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The Boston Globe

Sports

How older athletes keep their heads in the game

The day before the NHL’s April 3 trading deadline, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli called 41-year-old Dallas Stars forward Jaromir Jagr. Bruins president Cam Neely and assistant GM Jim Benning were also on the line. The four men had a deal-determining conversation.

“A condition of the trade was that we called and spoke with Jaromir before the trade,” said Chiarelli. “Jaromir has never been traded during the season. So this is all new to him.

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“This was a guy who was one of the best in the world, and you really have to see what you’re going to get at an age when he’s not the best in the world. We had to see mentally if this player was ready to play for us and possibly go on a long playoff run.

“I wanted Cam to speak with him, like superstar to superstar. And I wanted Jaromir to be comfortable with what we were selling. It was out of respect for where he’s been and what he’s done.”

As professional athletes push their careers well past the age of 30, gauging mind-set becomes increasingly important for the teams that invest many millions in them. From Jagr to defenseman Zdeno Chara, 36, to forward Shawn Thornton, 35, the Bruins know the value of veterans with the right mentality.

When asked about Chara appearing ageless, Thornton said the Bruins captain is “the hardest-working guy I’ve ever seen because he enjoys it, not because he has to. If you have that mentality, you can stretch it out a little bit longer than the average person maybe.”

The best predictor of career longevity may be the athlete’s mental approach. Dr. Michael Joyner, who studies elite athlete physiology at the Mayo Clinic, said, “The people who can focus and not get distracted by the fame and the money associated with being a pro are likely to do the best over time.”

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While athletes 30 and older follow different training routines and swear by different treatments for sore muscles, their mind-sets can be remarkably similar. Dozens of athletes were interviewed for this report, and all spoke about the importance of staying disciplined and maintaining a passion for competition.

Before he retired as a player this month after 19 seasons in the NBA, Jason Kidd, 40, said, “I love the competition. That’s the biggest draw for me.”

Still, players of a certain age also spoke of how growing older can be more of a challenge mentally than physically.

Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, 37, said: “With athletes like KG [Kevin Garnett], [Tom] Brady, my boy from the Bruins [Chara], the mind-set is that even when they don’t feel like going, their mind is telling them, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get it done.’

“These guys, they’re not just great athletes because of God-given ability to be able to perform. It’s their minds. If you look at KG, he’s ready to beat you up. If you look at Brady, this guy is like, ‘I’m coming to get you, son.’ ’’

Added Celtics guard Jason Terry, 35: “My body doesn’t recover as quickly as it used to. When you’ve played four games in five nights, your legs are pretty much shot by that fourth game. So, mentally, you have to put a lot into it when you know your body physically shouldn’t be able to do it.”

The mental investment extends to all aspects of an older athlete’s life. Watching younger players speed past, putting more time in training to get the same results, paying more attention to diet and weight gain, dealing with declines in ability and stamina all take a mental toll. It requires a special brand of inner toughness to fade from being a superstar to a more strategically used player.

To help with that transition, some teams employ sports psychologists. Don Kalkstein, who works with the Dallas Mavericks and Texas Rangers and served as a Red Sox consultant from 2006-11, focuses on finding ways players can help produce wins as they age.

Older players must understand that having an impact means something different now, he said.

“Instead of being able to take over a game as an individual and dominate from a physical standpoint, it’s about transferring that to playing 16 minutes a night,” said Kalkstein. “You’re constantly working on that process, on identifying where impacts can come from.

“While it might seem a small part on the end-of-the-day result, it’s a huge part in developing a championship organization.”

Savvy, intelligent players tend to handle the ups and downs of aging better than others. They outthink opponents, drawing on experience and competitive guile.

“Your mental game is going to go up automatically as you get older,” said 32-year-old Tracy White, a former Patriots linebacker. “A lot of people rely on their technique more. If you can keep up on the physical side and you’re smarter than the younger guys, that’s a good combination.”

While physical decline influences when players retire, the mental side plays an equally large role. When older players tire of the grind, of getting up at 5 a.m. for workouts, of moving to another city on another one-year deal, they know it’s time to move on. Near the end of their careers, many players have different priorities like growing families that make seasons with lots of travel even tougher.

“As a 36-year-old in my last NBA game, I felt like I still had basketball left in me,” said Celtics president Danny Ainge. “I felt like I could still do what I had always done. I wasn’t as quick. I wasn’t as athletic as I had been in my youngest years, but I was smarter.

“I couldn’t play for 40 minutes, but I felt like I could play 25 minutes and still make similar contributions. I had opportunities to continue to play and I chose not to. I had six kids at home at the time and didn’t want to relocate just to go chase another year.”

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com

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