Jack Blatherwick

Integrate, don’t always isolate skills and athleticism


By Jack Blatherwick
Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Michael Jordan was (arguably) the best basketball player ever, but he was not the greatest shooter of all time, not the best ball handler or passer, even though he was great at each of these. He did not have the highest vertical jump, wasn’t the fastest or most agile, not the strongest, nor did he have the greatest endurance (measured in laboratory tests of aerobic capacity).

He was the best player, because he combined skills and athleticism into one package more effectively than anyone ever has. The same might be said of Wayne Gretzky, in the opinion of Russian coach, Anatoli Tarasov.

In school and athletics, we are stuck with an old paradigm in which teachers and coaches isolate the various skills before integrating them together. There is no evidence to support this old approach; it’s just the way we’ve always done things. Fortunately, there is a mounting volume of research to suggest we re-think our old ways, and include much more integration along the way – long before we’ve ‘perfected’ each of the skills.

Some experts call this a ‘Whole-to-Part’ approach, rather than ‘Part-to-Whole.’ Evidence indicates that if children spend years learning to skate first, perhaps handle the puck and shoot at the same age in different segments of practice, they could turn out to be great skaters, shooters and stick-handlers. But they might not be able to put things together effectively if their experience doesn’t include a lot of competitive integration (play).

In other words if Gretzky and Jordan hadn’t played a lot of pick-up games in the backyard when they were very young, they may not have developed the genius we incorrectly think of as ‘God-given instincts.’  Average NHL or NBA players can really, really shoot. But the superstars shoot at the right moment, or … if planB is needed, they fake the shot, pass, spin, cut and create another way to score.

Academically, in our country we will most certainly rank at the bottom of the list of literate countries forever if we continue to invest our resources into standardized testing and memorization of isolated skills. Problem solving will be at a premium in a world filled with new problems (thanks to us).

Speaking as a math teacher, I’d say many of the arithmetic and math skills we’ve canonized into the three R’s should be thrown in the garbage can. For example, long division should take a few minutes, not four years. Learn what division means and forget the algorithm. Heck, iPhones are good at this; we don’t need computers, calculators or slide rules.  (Had to throw that last one in for the nerds of a bygone era who clipped the slide rule on their belt, so everyone knew they were smart.)  But that’s another problem with facts; they often belong to bygone eras.

Some of the top mathematicians in the world advocate bringing calculus into the elementary school to give more meaning to arithmetic. Calculus! Go outside the classroom and combine skills with real-life problems, so children can actually ‘FEEL’ what movement means mathematically. Standardized tests are the academic equivalent of hockey skill tests around cones. Isolated skills are not the measure of a player; competition is.

It is precisely the same concept in developing athletic movement. Speed alone does not make a great running back (or hockey player). Strength alone does not make a great lineman (or hockey player). These qualities must be integrated with balance, coordination, endurance and the skills of the sport. 

How can we expect the athletic skills to work synergistically together if they are trained separately all the time? If a hockey player gains endurance by jogging, for example, it is unreasonable to expect this to help him maintain great knee bend, powerful extension and quick feet at the end of a shift or game. After all, jogging is repetitive practice of stiff knees, slow feet and weak extension.

In other words, the elements of athleticism are worthless unless they are integrated into a synergistic whole. Michael Jordan integrated these by playing basketball and other sports, much of the time in an unstructured, fun environment, similar to the way Gretzky or Pavel Datsyuk or Sidney Crosby developed.

How do we integrate skills at young ages? Can we reasonably expect children to play constructively in competitive scrimmage drills before they can skate well or handle their stick? The short answer for now is: I don’t know. I’ve never been on the ice with those little buggers, because they scare me when they’re in large groups of two or more. 

But, I do know this: The great coaches of the future will find answers to these questions, and they won’t find them in a (one-size-fits-all) program that isolates skills and athleticism.

For a great look at the ultimate combination of skills and athleticism in today’s game, watch Pavel Datsyuk’s incredible goal, then move down the other videos on this site to his career highlights: http://youtu.be/5h55X3uJU84.