriously interesting findings that Kim, also a genes hobbyist, gets thoroughly excited about.

Early on, Bercovici writes about 44-year-old National Hockey League player Jaromir Jagr and his apparent slow decline. Bercovici writes, “To say that Jagr — “Yags” to his teammates – is a man of unusual discipline and unique temperament is a considerable understatement.” Be prepared for a mild shock by the Czech-born athlete’s middle-of-the-night regimen, which is stacked on top of the dedication required to play professional hockey at the highest level.

Science and sport do not yet have a definitive answer about whether it is work alone or genetics that allow some athletes to continue to compete past typical peak age, perhaps the answer contains a portion of both. All of the athletes in this book have spent time at the top of their sport – in other words, they happen to be gifted naturally. But with hard work and new efficiencies in training techniques and a greater understanding of physiology, perhaps we are much closer to grasping for the grail or more likely sparking that fire.

Regardless of where we are at in the exploration of human performance and aging, this book is fascinating at the turn of every page.

Play On: The New Science of Elite Performance at Any Age is a recommended read for anyone who wants to try to defy the so-called laws of aging.