Thursday, February 25, 2016

Duped By Faulty Logic

I'm not sure where to begin with this one, but maybe it's best to first explain what set me on fire...
As readers know, I like to follow goings on in various hockey and other sport forums.  And it was one such group having mainly to do with skate sharpening and pro shop operations that recently got me flying at my keyboard.  Discussions there are usually kept at a fairly high level, but some odd posts do seem to slip through the cracks.
What I'm talking about is a post that had absolutely nothing to do with skate sharpening, or much else that takes place in a typical pro shop.  Naw, it was purely a poorly disguised advertisement hyping the need for figure skating training in a hockey player's development (or, maybe it was just there to tick me off). 
The initial post/ad contained a subtitle noting, "Did you know Carolina Hurricanes forward and 2010 Rookie of the Year Jeff Skinner was once a competitive figure skater?"  A little later down the stream, one guy even added, "Gretzky was a figure skater....".
My first reaction was to cringe, and my second was to envision a picture of a given specimen with the caption underneath:  "If I found an NHL player who tried sumo wrestling when young, what would it prove?"

What I pretty quickly realized was that I was referring to "logic" here, and that got me scurrying for a definition of that term...
Merriam-Webster provided first a "Simple Definition of logic" as "a proper or reasonable way of thinking about or understanding something", then a little later adding, "the science that studies the formal processes used in thinking and reasoning".
Hmmmm...  "The science that studies the formal processes used in thinking and reasoning."

A little more surfing brought me to the realization that we're really talking about "cause and effect" here.  In other words, one might suggest that practicing figure skating caused a hockey player to achieve a high level of play.  Or, maybe we could say that my tongue-in-cheek logic suggests that a youngster's dabble with sumo wrestling can provide a shortcut to the NHL.

I hope readers see the reason I used such an extreme as sumo wrestling.  I mean, if we're talking cause and effect here, it makes sense that we explore all the possible causes that might go into affecting a given, desired outcome.  For example, is it possible that more players in the National Hockey League practice a specific religion, thus making that practice a shortcut to the pros?  Or, could we say that, because there might be more French surnames among NHLers, a youngster growing up in Brazil with a French last name has a better chance of playing high level hockey than a kid named Smith growing up in Toronto, Ontario?
The current mental tussle with logic ultimately had me thinking about comparing two other sports that have a lot of similarities.  Ya, I'm talking about baseball and cricket.  Oh, I know there have been a few former cricket players who switched to baseball in their teens, and then made it to high levels.  However, this I found just now...
"Ian Chappell, who represented Australia in both cricket and baseball (one of the few countries that plays both sports with vigor), believes that such a spectacle wouldn't be worth anybody's time. At the thought of cricketers playing a baseball game against baseball's best, he told the British cricket publication Spin in 2005: 'It wouldn't be worth it. There would be no contest, absolutely no contest ... Cricket's batsmen would struggle to get bat on ball, never mind hitting a home run.'"
Presumably, he would say the same about Major Leaguers taking on England or Australia in cricket.
Aaaah, but how about another cross-over, this time from floorball to hockey?  Well, although we can find numerous mentions that many European born NHL players either grew up playing floorball or used that sport for off-season training, I've yet to find stats on just how many.  One thing I do find interesting, however, is that Hockey Canada goes out of its way to promote floorball as a cross-trainer, while I've yet to hear them suggest either figure skating or sumo wrestling.

Okay, so let's get back to some logic here.  And, to do so, I'll suggest a need to prioritize the skills and attributes that go into being a successful ice hockey player...
I have no doubt that a poll on such a subject would have almost everyone rating skating as the most important skill of all.  But, is it really?  If that was the case, wouldn't the best skater in the NHL also be its top player?  
If you ask me, a hockey player can't really contribute at a high level without a bunch of other skills, without certain physical qualities, and without some special knowledge.  
Who are the best players in hockey -- at almost every level?  I'd say pretty good puck skills put most of them near the top, and I'd also suggest that they tend to think the game on a slightly different plane than most others. 
Where do most top players rank in their skating skills?  It's quite possible they're "up there", but not necessarily when it comes to technique.  I mean, the most effective players I know would be considered elusive attackers, and quick footed defenders.  (As I so often joke, our game doesn't include judges at rinkside holding placards with ratings of "9.9", 9.8", etc.  No, prettiness doesn't really matter in our game.) 
More than anything, though -- and I've written the following many times over the years...  The best players tend to skate "effectively" for their style of play.  In other words, Sid Crosby doesn't skate exactly the same as another perennial NHL star, Zdeno Chara.  Again, they're not necessarily the best skaters, they're often quite different from each other, but they definitely are effective.      
Now, does any of that sound like I'm downplaying the skill of skating?  I hope no one has gotten that impression, because I'll be the first to say that skating is super-important.  At the same time, I need to tell the reader that our game is unique.  Ya, take that from someone who authored a book titled, "The Nature of Our Game"...
The implication in that title is that every sport has it's own unique nature, or there's something unique about what players go through in their hopes of playing well.  The rules of a sport influence this, as does the playing surface, the number of participants, and even the strategies that evolve over many years.
For just a hint at what I'm saying, consider Major League Baseball occasionally changing the height of the pitcher's mound.  Has raising or lower it influenced the pitchers' effectiveness, and have those changes further influenced the effectiveness of hitters?  You bet.  And, what about the way hockey rules have changed over the years -- like having to do with the two-line pass, clutching and grabbing, and so much more?   
Would the kind of players you select differ if a hockey rink was suddenly changed to the size of a football field?  Ha.  And, what about if it was reduced to the size of your livingroom?  Again, you can bet on it, with skating being super-important in the first case, and hardly important at all in the latter example.  
Then, along this line of thinking, could we surmise that there is a drastic difference in the nature of ice hockey as compared to speed skating and figure skating?  Most sane people would echo my "You bet" from above, but I have a feeling the folks who try to push figure skating lessons on hockey players aren't buying it.  They're not believing that figure skating is a sport that is practiced and performed at a comparatively slow and planned pace -- as in sticking to an exact routine, not in the least interrupted by the need to read and then react to opposing teammates and conditions, and not in the least having to fear dangerous body-checks and the like.  Again, however, that's the nature of figure skating, and it differs drastically from our skating sport.
As readers might imagine, I could go on in this particular area, describing the serious differences between my favorite sport and any other.  What I hope I have conveyed, though, is that any differences between two sports also have to be met with corresponding differences in the kind of athlete we need, and the way the athlete needs to prepare for play.  If you don't believe me, however, how about something out of the mouths of figure skating instructors -- oh, boy...
Anyone who knows my sense of humor ought to imagine me standing at rnkside, and mentioning to a local figures pro that I was thinking of offering my hockey skating services to local figure skaters.  I did that about three times, with all answers being quite similar, as in, "Nooooooooo...  Hockey and figure skating aren't anything alike!"  LOL!
Here's another cute story, although only slightly related...  I can't tell you how many times I've had a figures pro view the ice with me, and dream about working with one of my hockey players.  The usual observation was something like, "Wow, I'd love to work with a skater like him!"  I always knew what they meant, because my guys were pretty exciting to watch, and pretty explosive in their movements.  I'd have to tell them, though, that, "You figure skaters spend so much time on pretty poses and perfect posture, that you eventually suck all the excitement out of your skaters!"    
 Winding down here, let me try to clear the air about a few last things... 
A former player of mine, Robin D, saw that I was working on this post, and she added the following comment to my Facebook wall...  "Hi coach. I think it (figure skating) really helped me. I was a much better skater, edges, stopping etc when I was a teen. Speed not so much but I could stop on a dime and my tight turns were tighter"  Admittedly, Robin was a pretty good adult lady player.  However, we will never know whether she could have been miles better had she spent an equivalent amount of time on hockey skills.  Could she have been quicker and trickier from working at hockey-specific skating skills, rather than slow, pretty figure skating?  Could she have been even better with the puck, had she devoted more time to skating and stickhandling, rather than solely skating?  Again, Robin was a good one, but I'm betting she could have been even better with the right kind of guidance.
So far, at least, Jeff Skinner seems the real deal.  The son of two attorneys, I'm guessing he was given all the opportunities he ever needed to work on his game, including the chance to succeed at figure skating.  Don't take that thing about the opportunities lightly, either, because I'd be willing to bet that he had some other professional trainers beyond a figure skating coach, and I'm just as willing to bet that he spent a kzillion hours handling a puck and ball.  Anyway, he's a rare one, unless someone can tell me that there are a hundred or so advanced level figure skaters currently playing in the NHL.

As for Gretzky, please give me a break...  His dad, Walter, was a genius for his time, and he did a lot of things that led to Wayne's ultimate advanced level of play.  Ask me to rank his skills, however, and I'd lead with elite level puck-skills -- I mean, an ability to stickhandle in a phone booth, and to find open teammates as if he had eyes in the back of his head.  Right up there, I'd also rank his playing IQ.  As far as skating goes, though, I'll put Wayne in the same category as Crosby, Chara and other top pros, in that he was effective on his blades for the way he played the game.

Could there be an advantage in a hockey player taking figure skating lessons?  Well, for that, let me offer another bit of science here...
Top hockey skating coaches -- I mean the guys who REALLY know their stuff -- will tell you that most hockey skaters fall into two general categories:  those who are naturally quick but not very smooth, and those who are smooth in movements but have difficulty changing gears or quickening their feet.
Every time I share that tidbit, I have coaches immediately nodding their heads and telling me they have players just like that on their team.  I've yet to hear anyone explain the reasoning why players generally fall into either category, but I have a suspicion it has to do with their natural makeup -- as in a preponderance of either fast-twitch or slow-twitch muscle fibers.  
Anyway, with the above knowledge, I wonder if it makes sense to readers that I'd recommend some figure skating work for some players, and I'd suggest that others steer clear of such work.  Ya, the quick-footed skater who needs some smoothing might benefit from the slow, methodical figure skating approach, while the other group would be beating a dead horse, and maybe even going backwards in his skating.
With all that, let's just say that it's not a great idea for anyone in our game to suggest that there's one thing that can help a hockey player make it to a higher rung.  Nor is it right for anyone to draw a connection between one player making it via a given route, when there have been literally thousands who didn't.  In fact, I think it's disingenuous to suggest such, and I think it's extremely unfair to parents of young players who spend a good deal of their time wondering who the heck they can really trust.

As for me, I'm well known among skating analysts, while I'd never advise anyone that focusing primarily on skating represents a shortcut to the higher levels.  Perhaps my favorite area of teaching involves puckhandling and related skills, yet I'd never suggest that such a skill -- without numerous others -- would get a player anywhere.  Then, while my long ago studies in the old Soviet Union make off-ice training a biggie with me, I've never stated that such training is the secret to making it big.  As for sumo wrestling, well...  Please give me some time to study that one.  :)

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If you'd like to know more about the skating stride than most others, check out this post on "The Latest Hockey Skating Advice".
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If you'd like some ideas for other things to try, here's an interesting video.  Many of the drills foster more explosive, hockey specific athletes than does the slow, deliberate figure skating approach...