I spent a vigorous hour on the tennis court yesterday with my old (actually young) nemesis, The Baseline Machine. I won’t bore you with the details except to say that I leapt out to a three-games-to-one lead only to find my game quickly deteriorate as TBM swept the next five games to cap a 6-3 set victory.
Tennis, for those of you unfamiliar with the sport, is all about muscle memory and motor skills. The ball comes your way, you measure the distance between your body and the head of the racquet, place your feet in the proper relationship to where you want to send the ball and give it a whack. When everything aligns, the sound of the racket hitting the ball is as satisfying as almost any sound in sport, as far as I’m concerned. (I’d compare it to the pleasant thwack I hear when I hit a golf ball 250 yards straight down the middle of a lush green fairway, but I can’t recall ever managing to do that.)
I’m nearly a dozen years older than TBM, so I’ve always been able to claim some disadvantage due to my advanced age, but now I see that new research from the University of Texas at Arlington has rendered that excuse moot. The study suggests there is no substantial difference in motor skills between twentysomethings and geezers in their early 60s.
“We have this so-called age decline, everybody knows that. I wanted to see if that was a gradual process,” the study’s co-author, Priscila Caçola, an assistant professor of kinesiology, said in a statement released by UT Arlington. “It’s good news really because I didn’t see differences between the young and middle-aged people.”
Before a person moves, the theory goes, the brain has to make a plan. So Caçola and her colleagues compared the time the study participants (who ranged in age from 18 to 93) needed between imagining the move and actually moving. And they found very little difference in performance between younger and middle-aged participants — at least up to a point. Apparently after you hit 64, all bets are off. (Which reminds me of that old Lennon-McCartney tune.)
“What we found is that there is a significant drop-off after the age of 64,” noted co-author Jerroed Roberson, a senior kinesiology major at UT Arlington. “So, if you see a drop-off in ability before that, then it could be a signal that there might be something wrong with that person and they might need further evaluation.”
The good news is that I don’t think Roberson was referring to my lame backhand or my general inability to keep a cross-court passing shot inbounds yesterday, so I’m going to assume that I can avoid “further evaluation.” The bad news? I’ve got another two-and-a-half years before I can blame my lousy serve on my advanced age.