How Elite Athletes Like Ronaldo And LeBron Have Adapted Their Games

How legendary athletes changed their games to prolong their illustrious careers.
16:35, 15 Sep 2021

Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal for Manchester United in their 2-1 loss to Young Boys last night showed his transformation in microcosm. A penalty-box finish with his first touch of the game underlined his transition from the tricky, step-over addicted winger of yore to a ruthless centre forward. Ronaldo has adapted his game to the extent that he is still one of the world’s finest players at the age of 36. He’s far from the only sporting legend to adjust their style and extend their career, here are some other examples of athletes who changed with the times.

Tiger Woods

One of the greatest golfers that has ever lived, the exertions of a glorious career caught up with Tiger when he underwent a series of back surgeries in the mid-2010s. The golf icon reportedly told friends “I’m done”, and few expected him to return to the sport. 

He would re-emerge in 2017 with an altered swing, adapting his approach with a smoother back movement to protect his injured area, and swinging more quickly than he had in years. A rejuvenated Woods would defy the odds to claim the 2019 Masters title, his first major championship in eleven years.

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Muhammad Ali

‘The Greatest’ fought his way to the heavyweight championship of the world as a fleet-footed, dancing blur of speed. Ali made himself borderline unhittable as he racked up nine defences of his crown. After a three-year suspension for refusing to be drafted for the Vietnam War, Ali returned as a changed fighter.

Unable to rely on the foot-speed that was his calling card, Ali turned into more of a boxer-puncher. The centrepiece of his transformation was the rope-a-dope strategy he unveiled against George Foreman in the Rumble In The Jungle. Absorbing the champion’s blows along the ropes, while wearing out the bigger man with clinches, Ali was able to knock Foreman out in the eighth round in Zaire. ‘The Louisville Lip' would reign as champion for four years, before trading the title with Leon Spinks in 1978.

LeBron James

‘King James’ had carved out a legacy as one of the NBA’s all-time greats, playing primarily at power forward or small forward. After claiming NBA Championships with Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers, the Space Jam 2 star switched to point guard upon joining Los Angeles Lakers in 2019.

This change put more responsibility in James’ legendary hands, requiring him to control the pace of games. The role of a point guard is similar to a number 10 in football, or a quarterback in the NFL, with a heavy emphasis on playmaking. The 36-year-old has seen his assist numbers rise since joining the Lakers, from an average of 6.7 per game at the Heat increasing to 8.9 in his three seasons in LA. The Lakers would clinch the NBA Championship in 2020, with James claiming the finals MVP award.

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Lothaur Matthaus 

Matthaus scored four goals from an attacking midfield position as Germany won the World Cup at Italia 90. Ten years later, he was patrolling behind his country’s defence as a sweeper at Euro 2000, aged 39 and playing his club football for MLS side MetroStars.

An all-action midfielder most famous for glittering stints at Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, Matthaus adapted well to a deeper role, carrying his playmaking smarts back into defence with him. The German international had been besieged by injuries, including a torn cruciate ligament and achilles tendon, and converting to defence helped prolong his career considerably.

Martina Navratilova

Navratilova retired from tennis in 1994 after collecting 18 major singles titles and numerous doubles honours. She returned to the tour in 2000, focusing primarily on doubles events. The incredible Czech would go on to break records in her second career, becoming the oldest winner of a major title when she clinched the Australian Open mixed doubles title in 2003. She would beat her own record three years later.

Martina’s decision to come back as an almost-exclusive doubles player allowed her to play until she was nearly 50, breathing a second life into what had already been one of the great tennis careers.

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