Saturday, January 3, 2015

Nature versus Nurture

Just to kick things off with a little excitement, watch as much of this video as you'd like (there's not going to be a test at the end -- LOL).  By the way, although there's a lot of hockey mentioned in this post, I'm going to suggest that parents and coaches in other sports will ultimately find it interesting...

Okay, there's ultimately going to be a reason for that video.  But for now, the above title describes a battle currently raging in many areas of sport, although I'll suggest that it would apply to just about anything we humans do -- from jobs requiring special physical skills to those that call for super-critical thinking.
In layman's terms -- or for the sake of this discussion, those on the "nature" side of this argument believe we're born to be whatever, and one can't become outstanding at anything unless blessed with the right genetic makeup.  Those on the other side of the aisle feel one can "nurture" whatever God has given him or her, and become just as successful as those who were more blessed.
Of course, I have a couple of simple, common sense thoughts from where I stand...
1) I've read plenty about potential Mensa candidates spending their lives hugging a wine bottle on Skid Row, which suggests to me that their genetic genius didn't do them a whole lot of good.  Or, could it be that there was another, stronger gene over-riding the brainy one?
2) I think about a guy like Ted Williams, who I had the privilege to watch often as a kid growing up near Boston, MA.  I also know his story, being a youngster back then who devoured the sports sections of three daily newspapers.  From my personal observations, I can tell you that he wasn't the world's most gifted "athlete".  Actually, with that tall, "Splendid Splinter" frame, he was a disaster playing left field -- the best place they could hide him in the pre-DH days, and almost comical out there, really.  Still, anyone who knows about his background knows that he "made" himself arguably the best left handed hitter of all-time.  I mean, the stories -- about him paying friends to pitch to him when a teen, how he'd be seen practicing his swing with an imaginary bat while waiting at a bus stop, or how he'd stand for hours in front of a mirror swinging a rolled up magazine to perfect his swing.  It was said that he never went to movie theaters, either, for fear it would damage his eyesight.
My over-simplifications done, I can leave the rest of it up to others and the sciences.

Actually, as I research this topic for a coming, rather high level post, I notice that runners are into this more than a lot of other sportsmen.  In fact, long distance running experts go right to what is known about the Kenyans to support the "nurture" side of this issue.  Yup, the Kenyans begin running at a very early age, and they cover vast distances over a mountainous countryside as part of their daily living and their ultimate training.  The younger ones have an incentive, too, having watched those who came before them go on to better lives after winning top competitions around the world.
Those who have followed this Diary should have already gained a lot in this area, especially from my post on "A Challenge: For Life Beyond Limits".  In that entry I referenced Malcolm Gladwell, who believes it takes something like "10,000-hours" for one to reach an elite level -- at just about anything.  I also mentioned Daniel Coyle, who describes in his writings how the brain and muscles actually change with practice.  The point in both cases is that these authors (and others) believe very much in the possibility of "nurturing", and they provide lots of fodder to support their beliefs.
By the way...  How did all this come about?  It's because I happened to do a post called "Puckhandling Is A Mentality! (One “Sick” Goal!)", which kinda suggests that such a "mentality" can be encouraged in young kids.  Then, whether wise or not, I made that claim over in a LinkedIn hockey forum.  And, wow...

All heck broke lose, and there have to be close to a hundred responses to my post (which is likely good for my presence in search engines, but I've taken a beating from some over there).

In some instances, I suspect folks who hear my side of things misunderstand what I'm suggesting when it comes to that "mentality" thing.  What I'm really insinuating is that a good coach can "plant seeds" with really young kids, and get them to gradually act rather creatively with a puck.  (Others here might think in terms of handling a basketball or soccer ball, catching a football, or fielding a given baseball position with some pizazz.)

Notice that I said "a good coach" can create some minor miracles.  On the other hand, perhaps some of those who don't believe me haven't ever pulled off such a thing.  (Oh, well.)

With that, let me tell you all a little something that you might get a kick out of...

Balloon Dribble.jpgI always carried a bag of specially made balloons that had my logo on them, and a certain expression I'll tell you about in a few secs.
When blown up, those balloons are about the size of a baseball (or a puck)
I ask young ones to toss their balloon up in the air, and then attempt to keep it aloft with their stick.  Trust me, that they have their hands full in the start, and it takes awhile for little ones to keep the balloon up for anything like a half-minute.
Still, persevering, they do get it, and some will even start to laugh and hot-dog with the balloon.
At that point, I'll show them the cartoon-like print opposite my logo, that saying, "Go nuts!"  Ya, I ultimately want them to go nuts with that balloon, and to try all sorts of tricks.
Then, as if I haven't already been rather artful in my coaching approach to this point, I usually needle some kids and make a big deal out of others.  My point:  I want them to try to outdo those around them.  And, I'll take that a step further, having kids take turns showing the others their fanciest moves.  I'll even find a youngster who is trying something different, and I'll ask him to teach it to the others.
Now, I ask you, do you think it's possible to nurture creativity in a young hockey player's puck -- or to this point -- balloon handling?  Ha.  And, you'll have to trust me that, it's only a matter of a very short time before a little guy's work with the balloon translates to his puckhandling.  Actually, some play with a golf ball or Swedish stickhandling ball makes a great intermediate step, because either of those two balls is so lively, and either will encourage kids to move their hands pretty quickly.

Okay, about that video...  Every one of the featured players in it demonstrates some creativity with the puck.  Ironically, though, I've had 8- and 9-year old students who could perform most of the same moves -- honest to God.
What that video reminds me of, though, is something I started teaching my youngest kids eons ago...
I had been studying some video of Denis Savard performing his famous spinarama one day in my studio, and something struck me.  That very fancy looking move was actually a combination of two kinda simple moves that my kids had been doing in my clinics.
So, at the rink that night, I had my youngest kids -- about Mite and Squirt/Atom ages -- practice each of the basic moves separately.  I then showed them how to put the two moves together to make it the spinarama.  And, don't you know, those little guys were eventually doing their Savard impressions, and in both directions.
So, I have to ask again...  Can a REAL coach teach creativity or not?

Still, just because I know there will be some naysayers reading this, let me share something else...  There are other steps or progressions in the drills I've mentioned above.  I mean, once kids start getting creative with a puck, they have to be given a chance to apply those in combination practice-game situations.  I'm not going to share those here.  However, know that I do have my ways, and they're as effective as the other coaching techniques I've already mentioned.

Then, two final things...

I was a baseball and football coach in my youngest years, and I can tell folks that similar creativity -- or daring -- can be encouraged in those sports.  I promise that the same can be said about soccer.  And, you might ask, why bother?  Well, it's been my experience that such play translates to confidence, or a young player feeling very, very good about himself or herself.

Lastly, I'll soon be doing a post about genetics.  And, in it I'll be giving more fodder for why nurturing is the right way to think, and that it might even be wise to have athletes learn some of their sport's basic skills rather early.