There are some constants when we want to become a maestro in music, dance, coaching, playing or basically anything in life. One of these constants is the 10, 000 hour rule. It has been found that to be amongst the best requires that we spend a lot of time to acquire the skills and understanding of any discipline.
The rule states that it takes 10,000 hours spread over 10 years but most of this time must be put in before the onset of puberty.
To focus on hockey this means that you must start as a child and learn the proper techniques and habits early in your development because we get good at what we practice. It also takes 10,000 repetitions to develop movement patterns that become entrenched i.e. after you learn to walk you no longer have to think about it like a toddler does. So we get very good at what we practice and if we practice with good technique we do things efficiently and if we practice with poor technique we get really good at being really bad. i.e. Most players my age were never shown how to handle the stick properly and are Bottom Hand dominant. This causes the shoulders to be tight, makes moves such as a toe drag almost impossible, causes problems taking passes and makes shooting very inefficient.
Now players get on the ice with teams and depend on the coach to design practices that are efficient and supply enough repetitions with good technique to develop these individual skills. The players who want to excel will take the lessons they learn in practices and do a lot of reps on their own because not many teams get enough practice time for all that individual work.
To play the game well doesnâ€™t only require individual skill development, a player also needs good playing habits and game understanding as well as a high fitness level.
Hockey specific development has to address both Health and Skill Related Fitness. If you arenâ€™t healthy it doesnâ€™t matter how good or strong you are and if you are very healthy and fit you also require the hockey specific training.
Health related fitness includes; ideal body weight, flexibility, muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular fitness.
Skill related fitness includes; speed, power, reaction time, agility, coordination, balance.
To play hockey we need a good aerobic base (the blood carries lots of oxygen and food to nourish the body and remove wastes) because the game is mostly anaerobic (a hockey shift is too hard for the aerobic system to supply the energy so stored energy is used but it is limited and produces waste products that tire the muscles). A player needs to recover between shifts and a good aerobic base does two things; one, is that he/she can do more work before dipping into the anaerobic energy and two, aerobically fit people recover more quickly between shifts and between games.
We also have a huge problem in organized youth sport. The children are quitting hockey and other sports when they become teenagers. In hockey it is about 80% who stop playing by 14 years of age. There are lots of reasons but the second biggest reason given by both girls and boys in Bob Bigelowâ€™s research (Just Let Them Play) is that they hate going to practice.
What is the Solution?
The first thing is that a youth coach does not have the mission to produce world class players but he/she does have the responsibility to:
1. Create a good environment so that the players and parents want to be there.
2. Instruct good technique so the players are working on the right things and donâ€™t have to unlearn and then relearn later.
3. Strive for efficient practices that follow the IAM Rule. 10% instruction, 10% maintenance - moving from place to place, 80% activity.
4. Practices should include:
a. Warm up activities that reinforce individual skills such as skating, shooting, passing.
b. Goalie specific warm up.
c. Individual or team play instruction.
d. Drills to practice the proper technique.
e. Transition games to isolate the technique at full speed.
f. Games to reinforce the technique under pressure.
e. Shoot-out or contest to end practice.
4. The practices should relate to the skill level and cover the 4 Game Playing Roles.
- Role One â€“ individual offensive skills.
- Role Two â€“ team offensive skills.
- Role Three â€“ individual defensive skills.
- Role Four â€“ team defensive skills.
Of course the individual skills are emphasized more at the younger ages as the tools need to perform the team skills later.
I donâ€™t know of any existing hockey program that can supply the time needed and it doesnâ€™t have to be all in hockey. The 10,000 hours in 10 years also includes other sports whether individual or team. Any activity that enhances either the health or skill related fitness contributes to development.
Activities like gymnastics are great for balance, agility, strength, coordination, power. Soccer develops game sense, aerobic fitness, reaction time, speed, agility, etc. Baseball requires reaction time, speed, coordination, agility, power. Football needs a lot of muscular strength, agility, power, reaction time. Dance needs flexibility, agility, coordination (also helps you meet girlâ€™s later in life)
After Sweden won the 2006 Olympics they asked their team to list what sports they played growing up. The average player participated in 6 sports. Most played tennis, soccer, a form of floor hockey and various other sports. I think there is a danger in the trend to specialize in hockey too early and not do other activities.
The goal is not to develop elite athletes but instead to make their hockey experience a good experience and something they want to continue for the rest of their lives. We donâ€™t want 80% of the children to quit our sport by the time they are 14. We need to help them acquire the skills so that when they step on the ice they â€œwant the puck and are able to do something constructive with it.â€ The top 1% of the players will go on to the top high school, junior, college and 10% of that 1% on to professional.
We need to change the trend that is in Canada. They quit and stay out of the game until they are adults and then a lot return and play in their own leagues with no coach and no outside pressure to ruin it for them. They love the game. They just want it to be fun again. We have lots of rinks for adults. In most countries they just quit and never play again.
Hockey is a game you can play all your life. It is easy on the joints compared with other sports. I was just at a tournament in Victoria and they had divisions 55+, 60+, 70+, 75+. The oldest player was Mario Marasco who is 87.
If the players we coach are still playing at 87 then we have done one hell of a job.
I havenâ€™t cited where I got my information from but it has been accumulated over the years in hundreds of hours of attending coaching seminars, nine years of college and university with 3 degrees in education, teaching over 20,000 PE classes from elementary to college, coaching every level since 1972 from 5 year olds to professionals and coaching with people from 3 continents who have played and coached in the NHL, college, Olympics and World Championships.
The goal of the Hockeycoachingabcs site is to develp more Marioâ€™s who love the game and to help and not hinder players like Dany Heatley and Mason Raymond along their journey to be elite players.
I think before we plan practice for skills or system it is important to define exactly what the game is. Here are some hockey facts.
In a game between 2 equal teams with good skills you are on;
offense 35% of the time
defense 35% of the time
the puck is loose 30% of the time (not on someones stick) For low skilled teams the loose puck situation is much higher.
The average for someone to carry the puck is about 2.5".
The average for the team to have the puck is about 4.5".
Each team has possession and loses possession of the puck about 200 times during a game.
So a hockey game is a constant transition between the 4 Game Playing Roles. Every player is always in one of these roles. There is never a time when a player has nothing to do.
Role One: player has the puck.
Role Two: players supports the puck carrier, close player creating a 2-1 and farther away width and depth.
Role Three: player checks the puck carrier with either a pressure or contain decision..
Role Four: player gives either close or farther support to the first checker depending on whether the first checker pressured or contained.
If you look at the game in this manner then you realize that good habits like facing the puck, always having your stick on the ice, angling, moving to open ice quickly with the puck and again to open ice once you pass it are essential. It takes a team about 2" to get into good defending position after losing the puck, so quick transition to the attack is essential if you want to attack an unorganized defense as compared to an orgainized defense. Good technique at game speed are the tools you need.
The coach has to organize practices that not only work on one game playing role at a time but also on the constant transition between roles. One game playing role drills are fine for perfecting a technique but if you only do 1 on 1's in drills where the defender and attacker knows it is a 1 on 1 and after the shot they go back to the lineup then you are not practicing the reality of hockey which is a. both players read the situation. b. attack and defend with good technique. c. after the shot the attacker follow the shot for the rebound and defender deny a second shot. d. make a second play on offense or the defender start the breakout.
A coach who doesn't practice transition is missing the essence of the game.
Some other numbers to consider are:
1. A turnover in the offensive end followed by an attack the other way results in a scoring chance about 2% of the time. (why do teams play so cautiously on the forecheck)
2. Neutral zone turnovers give up scoring chances 7-10% of the time.
3. Defensive zone turnovers give up scoring chances about 25% of the time. In other words the farther the puck is from your net the more time you have to get back and defend. (so what is the point of the neutral zone trap being a teams only forecheck)
Also teams that play systems that are purely contain or totally aggressive also don't understand the game. The plan should be to pressure when possible (you are within a half stick and have a good angle) and contain when there is no chance for the closest player to get a stick on the puck and body on body.
So hockey is more like a tennis game than like basketball (pplays are similar to bball). i.e. hit the ball-offense, ball in the air - loose puck -get in defensive position to hit - defense. Constant changing of roles.
Our practices and our team play philosophy should reflect this.
By: TomM (offline) Saturday, May 15 2010 @ 11:43 AM GMT
Daniel Coyle just wrote a book that explains how we learn any skill. It supports the 10 000 hour concept but he explains how to practice effectively. He goes to places around the world that are developing world class athletes. Places like a tennis academy in Moscow that is run down and has one indoor court but has trained half of the women's top 10 tennis players. A baseball hotbed on a small Caribean island that produces major leage players by the bushelful. He travels to a small music academy that trains singers like Jessica Simpson from age 11 and many others. He explains why Korea now has 45 women on the LPGA tour.
I just returned from Europe where I visited Salzburg to see the friends I have there and then went to Heidelberg Germany to the IIHF coaching conference which had Daniel Cole as the first speaker. I had a good talk with him that evening and he signed the book I bought and now have read twice. I then travelled to Finland to visit my co-author Juhani Wahlsten and we had a meeting with some coaches there and plan to produce a booklet on games.
The book is the Talent Codeby Daniel Coyle. It explains how we have to gradually produce movement circuits (or any other kind of learning) by trying, failing, trying again. This connects the nervous system patterns and the circuit is wrapped with myelin which is white fatty matter (like the rubber coating on an electrical cord) This myelin holds together this new knowledge (movement, reading, speaking etc.) and the more we repeat this movement the more times the circuit is wrapped and the fasted the response time.
Anyone can learn anything if they work long enough at it to produce these circuits. We can learn all our lives. Up to puberty then up to 30 we learn faster but we retain the ability to learn. Deseases like MS or dementia are caused by the breakdown of this myelin coating and we lose the circuitry to control our muscles with MS and the cognitive ability with dementia.
Sports, music, education, behavior are all dependent on developing the proper circuits and there are effective techniques that enhance learning in coaching, teaching, parenting and learning anything.
Team games need not only individual skills (how and what) but the ability to recognize the the when and where and why.) So technique and game sense have to be practiced. So we can't just practice like we would teaching the piano and focus on just one participant but we have to add the dimension of all the variables that the game presents. Brazilian Futsal is the example given for why Brazil produces most of the world greatest players. (intense game in a small area)
The scientific articles at the bottom of the first link were a bit complex to grab my interest at the time, but the NY Times Article was fascinating and I wanted to know more. I think the book will be just what I'm looking for.
By: Eric (offline) Tuesday, May 25 2010 @ 12:34 PM GMT
I am also awaiting my copy of Talent Code. I'll offer up another book for those still looking for more on a similar subject. Bounce by Matthew Syed is a good glimpse into the Science of Success. Unlike others, it is directed at athletes and quotes The Talent Code, Outliers(Gladwell) and (Blink) Gladwell, along with others. It goes into the psyche of athletes as well. A worthwhile read.
By: Anonymous: Pops Ryan () Wednesday, May 26 2010 @ 10:10 PM GMT
Tom wrote "A coach who doesn't practice transition is missing the essence of the game" In my humble opinion, the key to coaching is to get players to think in terms of the 4 Roles... until they get so comfortable with it that they don't even have to think about them anymore. When I get my team to that point I will consider the season to be a success. There is nothing in hockey but transition, that's why traditional drills do not work. I thank God for this website.
At the conference in Heidelberg one presentor put up a diagrm with game playing roles 1-2-3-4 numbers in a square and then drew arrows across and down to joing them as well as arrows from one diagonal corner to the other. the idea was to emphsize that in a hockey shift we go from passer-1, to receiver-2, or maybe from passer-1 to closest defender-3, or covering away from the puck-4 and this happens about 400 times in a game as the puck goes from one player to another and one team to the other.
An example is that good players pass and then get open for a give and go return pass right away. They don't stand and watch. they have good habits like facing the puck and facing the play with the puck so that they always see where the other players are and know the correct response. The Why, When and Where of the game.
We are now doing a pretty good job of the technical skills of What and How. The challenge is to use these tools effectively during a game. That is where using small area and full ice games with modified rules fit into the practice plans.
Hope you had a good trip to Europe! I will call you to hook up this week so we can get caught up.
Glad to hear you read one of the books I was telling you about! I knew it would strike a chord with you! Some Hockey Canada people had some good one-on-one time with Daniel Coyle while over there. He made a positive impact in helping cement their beliefs that we need to continue our work on our LTAD model (which the Americans have rolled out nationally this past year as the ADM.)
I have heard rumours of some very interesting (and most likely controversial) programs that will start getting implemented in minor hockey... perhaps as early as this fall; after the Hockey Canada AGM wraps up this weekend in Montreal! They are to designed to further enhance player development... stay tuned!
Another book that may be of interest to you and your readers is "Spark - the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain" by John J. Ratey. He just presented at MRU and at Red Deer College. This has created further interest (national / provincial / local) in how this can be applied to the Canadian LTAD model. I am in conversations with many people about this as I believe we should look to try to implement these findings into the school systems. (For all that are interested in books, please go to my previous post about books I have read / am reading for other titles / recommendations.)
Dean M.Ed (Coaching)
Ch.P.C. (Chartered Professional Coach)
Game Intelligence Training "Great education depends on great teaching."
Yup. Not written in scientific prose. Don't even need to drink a BIG beer to make sense of it. Check out my reading list for some other titles (above) as there are some good'ers on it! Try your local library first as it will save you a few scheckles...
Dean M.Ed (Coaching)
Ch.P.C. (Chartered Professional Coach)
Game Intelligence Training "Great education depends on great teaching."
1993, Vol. 100. No. 3, 363-406
Copyright 1993 by the American Psychological Association, Inc.
The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance
K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer
The theoretical framework presented in this article explains expert performance as the end result of individuals' prolonged efforts to improve performance while negotiating motivational and external constraints. In most domains of expertise, individuals begin in their childhood a regimen of effortful activities (deliberate practice) designed to optimize improvement. Individual differences, even among elite performers, are closely related to assessed amounts of deliberate practice. Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years. Analysis of expert performance provides unique evidence on the potential and limits of extreme environmental adaptation and learning.
People believe that because expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance the expert performer must be endowed with characteristics qualitatively different from those of normal adults. This view has discouraged scientists from systematically examining expert performers and accounting for their performance in terms of the laws and principles of general psychology. We agree that expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance and even that expert performers have characteristics and abilities that are qualitatively different from or at least outside the range of those of normal adults. However, we deny that these differences are immutable, that is, due to innate talent. Only a few exceptions, most notably height, are genetically prescribed. Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.
Most of our scientific knowledge about improvement and change comes from laboratory studies of training and practice that lasted hours, days, and occasionally weeks and months. In addition, there is a growing body of data on the heritabilities of various abilities and characteristics estimated for twins and parents and their offspring sampled from the general population (Plomin et al., 1990). Although behavioural geneticists carefully point out that their heritability estimates are valid only for the limited range of practice and skill in the normal environment of the adults studied, it is often incorrectly assumed by lay people that these estimates can be directly extended to extreme manipulations of environmental conditions, such as extended deliberate practice. Most important, the effects of short-term training cannot be readily extended to the effects of orders of magnitude more practice.
A promising direction for research on the effects of extended activities is to identify activities relevant to some goal and to assess the amount of time individuals allocate to these activities. Recent research has shown that the amount of time individuals spend reading as assessed by diaries is related to memory for prose even when education and vocabulary are partialed out (Rice, Meyer, & Miller, 1988). The estimated amount of reading is also related to reading ability and, most interestingly, increases in reading ability (R. C. Anderson, Wilson, & Fielding, 1988). Research on physical fitness has a long tradition of measuring daily physical activity and exercise, and we have cited the study in which Fagard et al. (1991) assessed the influence of both genetic factors and regular activity on aerobic and anaerobic abilities. It would be ideal to plot the interaction of genetic and environmental factors in longitudinal studies across the entire life span (Rutter, 1989). Within this context, we view the study of elite performers as particularly interesting because from early ages their lives appear to maximize the influence of environmental activities (deliberate practice) improving a specific type of performance. In a rare study Schneider, Bos, and Rieder (1993) included environmental factors along with physical characteristics and motivational characteristics of individuals in a longitudinal study of elite tennis players. Consistent with our framework they found that tennis performance at ages 11 and 17 was primarily determined by parental support and in particular motivation and tennis-specific skills, where the level of these skills in turn are mainly attributable to assessed levels of motivation and concentration.
We view elite performance as the product of a decade or more of maximal efforts to improve performance in a domain through an optimal distribution of deliberate practice. This view provides us with unique insights into the potential for and limits to modifying the human body and mind. Many anatomical characteristics, traditionally believed to be fixed, can adapt and change in response to intense practice sustained for years. Substantial change and learning can occur even during childhood, when some changes, such as in certain perceptual-motor abilities, might be even easier to attain than during adulthood. Untrained adults can overcome limits on speed and processing capacity by acquiring new cognitive skills that circumvent these limits by qualitatively different processes. Further research on the capacities and characteristics of expert performance will give us a much deeper understanding of the full range of possible adaptations and methods for circumventing limits (Ericsson & Smith, 199la).
It does not follow from the rejection of innate limits on acquired performance that everyone can easily attain high levels of skill. Contemporary elite performers have overcome a number of constraints. They have obtained early access to instructors, maintained high levels of deliberate practice throughout development, received continued parental and environmental support, and avoided disease and injury. When one considers in addition the prerequisite motivation necessary to engage in deliberate practice every day for years and decades, when most children and adolescents of similar ages engage in play and leisure, the real constraints on the acquisition of expert performance become apparent. The commitment to deliberate practice distinguishes the expert performer from the vast majority of children and adults who seem to have remarkable difficulty meeting the much lower demands on practice in schools, adult education, and in physical exercise programs.
We believe that a more careful analysis of the lives of future elite performers will tell us how motivation is promoted and sustained. It is also entirely plausible that such a detailed analysis will reveal environmental conditions as well as heritable individual differences that predispose individuals to engage in deliberate practice during extended periods and facilitate motivating them. Our empirical studies have already shown that experts carefully schedule deliberate practice and limit its duration to avoid exhaustion and burnout. By viewing expert performers not simply as domain-specific experts but as experts in maintaining high levels of practice and improving performance, we are likely to uncover valuable information about the optimal conditions for learning and education.
Received April 14, 1992
Revision received December 11,1992
Accepted December 11,1992 •
Dean M.Ed (Coaching)
Ch.P.C. (Chartered Professional Coach)
Game Intelligence Training "Great education depends on great teaching."
This is a long read, but IMHO, a very good one for those of you who want to know "the secret!"
How to Grow a Super-Athlete
The future of tennis? Spartak's Little Group, ready to impress.
By DANIEL COYLE
Published: March 4, 2007
This story could begin in many places — it's about beginnings, after all — but I'd like to start with the recent evening when my 4-year-old daughter, Zoe, appeared before me wielding a yellow baseball bat and an important announcement: batting tees were for babies. From now on, she would hit real pitches, like the big kids.
By way of biography, I should mention that Zoe, the youngest of four, is considered one of the finest all-around mini-athletes in the history of our house. She's widely celebrated for her ability to throw balls really far, to hop on one foot across the whole front porch, and to run faster than a superfast airplane can fly. So as I walked (and she raced) down to the basement and located an inflatable purple ball, I fully expected Zoe to take to hitting like she'd taken to everything else.
But Zoe, it turned out, pretty much stunk.
Toss after toss, she missed. Five tosses. Then 10. I tried throwing the ball softer, harder, lower, higher. I got a different bat, offered advice and abundant encouragement, tried covertly to pitch the ball so it hit the bat. Nothing worked. Zoe whiffed with virtuosity and enthusiasm. Against my nobler instincts, I found myself, like the purple ball, getting a bit deflated. I felt as if I were receiving a grimly polite report suggesting that Zoe, despite her athletic promise, had regrettably tested negative for hand-eye coordination.
A few days later, we did it again. This time Zoe started off missing, then hit a foul ball. Then two fair balls in a row. Then three. She was watching the ball now, timing it. As the saying goes, something had clicked. Zoe hit the last toss squarely, and the purple ball zipped past my ear and smacked the window with a resounding gong. We froze at the unexpected sound, enjoying the moment and the question echoing beneath.
What, exactly, just happened?
What is talent? It's a big question, and one way to approach it is to look at the places where talent seems to be located — in other words, to sketch a map. In this case, the map would show the birthplaces of the 50 top men and women in a handful of professional sports, each sport marked by its own color. (Tennis and golf handily rank performance; for team sports, salaries will do.) The resulting image — what could be called a talent map — emerges looking like abstract art: vast empty regions interspersed with well-defined bursts of intense color, sort of like a Matisse painting.
Canada, for instance, is predictably cluttered with hockey players, but significant concentrations also pop up in Sweden, Russia and the Czech Republic. The United States accounts for many of the top players in women's golf, but South Korea has just as many. Baseball stars are generously sprinkled across the southern United States but the postage-stamp-size Dominican Republic isn't far behind. In women's tennis, we see a dispersal around Europe and the United States, then a dazzling, concentrated burst in Moscow.
The pattern keeps repeating: general scatterings accompanied by a number of dense, unexpected crowdings. The pattern is obviously not random, nor can it be fully explained by gene pools or climate or geopolitics or Nike's global marketing budget. Rather, the pattern looks like algae starting to grow on an aquarium wall, telltale clumps that show something is quietly alive, communicating, blooming. It's as though microscopic spores have floated around the atmosphere in the jet stream and taken root in a handful of fertile places.
A quick analysis of this talent map reveals some splashy numbers: for instance, the average woman in South Korea is more than six times as likely to be a professional golfer as an American woman. But the interesting question is, what underlying dynamic makes these people so spectacularly unaverage in the first place? What force is causing those from certain far-off places to become, competitively speaking, superior?
In early December, I traveled to the heart of one of those breeding grounds, the Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow. Russia is the birthplace of a group of athletes who have affected the World Tennis Association rankings in the same way that zebra mussels have affected the Great Lakes — which is to say, pretty much clogged them. The invasion happened swiftly: at the end of 2001, Russia had one woman (Elena Dementieva) in the W.T.A. Tour's top 30. By the start of 2007, Russian women accounted for fully half of the top 10 (Dementieva, Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetzova, Nadia Petrova and Dinara Safina) and 12 of the top 50. Not to mention 15-year-old Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who was the International Tennis Federation's No. 1-ranked junior and who was joined in the top 500 by five countrywomen also named Anastasia.
Spartak, usually preceded in the tennis press by the word "famous" or "legendary," had produced three of the top six Russians (Dementieva, Safina and Anastasia Myskina), along with Anna Kournikova, now retired. Tournament pairings regularly became all-Spartak affairs, most memorably the 2004 French Open final, Myskina over Dementieva, the continuation of a rivalry the two began at age 7. To put Spartak's success in talent-map terms: this club, which has one indoor court, has achieved eight year-end top-20 women's rankings over the last three years. During that same period, the entire United States has achieved seven.
"They're like the Russian Army," says Nick Bollettieri, the founder of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and the former coach to Sharapova, Andre Agassi and other top-ranked players. "They just keep on coming."
Getting to Spartak, however, takes more than a talent map; it's not located on any real maps. Fortunately, help arrived in the form of Elena Rybina, a chain-smoking, speed-talking translator who worked part-time for the Russian Tennis Federation and who possessed a fast-alternating combination of film noir toughness and childlike giddiness that I took as the quintessence of modern Russia.
"I learned my English listening to music, like Elton John," she said. " 'Crocodile Rocks'! I love it!"
We rode the subway half an hour northeast to Sokolniki Park and started walking. And walking. Sokolniki is almost twice the size of Central Park, considerably less central and only vaguely parklike. It's basically a huge forest of birch and elm trees filled with a disconcertingly energetic population of stray dogs. We walked past an abandoned chess club, an abandoned amusement park, an abandoned factory and the smashed onion dome of what appeared to be an abandoned church.
"It is very beautiful in summer," Rybina assured me as we passed a pond frosted with green scum. "But Spartak, I must warn you, is not so nice."
"What do you mean?"
Rybina lighted a Davidoff cigarette and raised her eyebrow into a Gothic arch. "Spartak is not exactly like a palace."
We turned a corner, followed a road for a few hundred yards and saw a loose assortment of peaked buildings and shotgun shacks that resembled a dilapidated ski village. Windows were dim cataracts of warped plastic, paint was scabbed and peeling and the buildings were frescoed in a rich coat of grime. A glaze of ice coated the club's 15 outdoor clay courts, as it did for six months of the year. A beat-up 18-wheeler lent the scene a postnuclear, "Mad Max" vibe. The only bright color came from the rainbow sheen of diesel fuel in the puddles.
Rybina shrugged indifferently and lighted another Davidoff. We walked past the inexplicably manned guard post, past an A-frame that appeared to be a storehouse for scrap metal and toward a larger structure that resembled a greenhouse. We ducked through a low door and onto the court. The surface was worn down in frequently trodden spots, like cathedral steps. Two wooden sticks nudged the sagging net futilely toward regulation height. The fluorescent lights buzzed. "We are lucky," Rybina whispered. "The heat is working." When it doesn't, the kids play in their coats. 1
The class, called the Little Group, had already arrived. They wore heavy coats and toted their tennis rackets in backpacks, sports duffels and plastic grocery bags. At first glance, they looked like a standard-issue assortment of 5- to 7-year-olds: there was Denis, the handsome blond in the blue turtleneck; Alexandra, the lanky towhead in the green T-shirt; Gunda, the smiley ponytailed girl in the silver shoes; and Vova, the revved-up boy with the Asiatic eyes who was the class's only 4-year-old. There were 12 students in all. They had been coming to Spartak three times a week since September; by now they'd been on the court perhaps 40 times. As the lesson began, a few of them made their final preparations, reaching into their bags for what appeared to be their good luck charms: a tidy gallery of stuffed dinosaurs, bunnies and pandas formed on the wall behind the base line.
The coach, 77-year-old Larisa Preobrazhenskaya (pronounced pray-oh-brah-ZHEN-skya), stood at the sideline, watching. She wore a red-and-white tracksuit and a knowing, amused expression. Preobrazhenskaya was Spartak's most renowned youth coach, but she wore her authority lightly, radiating a grandmotherly twinkle behind hooded eyes. She'd been quite a player in her day, the 1955 Soviet singles champion. She still looked athletic, sauntering around the court with a John Wayne limp caused by a sore hip. The parents huddled by the door, watchful and silent.
The students formed a circle on one side of the net and started to stretch. I watched, scoping for telltale signs of überkinder superiority, but saw nothing of the sort. The Little Group proceeded to hustle energetically through a 15-minute set of calisthenics worthy of Jack LaLanne: jumping jacks, hops, crab walking, bear walking, skipping, sidestepping, zigzagging through a line of orange cones. I was half expecting them to pull out medicine balls, when they actually did pull out medicine balls, passing them back and forth earnestly like so many extras in a Rocky movie.
"All the motions," Preobrazhenskaya would tell me. "It is important to do everything, every practice."
The Little Group paired off with rackets and began imitatsiya — rallying with an imaginary ball. They bounced lightly from foot to foot, they turned, they swung, the invisible balls flew. Preobrazhenskaya roamed the court like a garage mechanic tuning an oversize engine: realigning a piston here, tightening a flywheel there. Several times, she grasped their small arms and piloted their bodies through the stroke. Thus the lesson began, and with it the unspoken implication: the great, rusty Spartak machine was coming to life, carrying its cargo of mini-geniuses another step closer toward inevitable glory.
As I pictured the scale of the David and Goliath phenomenon this unlikely scene embodied, the question arose: how does Spartak do it?
Explanations were not in short supply. I'd heard plenty from American tennis coaches, a nicely bulleted list that included a Slavic gene pool that produces a seemingly inexhaustible supply of tall, fast, strong kids; the economic and cultural gateway that opened with the 1991 collapse of the Communist government; the former Russian president Boris Yeltsin's enthusiastic (if at times klutzy) love for the sport; and the potent catnip effect of Kournikova, the former top 10 player who, though she never won a singles tournament, provided an escape-hungry generation of girls (and, more important, their parents) with vivid proof that tennis success equaled glamour, fortune, fame.
The Russians, when I asked them, chimed in with explanations of their own, including the lifelong commitment of coaches like Preobrazhenskaya; the superior biomechanical techniques taught at the Moscow Institute of Physical Culture, where many of Russia's top coaches train; and (in a nostalgic burst of cold war trash talking) the intrinsic softness of the West.
Watching the Little Group play, I, too, felt a strong urge to bellow my share of theories: it must be the medicine balls! The discipline! The lack of Game Boys! I was particularly struck by the kids' obvious enjoyment of the lesson. One of the mothers told Preobrazhenskaya that her daughter, Gunda, had awakened early that day, unable to sleep. "Today is my day with Larisa Dmitrievna!" Gunda had said. "It is today!"
In sum, there are a lot of explanations, some better than others. For instance, is the Russian gene pool really that innately superior to that of Ukraine or Slovenia or Southern California? If Kournikova inspired so many Russians, then where were the German stars inspired by Steffi Graf? But ultimately the theories fall short because they don't explain the principles underpinning Spartak's success. Indeed, seeing the place up close made me wonder if there were any principles. Spartak radiates the glow of happenstance, the diamond in the trash heap. (This impression is apparently shared by the Russian Tennis Federation, which has been content to allow Spartak to remain with its single indoor court.)
So even here, at the core of one of the globe's brightest talent blooms, the question of that talent's source remains enigmatically tangled, perhaps as much of a mystery to those who nurture these athletes as it is to the rest of us. It's enough to make you wish for a set of X-ray glasses that could reveal how these invisible forces of culture, history, genes, practice, coaching and belief work together to form that elemental material we call talent — to wish that science could come up with a way to see talent as a substance as tangible as muscle and bone, and whose inner workings we could someday attempt to understand.
As it turns out, that's exactly what's happening.
I was peering inside an incubator at the Laboratory of Developmental Neurobiology at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. The incubator, about the size of a small refrigerator, held shiny wire racks on which sat several rows of petri dishes containing clear pink liquid. Inside the liquid were threadlike clumps of mouse neurons, which were wired to platinum electrodes and covered with a white, pearlescent substance called myelin. Within that myelin, according to new research, lies the seed of talent.
"In neurology, myelin is being seen as an epiphany," Douglas Fields, the lab's director, had told me earlier. "This is a new dimension that may help us understand a great deal about how the brain works, especially about how we gain skills."
The myelin in question didn't look particularly epiphanic, which is understandable since it would normally be employed by mice for sniffing out food or navigating a maze. Neurologists theorize, however, that this humble-looking material is the common link between the Spartak kids, the Dominican baseball players and all the other blooms on the talent map — a link all the more interesting for the fact that few outside this branch of neurology currently know much about myelin. In fact, as Fields pointed out, if indirectly, the talent map wasn't technically the most accurate name for my hypothetical landscape. It should be called the myelin map.
"I would predict that South Korean women golfers have more myelin, on average, than players from other countries," Fields said. "They've got more in the right parts of the brain and for the right muscle groups, and that's what allows them to optimize their circuitry. The same would be true for any group like that."
"Tiger Woods?" I asked.
"Definitely Tiger Woods," he said. "That guy's got a lot of myelin."
Fields, 53, is a sinewy man with a broad smile and a jaunty gait. A former biological oceanographer who studied shark nervous systems, he now runs a six-person, seven-room lab outfitted with hissing canisters, buzzing electrical boxes and tight bundles of wires and hoses. The place has the feel of a tidy, efficient ship. In addition, Fields has the sea captain's habit of making dramatic moments sound matter-of-fact. The more exciting something is, the more mundane he makes it sound. As he was telling me about the six-day climb of Yosemite's 3,000-foot El Capitan he made two summers back, I asked what it felt like to sleep while hanging from a rope thousands of feet above the ground. "It's actually not that different," he said, his expression so unchanging that he might have been discussing a trip to the grocery store. "You adapt."
Fields reached into the incubator, extracted one of the pink petri dishes and slid it beneath a microscope. "Have a peek," he said quietly.
I leaned in and saw a tangled bunch of spaghetti-like threads, which Fields informed me were nerve fibers. The myelin was harder to see, a faintly undulating fringe on the edge of the neurons. I blinked, refocused, struggled to imagine how this stuff might help my golf game.
Fields proceeded to explain that myelin is a sausage-shaped layer of dense fat that wraps around the nerve fibers — and that its seeming dullness is, in fact, exactly the point. Myelin works the same way that rubber insulation works on a wire, keeping the signal strong by preventing electrical impulses from leaking out. This myelin sheath is, basically, electrical tape, which is one reason that myelin, along with its associated cells, was classified as glia (Greek for "glue". Its very inertness is why the first brain researchers named their new science after the neuron instead of its insulation. They were correct to do so: neurons can indeed explain almost every class of mental phenomenon—memory, emotion, muscle control, sensory perception and so on. But there's one question neurons can't explain: why does it take so long to learn complex skills?
"Everything neurons do, they do pretty quickly; it happens with the flick of a switch," Fields said. "But flicking switches is not how we learn a lot of things. Getting good at piano or chess or baseball takes a lot of time, and that's what myelin is good at."
To the surprise of many neurologists, it turns out this electrical tape is quietly interacting with the neurons. Through a mechanism that Fields and his research team described in a 2006 paper in the journal Neuron, the little sausages of myelin get thicker when the nerve is repeatedly stimulated. The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates and the faster and more accurately the signals travel. As Fields puts it, "The signals have to travel at the right speed, arrive at the right time, and myelination is the brain's way of controlling that speed." 2
It adds up to a two-part dynamic that is elegant enough to please Darwin himself: myelin controls the impulse speed, and impulse speed is crucial. The better we can control it, the better we can control the timing of our thoughts and movements, whether we're running, reading, singing or, perhaps more to the point, hitting a wicked topspin backhand.
Back at Spartak, the Little Group lined up outside the service box, rackets at the ready. Preobrazhenskaya stood at the net, a shopping cart of balls at her hip. She waited for silence, then started: forehand, backhand, back to the end of the line. One by one, the kids took their swings — to my eye, pretty nice-looking swings. But not to hers. Preobrazhenskaya frequently stopped them, had them do it over. More follow-through. More turn. Watch. Feel.
Pravil'no, she said. Correct.
Molodets. Good job.
If Preobrazhenskaya's approach were boiled down to one word (and it frequently was), that word would be tekhnika — technique. This is enforced by iron decree: none of her students are permitted to play in a tournament for the first three years of study. It's a notion that I don't imagine would fly with American parents, but none of the Russian parents questioned it for a second. "Technique is everything," Preobrazhenskaya told me later, smacking a table with Khrushchev-like emphasis, causing me to jump and reconsider my twinkly-grandma impression of her. "If you begin playing without technique, it is big mistake. Big, big mistake!"
I thought of something Dr. Fields had said: "You have to understand that every skill exists as a circuit, and that circuit has to be formed and optimized." To put it in Spartak terms, myelin is a slave to tekhnika — and so, in turn, was the Little Group. Preobrazhenskaya didn't instruct them on tactics or positioning or offer any psychological tips; rather, every gesture and word was funneled to teaching the elemental task of hitting the ball clean and hard. Which they did, one by one. A few of the kids had located that magical-seeming burst of leverage that makes the ball explode off the strings with a distinctive thwock.
"What do good athletes do when they train?" George Bartzokis, a professor of neurology at U.C.L.A., had told me. "They send precise impulses along wires that give the signal to myelinate that wire. They end up, after all the training, with a super-duper wire — lots of bandwidth, high-speed T-1 line. That's what makes them different from the rest of us." 3
As the Little Group continued its lesson, I found myself picturing myelin. I'd seen a highly magnified image on one of Fields's computer screens, and it looked like a deep-sea photograph: bright colors against a field of black. The oligodendrocytes — oligos, in lab lingo, are the cells that form the myelin — resembled glowing green squids, their tentacles reaching toward a set of slender nerve fibers. Once they seize hold, each tentacle begins to curl and extend, as the oligo squeezes the cytoplasm out of itself until only a cellophane-like sheet of membrane remains. That membrane proceeds to wrap over the nerve fiber with machinelike precision, spiraling down to create the distinctive sausage shape, tightening itself over the fiber like a threaded nut.
"It's one of the most intricate and exquisite cell-cell interactions there is," Fields said. "And it's slow. Each one of these wraps can go around a nerve fiber 40 or 50 times, and that can take days or weeks. Imagine doing that to an entire neuron, then an entire circuit with thousands of nerves."
So each time Alexandra or Denis or Gunda swings the racket properly — or, for that matter, each time we practice a chip shot or a guitar chord or a chess opening — those tiny green tentacles sense it and reach toward the thousands of related nerve fibers. They grasp, they squish, they make another wrap, thickening the sheath. They build a little more insulation along the wire, which adds a bit more bandwidth and precision to the circuit, which translates into an infinitesimal bit more skill and speed. Myelin is both practice and mastery, cause and effect. As Bartzokis had said: "Myelin is our Achilles strength, and it's our Achilles' heel. It's what makes us human." 4
All this myelin talk, combined with jet lag, left me feeling slightly changed. I wandered Moscow as if I were seeing the world through myelin-colored glasses. Emerald-green squids and snowy white sausages were everywhere I looked. A TV highlight of a Ronaldinho goal? Pure myelin! That violinist playing Mozart in the subway? What incredible oligodendrocytes that guy must have! A poster for the 2008 Olympics? An international myelin cultivation contest! My repeated ability to get lost within a few blocks of my hotel? Myelin again! (Rather, my lack of it.)
It also left me thinking about the clusters on the talent map. Specifically, wondering whether these places quietly possess myelin-accelerating factors: i.e., forces and conditions that promote what Fields would call "circuit optimization." Might those factors help explain the success of these superior athletes?
The rise of the South Korean golfers, who won almost one-third of the events last year on the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour, has usually been explained by citing two factors: the country's formidably driven parents, and the rock-star status of Se Ri Pak, who has won 23 tournaments and is one of the nation's biggest sports celebrities. Yet the logic of this formula has always been confounded by a puzzling fact: South Korea happens to be a nation where it is singularly difficult for a young person to play golf. There are only 200 golf courses in the entire country, compared with 17,000 in the United States.
Viewed through the prism of myelin, however, the situation makes more sense. The lack of public courses sends golf-hungry parents and kids to South Korea's abundant driving ranges, which are Elysian fields of myelination compared to the relative randomness of course play. Were South Korea to increase access to courses, it could be argued, the country might wind up producing fewer top golfers.
Then there's the Dominican Republic, which has historically produced more Major League Baseball players than any other country outside the United States. Conventional wisdom holds that this remarkable record arises from the fruitful collision of a baseball-mad culture and grinding poverty. The equation is undeniably true, but it's also true of several nearby countries that don't achieve a fraction of the Dominican Republic's success.
There is one way, however, in which the Dominican Republic is historically unique. It's the first place where Major League Baseball teams built training academies — two dozen of them, starting in the mid-1970s. While academies provide players with obvious advantages like good nutrition and housing, not to mention regular exposure to scouts, they also provide a daily structure of drills and practices that, like the South Korean driving ranges, would presumably be a ripe environment for building myelin. 5
The most impressive myelin collection I encountered during my Moscow trip belonged to a woman encased in a sheepskin coat, fur-trimmed boots and a fuzzy white hat. Elena Dementieva, 25, represented the acme of the Spartak product. She stood 5-foot-11, weighed 141 pounds and emanated a vibration of such unearthly physical perfection that crowds parted as she moved down the sidewalk. Seeing Dementieva walk into the Russian Army sports club, where she trains between tournaments, I flashed to an image of the Spartak kids and felt a brief parental pang of disbelief. Such a transformation seemed impossible.6
Sitting down on a set of courtside bleachers (level gaze, warm laugh, no hint of divahood), Dementieva told her story. Surprisingly, she had been rejected by several other clubs as too slow before landing at Spartak. She spoke fondly, if a little vaguely, of her days at the club: dodging stray dogs, washing dirty tennis balls in the sink, doing homework on the long subway ride. Her first instructor was the renowned Rausa Islanova (the mother of Dinara Safina and of the men's 2000 United States Open winner, Marat Safin), who was known for her strictness and her elimination system in which students competed for a constantly shrinking number of slots. Dementieva's group started with 25 students; within a year it was down to 7. Of those 7 kids, 4 became world-class players (Myskina, Kournikova and Safin were the other 3).
"Spartak was good for me, I think," Dementieva said, squinting as if she were peering into her hazy past. "I always had a feeling that I was going forward, getting better technique."
When Dementieva took the court to practice, she began with a set of those Jack LaLanne-style warm-ups — sidesteps, jumping jacks, high steps. She looked as if she were still a member of the Little Group, so much so that, watching from the bleachers, I was momentarily unsure whether it was her or some beginner. Dementieva did imitatsiya; she practiced each stroke in slow motion. Then, when her male sparring partner showed up, she proceeded to hit the ball so hard, accurately and consistently that it seemed she was playing a sport I'd never seen before. Again and again, her body rose to the ball in a twist of ballistic force, the power betrayed only by the snakelike rise of her thick blond braid. The ball hissed.
Trying to wrap my head around the metamorphic process through which a too-slow kid could become . . . her, well, it left me utterly at a loss, able only to fumble for such useful scientific terms as "magic" and "miracle."
Fortunately, there are more rational people to consult, and perhaps the most rational is K. Anders Ericsson, who has devoted much of his life to studying phenomena like Dementieva and Spartak. Ericsson, a native of Sweden and a professor of psychology at Florida State University, is co-editor of "The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance," published in 2006. If talented people can be thought of as a singular species, then Ericsson is its John J. Audubon, and the handbook is his painstakingly annotated field guide.
The handbook runs to 901 pages, so, in the interest of time, allow me to sum up. Every talent, according to Ericsson, is the result of a single process: deliberate practice, which he defines as "individuals engaging in a practice activity (typically designed by teachers) with full concentration on improving some aspect of their performance." In a moment of towering simplification, "The Handbook" distills its lesson to a formula known as the Power Law of Learning: T = a P-b . (Don't ask.) A slightly more useful translation: Deliberate practice means working on technique, seeking constant critical feedback and focusing ruthlessly on improving weaknesses.
"It feels like you're constantly stretching yourself into an uncomfortable area beyond what you can quite do," Ericsson told me. It's hard to sustain deliberate practice for long periods of time, which may help explain why players like Jimmy Connors succeeded with seemingly paltry amounts of practice while their competitors were hitting thousands of balls each day. As the tennis commentator Mary Carillo told me, "He barely practiced an hour a day, but it was the most intense hour of your life."
Ericsson also discusses the Ten-Year Rule, an intriguing finding dating to 1899, which shows that even the most talented individual requires a decade of committed practice before reaching world-class level. (Even a prodigy like the chess player Bobby Fischer put in nine hard years before achieving his grandmaster status at age 16.) While this rule is often used to backdate the ideal start of training (in tennis, girls peak physically at around 17, so they ought to start by 7; boys peak later, so 9 is O.K.), the Ten-Year Rule has more universal implications. Namely, it implies that all skills are built using the same fundamental mechanism, and that the mechanism makes physiological demands from which no one is exempt.
This is not to suggest that the only difference between an average Joe and Michael Jordan is a few thousand hours of deliberate practice. Almost all of the scientists I spoke with agreed that inheritance is a huge factor in potential, if perhaps not in quite the way we've commonly assumed. (Perhaps, as George Bartzokis suggests, Jordan's greatest natural gift was his powerful oligodendrocytes.)
All in all, Ericsson's theory sounds logical and appealing, but part of me rises up in rebellion. What about geniuses? What about young Mozart's famous ability to transcribe entire scores on a single hearing? What about Shakespeare or Leonardo or those 14-year-old Ph.D. candidates? What about savants, who walk up to the piano or a Rubik's cube and are magically brilliant?
T = a P-b would be the reply.
In his 1999 book, "Genius Explained," Michael Howe of the University of Exeter speculates that Mozart studied some 3,500 hours of music with his instructor father by his sixth birthday, a number that places his musical memory into the realm of impressive but obtainable party tricks. Savants, it is pointed out, excel within narrow domains that feature clear, logical rules (classical piano, math, occasionally art — as opposed to, say, jazz clarinet). Furthermore, savants typically possess prior exposure to those domains, such as listening to music around the home. Savants' true expertise, the research suggests, is in their ability to practice obsessively, even when it doesn't look as if they're practicing. As Ericsson succinctly put it, "There's no cell type that geniuses have that the rest of us don't."
So let's return to the initial question: how does Spartak do it? If the new science is right and myelination is to talent as photosynthesis is to plant growth, then Spartak makes it abundantly clear that photosynthesis alone is never enough; you also need soil, water, air, sunlight, luck. The question becomes, which variables are helping Spartak's myelin grow to such riotous abundance? Four factors stand above the rest:
1. Driven Parents. The hunger and ambition of Russian parents is uniquely strong, particularly when one considers how hard life is in Russia right now and also that the patron saint of Russian tennis parents is the ex-Siberian oil-field worker Yuri Sharapov, who came to America with less than $1,000 and his 7-year-old daughter, Maria, who now earns an estimated $30 million a year in endorsements. On the other hand, while they are intense, Russian parents aren't all that different a group from the parents in Serbia, the Czech Republic or Mission Viejo, Calif.
2. Early Starts. The kids here start young and specialize early. They are tennis players, and not much else competes for their attention (only a handful owned video games, according to my informal poll), and they also benefit from a Russian culture that's built to select athletes and shield them from academic pressures. Incidentally, there were indeed elite athletic genes floating around at Spartak: Alexandra's parents were famous figure skaters, and another kid was Myskina's cousin. So good genes probably play a role, or (just as likely, to my mind) there's a beneficial effect to growing up in an environment of working athletes.
3. Powerful, Consistent Coaches. Most tennis coaches I saw were treated with a respect reserved for university professors. The tennis clubs I visited were patrolled by a squad of Brezhnev lookalikes who offered advice that seemed hewed from stone. Their institutional specialty is biomechanics, but the point is perhaps not so much in the details of that coaching, but rather in the passion, rigor and uniformity with which that coaching is delivered. This, incidentally, is the opposite of the entrepreneurial system in which many American tennis coaches operate, as they often compete with one another, relying on their ability to sell their services to sometimes anxious parents. American coaches have to be unique to survive; Russian coaches are mostly the same.
4. Cultural Toughness. As poets have pointed out, the intrinsic hardiness of the Russian woman is legendary. Historically, this might have something to do with the hardships of life under Communism and the loss of 11 million soldiers in World War II. Whatever the cause, the immediate effect is a tangible mental toughness and a work ethic second to none. After all, at Spartak, they don't speak of "playing" tennis. The verb they like to use is borot'sya — to struggle.
If I gave in to the uncontrollable Ericssonian urge to put Spartak's success into a formula, it would read something like:
But in the end, as I look around the court, it can't come down to a formula because formulas are rational, and whatever Spartak is, it isn't entirely rational. It's a bunch of kids in a dumpy club who are burning to be here, for whom every swing is meaningful, who wake up in the morning and say, "Today is my day with Larisa Dmitrievna!" It's deeply and purposefully irrational, because it's built on a love of sport and country that can't be explained but holds everything together anyway. Spartak is not science; what happens here is not analogous to what happens in a factory or a laboratory. It's closer to what happens in a garden, a forgotten, rundown garden that somehow produces marvelous tomatoes, summer after summer. 7
Thwock . . . thwock . . . thwock . . . thwock.
The Little Group was smacking it now, the balls zipping over the net and ricocheting off the far wall. Preobrazhenskaya, the gardener, watched with a smile, occasionally correcting a backswing or a grip, nudging the kids on with a murmur of praise and instruction: "Clever boy." "Good girl." "No." "Correct." "Not there." "That's it."
On my last day at Spartak, I met one more player. Her name was Kseniya; she was 5, and she'd come for a tryout. Her parents, an upscale pair, ducked through the low door and asked Larisa Dmitrievna if she might have a moment. Kseniya had black pigtails held in place with pink ribbons. She wore new silver tennis shoes. She walked solemnly, one step behind her parents, carrying a tiny pink racket. Something in the precision of her walk, in her air of self-possession, reminded me of my daughter Zoe.
Preobrazhenskaya put her arm on Kseniya's shoulder and walked her to the corner of the court, out of the parents' earshot. The girl looked up into the coach's face. "She has good eyes," Preobrazhenskaya said later.
Preobrazhenskaya rotated Kseniya's arms in a wide circle, feeling for looseness in her muscles, which she regarded as a good sign. Preobrazhenskaya then showed Kseniya a new tennis ball, and told her what was about to happen. Kseniya listened closely, and nodded. Then the coach tossed the ball lightly, and Kseniya, her small body coming alive at once, ran to catch it.
• • •
1 In September, as part of an ongoing effort to revive American tennis, the United States Tennis Association plans to centralize its player development program at the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Fla., a new complex that will feature 23 courts (14 lighted), dormitories, a state-of-the-art video lounge and a staff of 30, including a mental-conditioning coach. Tuition with room and board will cost as much as $42,000 a year. By comparison, the Russian Tennis Federation's total youth-development budget is estimated to be between $300,000 and $400,000.
2 Timing is vital because neurons are binary: either they fire or they don't — no gray areas. Their firing depends solely on whether the incoming impulse is strong enough to exceed the neuron's threshold of activation. To explain the implications of this effect, Fields had me imagine a skill circuit in which two neurons need to combine their impulses to make a third, high-threshold neuron fire — for, say, a golf swing. In order to combine properly, those two incoming impulses must arrive at nearly exactly the same time — sort of like two people running at a heavy door to push it open. The time window turns out to be about four milliseconds, or roughly the time it takes a bee to flap its wings once. If the first two signals arrive more than four milliseconds apart, the door stays shut, the crucial third neuron doesn't fire and the golf ball soars into the rough (or, as I was reflexively picturing, Zoe swings and misses the purple ball). "Your brain has so many connections and possibilities that your genes can't code the neurons to time things so precisely," Fields said. "But you can build myelin to do it."
3 These studies shine a new light on the neuro-anatomist Marian C. Diamond's 1985 finding that the left, inferior parietal lobe of Albert Einstein's brain, though it had a typical number of neurons, had significantly more glial cells than her other samples, a study that neurologists at the time considered so meaningless as to be nearly comical but that now seems to make sense, bandwidth-wise.
4 The list of myelin-related pathologies is long and, Bartzokis believes, includes multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's as well as a wider range of conditions, like schizophrenia, dyslexia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism, all of which can be understood as disorders of impulse timing.
5 Venezuela is a more recent example of this phenomenon. In 1989, the Houston Astros opened the first of what are now nine major-league academies there, and a few years later, the number of Venezuelans in the big leagues started to rise. Since 1995, 125 Venezuelans have broken into Major League Baseball, 51 more than had appeared in all the years up to that point.
6 In children, myelin arrives in a series of waves, some of them determined by biological code, some of them dependent on activity. These waves last into young adulthood. Until this time, the brain is extraordinarily receptive to learning new skills. Though adults retain the ability to myelinate throughout life (thankfully, 5 percent of our oligos remain immature, ready to answer the call), anyone who has tried to learn a language or musical instrument late in life can testify that it costs a lot more time and sweat to build the requisite circuitry. The effortlessness is the first thing to go.
7 Replicating the Spartak system in the United States (or, for that matter, installing Dominican-style baseball academies or forcing young golfers to practice only at driving ranges) would likely not create a sudden wellspring of stars. The reasons that the United States is losing ground on the talent map have less to do with training mechanisms and more to do with bigger factors: a highly distractive youth culture, a focus on the glamour of winning rather than on the brickwork of building technique and a sporting environment that is gentler than those found in many of the world's harder corners.
"You can't keep breast-feeding them all the time," Robert Lansdorp, a tennis coach in Los Angeles, told me. "You've got to make them an independent thinker." Lansdorp, who is in his 60s, has coached Sharapova, along with the former No. 1-ranked players Pete Sampras, Tracy Austin and Lindsay Davenport, all three of whom grew up in the same area and played at the same run-of-the-mill tennis clubs near Los Angeles. "You don't need a fancy academy," he said. "You need fundamentals and discipline, and in this country nobody gives a damn about fundamentals and discipline." Lansdorp also mentioned that he'd visited Spartak last year to teach a clinic. "It was a pretty different place," he said. "But that Larisa, she sure knows her stuff."
Daniel Coyle wrote about the endurance cyclist Jure Robic in the February 2006 issue of Play.
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By: hockeygod (offline) Monday, November 29 2010 @ 05:10 AM GMT
April 26, 2010
The Science of Genius: A Q&A With Author David Shenk
By DWYER GUNN
Practice makes genius? That’s the idea behind the research of people like Anders Ericsson. It’s also at the center of a new book, The Genius in All of Us,by journalist David Shenk. Shenk robustly disputes the popular belief that intelligence and talent are genetically predetermined, and methodically explains the thousands of hours of practice behind the “genius” of a host of musical and athletic superstars (and those amazing London cabbies).
Can anyone be Michael Jordan? Probably not, but Shenk believes that most people are capable of a lot more than they realize. His book explores ideas similar to those recently covered in books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated, and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, but there are plenty of new angles in Shenk’s Genius. He has agreed to answer a few questions about the book.
Q. The idea that genes simplistically dictate both physical attributes and intellectual capabilities (or lack thereof) is pretty widespread, perhaps because of those Mendel-inspired eye color charts everyone fills out in high school biology, but the truth is a bit more complicated. How do genes work? Most importantly of all, can two blue-eyed parents really produce a brown-eyed child?
A. They really can. The key thing for people to understand about genes is that, while of course they substantially impact everything about who we are, the actual end results for any trait — eye color, height, athleticism, musicality — is the result of a dynamic interaction between genes and their immediate environment. Genes don’t contain instructions for eye color per se; they contain instructions on how proteins should be assembled. Exactly how those instructions get transmitted and subsequently become eye color, etc., is constantly affected by hormones, which in turn can be affected by nutrition, stress, activity, even thoughts. Genes are not blueprints — they’re more like switches that get turned on and off.
This may seem jarring to a lot of people who, as you say, learned the more simplistic Mendelian version. But the gene expression paradigm is widely accepted among geneticists.
Q. So if intelligence isn’t predetermined by genes, what does determine intelligence?
A. Genes influence intelligence, to be sure. But fundamentally, intelligence is an accumulation of skills — not an innate thing. We all have genetic differences that are going to impact how we develop and learn. But that’s a far cry from saying that some people are just genetically doomed to be lackluster and others are destined to be brilliant. Intellectual skills and the psychological motivation to develop them begin to develop not long after birth and remain in play until you take your last breath.
Q. What about pure geniuses like Michael Jordan or Mozart? Those kinds of extraordinary people must just be different than the rest of us — more genetically gifted, right?
A. That’s what it looks like from far away. Jordan flies through the air with such grace and abilities so far apart from mine that it seems he must be some sort of genetically gifted super-being. The rebuttal to this actually takes an entire book to convey, but it first involves helping people understand that everything about talent is a process. There’s the genetic piece, and then there’s the ability piece. When you look very closely at Jordan’s life, you see a rather ordinary teenage athlete with no particularly grand ambition until about mid-way through high school. (Don’t take my word for it – read David Halberstam’s Playing For Keeps.) After the deep disappointment of not making the varsity team, Jordan developed an unparalleled ambition that quite simply dwarfed that of his schoolmates in high school and later his teammates at the University of North Carolina. Jordan’s abilities developed according to what he demanded of himself.
The same is true of other super-achievers. From a distance, it looks like they’ve got something almost super-human about them. But when you look up close, at the moment-to-moment lives they lead, the sacrifices they make, the extraordinary resources they have around them, their abilities actually do make logical sense. If it’s documented closely enough, you can actually see how they went from mediocre to good, from good to great, from great to extraordinary.
This is not to say that anyone can literally became anything, or that we’re equal in our potential. But from my vantage point, the true genetic gift is the design of the genome itself — our bodies and our minds are simply designed to respond to environmental demands.
Q. You give evidence in the book that child prodigies are often not successful as adults. Why not?
A. Several reasons. First is that the skills are quite different. Child achievers are masters of a particular technical skill, which is impressive compared to other children; adult achievers have technical skill too, of course, but also a creative layer which is quite different. It often doesn’t naturally follow that the young technical achievers will also become creative masters.
The second reason is that early super achievers often get stuck in the psychology of their own success. Children who grow up surrounded by praise for being technically proficient at a specific task often develop a natural aversion to stepping outside their comfort zone. Instead of falling into a pattern of taking risks and regularly pushing themselves just beyond their limit, they develop a terrible fear of new challenges and of any sort of flaw or failure. Ironically, this leads them away from the very building blocks of adult success. Boston College’s Ellen Winner has written eloquently about this issue.
Q. The Genius in All of Us is “not a instruction manual about how YOU TOO can become JUST LIKE WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE!” but you do offer some suggestions for how the average person can achieve greatness. Can you share a few of them with us?
A. In the book, the suggestions are made specifically in the context of understanding the science that lies behind them. Without that scientific underpinning, they’ll likely come off as motivational pablum. But here goes…
BE YOUR OWN TOUGHEST CRITIC.
Nietzsche wrote: “All great artists and thinkers [are] great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.” His observation was dead-on, and timeless. Hollywood movies suggest that genius is a series of Eureka! moments, that true greatness flows effortlessly. We live under the great myth of the perfect first draft. While moments of inspiration do exist, great work is, for the most part, painstaking and cannot happen without the most severe (and constructive) self-criticism.
DELAY GRATIFICATION AND RESIST CONTENTEDNESS.
In consumer culture, we are constantly conditioned to gratify our impulses immediately: buy, eat, watch, click— now. High achievers transcend these impulses. Like the Buddha who waits patiently at the gates of heaven until all others have entered before him, young Kenyans are content to run for many years before they can even dream of competing in a major international contest. The tiny violinist screeches out earsplitting sounds not because he thinks a dazzling concerto is right around the corner, but because there is something satisfying in the struggle and in the tiny improvements made along the way. The big prize is envisioned and appreciated as a far-off goal— it is not lusted after. Small accomplishments along the way provide more than enough satisfaction to continue.
Q. What does this new understanding of genetics and intelligence mean for parenting? What can parents do to help their kids achieve greatness?
A. In this limited space, let me just stick to one point, which is that parents need to model a life of delayed gratification and persistence if they want their kids to embrace those values themselves. Show your kids how hard you work, how often you experience disappointments and how you respond to those disappointments. If you blame others for your failures or simply give up, that’s what your kids will learn. If you take on a long-term challenge, show a deep commitment to the process and a refusal to give up in the face of adversity, your kids will pick that up instead.
Dean M.Ed (Coaching)
Ch.P.C. (Chartered Professional Coach)
Game Intelligence Training "Great education depends on great teaching."
By: hockeygod (offline) Monday, November 29 2010 @ 06:09 AM GMT
I have spoken to two people I have recently mentored and they asked me to tell them my reason(s) as to why I thought I have been "successful" in coaching. Kind of a coincidence in the timing, as I re-read this article... so some relevance to my story!
The first thing I told them was "you need to find what you like - your passion in life - and pursue it. But be true to yourself (your values and morals) in the process." Opportunities, ongoing education and experiences. You will never know it all. Keep your ego in check and commit to being a like-long learner! You aren't better than anyone else. Share your wisdom with others as this is a form of professional development. Stay true to your ethics and morals. If the situation doesn't match them, don't pursue the situation any further - on this you should not compromise. The mental conflicts are not worth it. (Been there, done that... this is the voice of experience talking!) A great quote I just read last month - can't remember where or who it is from: "Silence in the presence of wrongdoing is complicity." Or as Brad Hamilton in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) said to Jeff Spicoli, "Learn it. Know it. Live it!" <...meaning - Know Yourself!>
The second thing I said was self-awareness. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Highlight the strengths and mask the weaknesses (while you work to make them better!) For example, whether you are winning, developing players for the next level, or teaching kids important life skills; try to reflect and ask yourself, how did I achieve these things? Conversely, losing or getting fired can be traumatic, but you need to look at the situation after some time has passed, and examine what really happened and why. How can you become better? Act like yourself - not someone else. Your coaching style is uniquely you! Chose good mentors and learn from them (everyone has good and bad parts... sift through all of it to get what is best for you!)
The third thing I said was "perseverance." If you like what you do, odds are you will continue, so kind of inter-connected to "find your passion." You need to define success and failure for yourself and your own situation. Not every experience will turn out grand! Lots of times, others, and maybe yourself, will think you have failed. You need to have the ability to reload and bounce back after experiencing a setback. How many times did it take Edison to 'invent' the light bulb? He 'failed' so often, telling himself he 'discovered' another way NOT to make a light bulb... so how he approached it, wasn't failure at all.
("Born on February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio; the seventh and last child of Samuel and Nancy Edison. When he was seven his family moved to Port Huron, Michigan and Edison lived there until he struck out on his own at the age of sixteen. He had very little formal education as a child, attending school only for a few months. He was taught reading, writing, and arithmetic by his mother, but was always a very curious child and taught himself much by reading on his own. This belief in self-improvement remained throughout his life.")
The last thing I said was "have a plan." I created a plan in High School (it was pretty rough!) but I gave myself 10 years to achieve it. At the forefront of my plan was to play for Canada's National Hockey Team. I didn't quite get there, but I played in Canada, the USA, Finland and Sweden. By the 10th year, I was on the bench running the defence - coaching my first international game as a member of Team Canada! (It was my 28th birthday, several kids who I had coached at the junior level in BC came to town to surprise me - they came to see me coach and take me out for dinner and drinks afterward; plus one of my cousin's got married earlier in the day... at a church one block from the rink! What a coincidence!)
Now I do 5-year plans. More detailed and more categories than my first attempt! And I evaluate it every 3-6 months and make adjustments. I have achieved a bunch by doing this, so in my own definition, "I have been successful!" I still have lots more I want to do though...
Now, on to the article!
For the Best of the Best, Determination Outweighs Nature and Nurture
By ALINA TUGEND
Published: April 9, 2010 NY TIMES
I’VE always been considered a good writer and a terrible singer. I pick up sports quickly but draw like a 2-year-old. My talents, such as they are, seemed pretty set by the time I was in my late teens.
Most of us think of talent as an ability we’re born with and have fairly little control over. But increasingly, experts are questioning the notion that genes limit how far we can go.
“We’re at a very interesting moment in this discussion, where new science is giving us an X-ray of what lies beneath speed and fluency of great performances,” said Daniel Coyle, author of “The Talent Code” (Bantam Books, 2009). “A lot has to do with genes, but more doesn’t.”
This sounds like the familiar nature-versus-nurture arguments — how much of us is what we are born with and how much is due to our environment. But scientific research shows that the interplay between environment and genes is far more intricate than that.
“I’d like to blow up the words nature and nurture as two distinct things,” said David Shenk, author of “The Genius in All of Us” (Doubleday, 2010). “They are completely intertwined.”
Talent, Mr. Shenk said, needs to be seen as a process rather than as a thing that we either have or we don’t. “I see this as the beginning of a more nuanced conversation,” he said.
Why does this matter? Because if we think of talent as more or less immutable, then we’re selling ourselves and our children short.
K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University, is one of the leading researchers in the field of expertise. He has spent years studying what makes people great at what they do, be they violinists or chess players or athletes.
In his research, he said, there appears to be very little evidence that talent is linked to individual genetic differences. One exception he sees is height. It’s difficult, for example, to be a professional basketball player if you’re too short or an Olympic gymnast if you’re too tall.
But it does not follow, Professor Ericsson said, that everyone can become great, or even really good, in a given arena. First of all, you need to have parents willing to put in an intensive amount of resources and time in helping you excel.
In fact, research has shown that most people who are really outstanding in their fields don’t come out of nowhere. Top-notch musicians are usually born into families where music plays a dominant role. The same is true with sports or any other endeavor.
In addition, by studying those who have excelled, Professor Ericsson has found that they engage in something he calls “deliberate practice.” It involves spending hours a day in highly structured activities to improve performance and overcome weaknesses.
The practice is not necessarily enjoyable and requires someone willing to put in the grueling hours over at least 10 years. From his observations, it takes a minimum of a decade of deliberate practice to excel in any field.
But he is not talking about practicing every day, all day. Four hours a day is usually the maximum that anyone can do to really get the most out of the effort, he said. After that, exhaustion sets in.
“Most people wouldn’t be able to engage in deliberate practice for even a few weeks,” Professor Ericsson said. And that’s one of the biggest reasons why more of us don’t get to — or even near — the top levels in a given field.
Not everyone agrees with Professor Ericsson that genes play such a minimal role in talent. Dean Simonton, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, who has also studied this area for many years, argues that “genetics influence how quickly and how well a person can master the expertise necessary to perform at world-class levels.”
Moreover, the very process of acquiring that expertise requires tremendous drive and determination. But where does that exceptional motivation and energy come from? Is it learned or inherited — or another combination of nature and nurture?
While, for example, we may not inherit a music or a writing gene, Professor Simonton said, our openness to experience is partly attributed to genetic influence, and “that trait is correlated with achievement in all domains that require exceptional creativity.”
So what’s the point of this? That it’s awfully hard to become great at something? We probably all know that. And the reality is that most of us are not going to be Picassos or Shakespeares.
But these concepts are still important. Because even if we give lip service to the idea that hard work will make us better, it’s awfully hard to overcome the belief that we’re born a certain way and there’s not much we can do about it.
“Most of us are far from our potential,” said Angela Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. “The prevailing wisdom, for much of the last century, has been that talent is the most important determinant of achievement. Our focus in the next millennium is turning to all those things that unlock talent, including grit, self-discipline and confidence.”
Grit is what Professor Duckworth calls perseverance or, as she defines it, “the capacity to sustain effort toward a very long-term and challenging goal.” Her studies have shown that grittier individuals thrive in extremely challenging situations, and that grit is quite distinct from talent.
But it’s dangerous for parents to think that if talent is much more malleable than we used to believe, we can somehow make our children into great ballplayers or artists. Those of us who have tried — trumpet lessons, anyone? — know you can’t force your children to become interested in something.
Or you could probably push your children to excel in an area by parenting in a way few would advocate — “withhold love and affection and trade it for achievement,” Mr. Shenk said. As the recent memoir by the tennis star Andre Agassi shows, that recipe can produce a highly accomplished yet very unhappy adult.
“I want my kids to aspire to greatness,” Mr. Shenk said. “I want them to work hard and to have the deep satisfaction of striving. But I don’t want them to have a two-dimensional life.”
What we can do is teach ourselves and our children that we have far more ability to develop our skills than we think we do, but that it doesn’t come easily, said Daniel H. Pink, author of “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” (Riverhead, 2009).
“A lot of parents are obsessed with cognitive skills,” like reading or mathematics, Mr. Pink said. “But we’re not good at teaching noncognitive skills,” like sticking with it when the work gets tough and understanding that failure and disappointment are part of success.
“Are we establishing a generation literate in perseverance?” he asked. “After all, what’s more satisfying than getting something and mastering it?”
With all this talk about talent, it’s easy to forget one thing. While I love watching someone who is terrific at what they do and I also know the great feeling of accomplishing something difficult, it’s too easy to let admiration of such skills overshadow less visible attributes — like kindness and generosity. While I may marvel at great achievers, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to live in a world full of them.
Dean M.Ed (Coaching)
Ch.P.C. (Chartered Professional Coach)
Game Intelligence Training "Great education depends on great teaching."
This article speaks to the efforts of Sydney Crosby to continually work on his skills - and add new ones to his repertoire! What adds to the impact is that it is Steve Yzerman, another person who worked tirelessly to refine his skills, is the one making the comments!
STEVE YZERMAN ADMIRES CROSBY'S COMMITMENT TO GETTING BETTER
THE CANADIAN PRESS 12/7/2010
PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The more Steve Yzerman watches Sidney Crosby play, the more things he finds to like.
The Tampa Bay Lightning general manager believes Crosby has taken his game to another level this season for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"He's a great example for all young players that here we have one of the best players in our game, a young guy just driven to get better in all areas," Yzerman said Tuesday after the NHL's board of governors meeting. "It's so important because he can play in all situations and score the goal, set up the goal, he can win the faceoff, he'll block a shot.
"How valuable is that?"
Crosby has been on a tear for the last month, putting up 18 goals and 33 points during a 16-game point streak. He'll look to extend it when the Toronto Maple Leafs visit Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
The 23-year-old entered Tuesday with an eight-point lead in the scoring race over Lightning forward Steven Stamkos.
"He's just getting better every year," Yzerman said of Crosby. "He really works at every part of his game. You've just watched him develop in all aspects of the game whether it be his faceoff percentage, his shot -- he's scoring goals in different ways -- he's always been a goal-scorer, but he's added a wrist shot coming down the wing, a one-timer on the power play ...
"He's just continually adding to it."
On the eve of the Vancouver Olympics in February, Yzerman likened Crosby's development to that of former basketball star Michael Jordan. The forward went on to score the winning goal in overtime of the gold-medal game for Team Canada, which was assembled by Yzerman.
Crosby is currently on pace for a career-best 68 goals and 136 points this season.
HBO cameras are currently embedded with the Penguins and Washington Capitals to record footage for the four-part "24/7" series. Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero believes viewers of that program will see a different side to Crosby, who often comes across as serious.
"He has a great sense of humour," said Shero. "He's a good kid. He's good with his teammates.
"That's his comfort level, right there in the locker-room with the guys, or on the road, on the plane, on the bus. He has a great personality and hopefully it does come out."
The first episode of the show airs Dec. 15 on HBO Canada.
The series has already generated plenty of buzz around the league -- even among the owners who were shown a 12-minute trailer during the board of governors meetings.
"The governors gave it an ovation," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. "They started clapping when it was over. ... This is truly special (access). This is perhaps unprecedented, particularly in the regular season, for any sport.
"People were extraordinarily pleased with the trailer and from what we hear the trailer isn't anywhere as good as the real show will be."
Dean M.Ed (Coaching)
Ch.P.C. (Chartered Professional Coach)
Game Intelligence Training "Great education depends on great teaching."
Another Crosby article - this time saluted by his peers. Hmmm... maybe deliberate practice + passion = Crosby?
Crosby now in league on his own
December 7, 2010
By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
PITTSBURGH — It could have happened when he won his first Stanley Cup.
Or when he led Canada to a gold medal at the 2010 Olympics.
Or last April when he reached 50 goals for the first time in his career.
At any one of those times, Sidney Crosby we could have ditched the Sid the Kid handle with the recognition that perhaps the superstar had arrived in the prime of his career.
The only problem is there appears to be no end in sight to the upward curve for the Pittsburgh Penguins captain, who over his past 16 games may be playing the best in his young but remarkably accomplished life in hockey.
Leading the Penguins to a 10-game win streak and starting to distance himself in the scoring race from the other young NHL stars, Crosby is making plays that are even surprising his teammates.
“When you’ve got guys on our bench looking at each other and shaking their heads and saying: ‘Did you see that?’ ... it’s a pretty special play,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said following a Penguins practice on Tuesday in advance of a Wednesday date with the Maple Leafs.
“We’ve seen him do special things a lot — the highlight reel is long. But the consistency level is there now. There’s no cheat (to his play). What we’re seeing right now is pretty unique night in and night out.”
Former teammate Bill Guerin, in town to announce his retirement this week, put it even more succinctly.
“What Sidney’s doing right now, it’s like an assault on the game,” Guerin said.
And, as the numbers emphatically support, the bullets are coming from everywhere.
With 24 goals and 24 assists in 29 games, Crosby is starting to dominate like he never has before. On pace for a 135-point season, if he keeps this up, the Nova Scotia native will have the most productive season since his boss, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, piled up 161 points in 1995-96.
“It’s capitalizing on your chances,” Crosby said when asked why he’s playing the best statistically in his career. “I don’t feel like I’m getting that many more chances than I have in the past.
“I think at this point I’m just making the most of my opportunities. I don’t feel any different.”
Humble as always, Crosby is no authority on his own performance.
Once pegged as more of a playmaker, in each of his five previous seasons Crosby has had more assists than goals, often dramatically so. Complementing those skills were the occasional timely goal and defensive responsibility not always embraced by the game’s most skilled players.
But every year, Crosby looks to improve. This year, it would seem, the great leap forward is in a scoring touch and shot that weren’t always his main artillery.
“It’s as good as I’ve seen any hockey player play,” Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis said. “He’s on the top of his game, not only putting points on the board but blocking shots, winning faceoffs and playing in his own zone.
“He’s at another level right now. Now one can even compare.”
Throughout his career, Crosby’s motivation has always come from within. Not one for bold and brash, he has been content to let his play carry the commentary.
But timely enough, isn’t it, that Crosby’s latest surge is coming at a time when a couple other notable younger players are making noise. Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin, who has linked with Crosby for a couple of seasons now is one, for no other reason than the HBO documentary crews that are tailing bout the Caps and Pens.
The other is young Tampa star Steven Stamkos, who appeared on a recent cover of the Hockey News with the declaration of “The NHL’s New Best Player.”
As you would expect, Penguins players scoff at that provocative headline. When asked about it, Crosby is polite as usual, suggesting the topic could make for a lively discussion.
“It’s a pretty common argument or debate and that’s for other people to decide,” Crosby said Tuesday in the comfort of the Penguins dressing room. “I’m sure (Stamkos) wants to be his best and I want to be mine.”
As for reaching the prime of his career, Crosby doesn’t sound like a guy who believes his will arrive any time soon.
“Your prime what is that?,” Crosby said. “You have one good year at 24 and that’s your prime?
“I think it’s different for everybody. I think it depends on a lot of things. When you come in, everybody develops differently and adjusts and depending on your situation and role with the team.”
Bylsma believes that as long as Crosby is in the game, he’ll never play like he’s reached the zenith. The shot can always be harder and more precise, the next pass more crisp.
“Sidney Crosby is always going to be trying to get better no matter what age he’s at,” Bylsma said.
“If he gets to the point he’s playing at an older age, he’s still going to be getting better. He’s in that process right now and I think he will be in it right to the end.”
On Monday, Crosby played the 400th game of his career and at age 23, that marks a significant body of work. But even those who have been around him for a while are noticing a new level of excellence.
“He doesn’t seem like a young captain any more,” forward Tyler Kennedy said. “He carries himself so well. He’s a great role model for young guys and even older guys.
“It’s hard to tell with a guy like that but if he get’s any better ... I don’t know.”
By Tom Callahan TIME Magazine Monday, Mar. 18, 1985
At the top of their games, the finest athletes' best instinct is never to look back, though the impulse is strong and requests are frequent. Once a performer has transcended the competition, or seemed to at least, he or she begins to play in the past as well as the present, and yesterday is a slippery field with a sliding context. The future can be affected. If they never get any better, they are the only ones who will be disappointed. If they stop to acknowledge the position, they stop. Maybe they become satisfied. The position is acknowledged.
After all, contemporary acclaim is wonderful. Peggy Lee, the jazz singer, once fielded the question "Who is the best jazz singer?" as cleanly as Brooks Robinson reaching over third base: "Do you mean besides Ella?" Such is the esteem in which Wayne Gretzky and Larry Bird are held now. By common agreement, each is the best in his sport, and something more than that. They are changing the elements if not the definition of a star. In Gretzky's and Bird's gloved and bare hands, hockey and basketball appear to improve even as games, seem to become not only more appealing but less incomprehensible. And when what they are doing loses its mystery, how they are doing it becomes the wonder. As Bobby Jones said of Jack Nicklaus, they play a game with which we are not familiar, but would like to be.
Nicklaus has wended his way around the world not only digging divots but scraping new golf tracts out of mountainsides. Presumably he is motivated by something other than a passion for landscaping. Considering his accomplishments, no athlete has avoided arrogance better than Nicklaus, who has slipped as a golfer, even then maybe only as a putter, but is still not quite back to mortal at 45. "I had the confidence to try to be the best ever --you have to," he says. "But I never thought in terms of being it. I don't think even 20 years from now, looking back at the record, I'll ever say it." So he is carving the record in mountains. He is moved by history.
The racquet gouges that the world's No. 1 tennis player, John McEnroe, slashes furiously into Wimbledon's crabgrass scarcely qualify yet as this ! kind of mark. But he has just turned 26 and has not exactly been silenced, or even quieted. Maybe he will grow into a greater mantle. Of all the athletes in their prime, Martina Navratilova should have the nearest understanding of where Gretzky and Bird are situated. For the past three years, her grip on women's tennis has made Margaret Court, Billie Jean King and Chris Evert Lloyd protective of their memories. It would be appropriate to say that Martina has played the competition off its feet, except that she is the only powerful woman tennis player who really leaves her feet, a smasher with an underrated delicateness. The Czech defector does not insist that she is the greatest, as Muhammad Ali would say, of all time, though she believes so. "America gave me the opportunity to play the best tennis any woman ever played, which I think I have done the past few years. Excuse me if that sounds like bragging."
In the right voice, it never sounds like bragging. (Reggie Jackson's is not the right voice.) "I'm very good at my profession," says Jockey Willie Shoemaker, 53, a restrained appraisal of his almost 8,500 victories in 36 years. "I don't know if I'm as strong as I've ever been, but I'm smarter." Still 95 lbs. after so many campaigns, Shoemaker rides "three or four" races every California afternoon, and last week his odometer turned past $100 million in purses won. While the West and East coasts cannot agree on whether Laffit Pincay or Angel Cordero is the ablest jockey today, no one threatens Shoemaker's place. Although he thought of retiring ten years ago, he says, "Something wouldn't let me." You can almost hear a horse cantering when he adds, "I just kind of go along."
Endurance is one of the tests. The ultimate grade comes when it is impossible to call the sport and the man to mind separately. There is one international word for European football or American soccer: Pele. But then a day or two can be a lot, and 45 minutes enough. During the most astonishing three-quarter hour in 1935, Ohio State Sophomore Jesse Owens broke three world track records and tied a fourth. He was ready for the Munich Olympics, his legacy. How long Gretzky and Bird play at the top and stay at the fair will help determine their ultimate reputations.
An all but obsolete baseball player in an all but obsolete position, Cincinnati Reds Manager-Player Pete Rose, 43, is hanging around for the rare chance to meet Ty Cobb this summer--sometime in August, he expects. To the young players under his authority, Rose extends a greeting without apology. "I'm no different from anybody here," he says, "who has two arms, two legs and 4,000 hits." Probably because Rose skipped his true generation, he is good at updating latecomers on events even older than he is. A young fan materialized at the batting cage once just as the topic turned to Joe DiMaggio, whose 56-game hitting streak coincided roughly with Pete's birth. Rose was well into an explanation of what made Joe DiMaggio so great when it became obvious that the boy had no idea who Joe DiMaggio was. "C'mon, you know," he tried to jog a memory, "Mr. Coffee." Whether that helped or not, the light went on in the child's eyes.
DiMaggio's resilient aura 34 years into retirement speaks for the power of grace, though football's Jim Brown has kept his legend for 20 years without leading a notably polite life. Thanks to the persistence of his advocates and the pure power of memory, Sugar Ray Robinson weathered another boxing Sugar Ray without giving up his personalized subtitle "pound for pound." Contemplating why anyone is best in any game is a riddle. If the best pitcher was Sandy Koufax, the best catcher was Johnny Bench and the best hitter was Ted Williams, who was the best player? Willie Mays, of course. In the late '60s, Williams signed the young Bench's baseball "to a Hall of Famer, for sure"; the greatest players seem to know their descendants. Neither Bobby Orr nor Gordie Howe had any difficulty recognizing Gretzky. "He passes better than anybody I've ever seen," says Orr, "and he thinks so far ahead." Howe allows, "In the old six-team league (21 teams now), the opposition would have been able to learn more about him, but it might not have helped."
Bob Cousy, the smoothest passer basketball had ever seen, a man who both guarded and coached Oscar Robertson, says without the merest reservation, "Bird is simply the best who ever played this silly game." He includes Center Bill Russell, Cousy's Boston teammate, whose presence had the most to do with the Celtics' eleven National Basketball Association championships in 13 years. By basketball's nature, it is fundamentally a pivotman's game, the expected province of the Los Angeles Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Philadelphia 76er Moses Malone, but Forward Bird forwardly deposed Malone as the league's MVP last season after placing second three straight years. Another incongruity, a slightly troubling one, has to do with the fact that nine black men and Bird started the last All-Star game. Granting it is unseemly, is it even conceivable that the best basketball player in the world is white? "It's weird," agrees Marques Haynes, the old Fabulous Magicians barnstormer, a neutral expert, "but it's true."
Not merely white, Bird is a paler shade of paste. As a moment of silence descends over him at the foul line, a youthful voice calling out from a courtside row can be heard in the mezzanine: "Larry Bird, why are you so white?" Bird laughs later. "It's amazing. I guess I'm a white superstar in a black man's game, but it's open to all colors." Sometimes from exertion he turns a flamingo shade of pink. Perching on one leg at nearly every pause in the game, he compulsively rubs and preens the tops and bottoms of his feet with both hands, an interesting reaction to a confessed sense that he is slipping, when he is not. All over Boston, kids are doing it.
When the old Detroit Pistons star George Yardley, 56, acknowledged recently that he never would have been able to play professional basketball as it is practiced today, the two-hand set shooter Bob Davies, 65, wisely consoled him: "You can only be a little bit better than your competition." Gretzky and Bird could use each other for competition. Some day they will be explained by the numbers, but the statistics will be as unreliable as Babe Ruth's. "It wasn't just that Ruth hit more home runs than anybody else," observed Red Smith, who rode trains with Ruth and felt no need to exaggerate his ample stature. "He hit them better, higher, farther, with more theatrical timing and more flamboyant flourish. Nobody could strike out like Babe Ruth. Nobody circled the bases with the same pigeon-toed mincing majesty."
When a grandfather some day starts to describe Gretzky and Bird, will he begin with all of the things they could not do, and then wonder? Is it that Gretzky knew precisely where his teammates were heading, or did he put the puck in a place that made them proceed there? Somewhere far below Wilt Chamberlain in points and Robertson in assists, Bird should be just a respectable presence on all of the lists. But two men in one class are too few for a list. Anyone who really wants to know why they were the best will have to have seen them.
Dean M.Ed (Coaching)
Ch.P.C. (Chartered Professional Coach)
Game Intelligence Training "Great education depends on great teaching."
Anyone even casually aware of professional hockey and basketball knows Wayne Gretzky and Larry Bird as shades of no one else, except maybe each other: two unexpectedly alike and amazingly unlikely straw-haired farm boys who are not only reigning at the top of their games but raising the ceilings of their sports. Confounding normal description, confusing standard measurement, Gretzky is not the slickest skater or hardest shooter, just as Bird is not the swiftest runner or highest jumper. One is frankly too frail for the business, the other simply too agile for his size.
Though neither is highly educated, in the study of their games they were prodigies as children, and are intellectuals now. By some similar force of instinct and understanding--maybe Chess Grand Master Bobby Fischer would know about this--they see and play the game several moves ahead of the moment, comprehending not only where everything is but also where everything will be. Shown a photograph of a nondescript instant on the ice, Gretzky can replace the unpictured performers here and there about the periphery and usually recall what became of them the next second. Glancing at the basketball photo in the morning paper, Bird's automatic thought, essentially a reflex, is to note approximately what time the photographer had to snap his picture to make the deadline.
Their eminence in current terms is obvious, since they are the incumbent Most Valuable Players of the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association, and their teams, the Edmonton Oilers and the Boston Celtics, are each the sport's defending champion. But increasingly Gretzky and Bird are referred to as the best hockey and basketball players of all time. Both resist the idea. "It's silly to argue that," Gretzky says. "In my mind Gordie Howe is the best player who ever played hockey and the best man who ever played sports. Then others say Bobby Orr was better than Howe. There'll never be another Howe. There'll never be another Orr. But there'll be another kid to compare them to."
Gretzky was a six-year-old on a team for ten-year-olds, and at eleven made Howe's acquaintance. The great man inquired gently, "Do you practice your shots, son?" "Yes, sir, I do," he replied. "Your backhand too?" "Yes, sir." "Good. Make sure you keep practicing that backhand." Of all the remarkable entries in Gretzky's log--most goals by far in a season (92), most assists by far (125), most points (212), most records (35 in the N.H.L. alone)--the least told is the most telling. The first goal he ever scored in Junior B league play, the first he scored in Junior A, the first in the World Hockey Association and the first in the N.H.L.--all were on backhand shots.
Growing up, Bird was not much aware of the N.B.A., either at seven or 17. He never thought to watch Elgin Baylor perform his legerdemain for the Los Angeles Lakers. When Bird joined the Celtics at 22, six years ago, he knew nothing of Boston Coach Bill Fitch, who had toiled in the league for nine seasons. So no sentimental memory inhibits Bird's self-assessment, just a typically restrained presumption that "people probably tend to forget how good players really were. I'm definitely one of the top ones today, but calling anyone the best ever is too harsh a statement. I put myself in the same category with John Havlicek, someone who works for everything he gets." Not that either MVP denies his ability. "This game is all confidence," Bird says, "and, you know, sometimes it's scary. When I'm at my best, I can do just about anything I want, and no one can stop me. I feel like I'm in total control of everything." The signal for this is when, after shooting, he loops fully around and recoils down the court in triumph before the ball has even reached the basket. "I already know it's all net." His joy is regenerating. "I'll be tired, worn down from travel, or just sad and moody--I consider myself a moody person. But then the ball will go up, and all of a sudden I'm up too. It's wild." Gretzky, reaching that bracing elevation, can actually feel a shift in temperature. "When the play isn't so great, my hands are cold and my feet are freezing. But when it's really good, I can't get enough cold, it's so hot. And then I don't hear anything except the sound of the puck and the stick."
Bird accepts this, his richest statistical season, as the introduction to his prime, "because 28 just sounds about right." That suits Gretzky, who at 24 would fervently like four more years of incline, but he wonders. "When Guy Lafleur retired this season, and I saw he had played only 14 years, I thought, 'Hey, I've played seven already.' Maybe I am halfway through." The first time he and Lafleur ever faced off, it seemed the puck would never drop, and under the tension of the wait, below the clamor of the crowd, he heard Lafleur murmur, "How's it going, Gretz?" Without planning to, Gretzky found himself saying the same thing this year to Star Rookie Mario Lemieux. "How's it going, Mario?"
They never seem to stop going long enough to think about it. From autumn to spring, they crisscross the ice and the court, and the country.
The Celtics are on the road. Of all the caravans in sports, basketball's is the most intimate. Because of their numbers, baseball and football teams are obliged to travel on chartered planes, and customarily fill out the cabins with supernumeraries. But a basketball troupe consists of ten or twelve players, a coach or two, a writer or three, a radio broadcaster and a combination trainer-traveling secretary. They wait with everyone else for undependable commercial departures. Every team's traditional safeguard against a severe fine for missing a game is always to take the first flight out in the morning. So the players are up at 7 each day, bleary vaudevillians pursuing one-night stands.
To Bird, "this part here is all baloney," and he actually counts down the stops. "Just five more games in Dallas." He smacks his lips, calculating one visit a year for the balance of his contract. Dallas' charms have been especially elusive, but few of the league cities warm him. "The same towns over and over. You know where you're going, but you forget where you're coming from. I've seen a lot of places, but I've still never been any place as good as Indiana."
Like globe trotting, grammar has no firm hold on Bird. His manner is countrified enough to give people a comfortable misimpression of his intelligence and sophistication. Either guilelessly or gleefully he contributes to his image. "I read a couple of books this summer, shows you how bored I was," he twangs self-consciously in response to the stares of teammates who have observed him reading Arthur Schlesinger's Robert Kennedy and His Times, and could not be more stunned if he were wearing a necktie. Particularly by N.B.A. standards, it is a paperback of Tolstoyan heft. "This will probably take me three years," Bird moans. Not one for justifying himself much, he explains the selection by mentioning a couple of movies and leaves out the truth that a basic grounding in the Kennedys is a prerequisite for conversation in Boston.
In moderation, he does not mind the public inconvenience attending his celebrity, at least not as much as he used to. It would be nice, however, if he could be left in peace to watch a baseball game at Fenway Park. "Everybody wants to be a part of something. I understand that now," he says. "In college I didn't, but I'm getting better. Some days I want to be around people, but other days I just don't." Seeking privacy, he folds himself up like a lawn chair--haunches, levers and various other right angles--into a tiny airport telephone nook, and picks up Schlesinger on page 85.
Any topic attracting Bird's research inevitably prompts a fascination aboard the hotel jitneys that deliver the Celtics players to airport or gym. As the Kennedy round table inexorably revolves to sex lives, Bird muses, "Who was that blond actress Kennedy supposedly dated?" This brings smiles. How could anyone know of Marilyn Monroe and not know her name? Another time, when the subject is popular music, Bird puzzles, "Who's Bruce Springsteen?" Dan Shaughnessy, the thoughtful young basketball writer for the Boston Globe, answers softly, "Larry, he's the you of rock 'n' roll." Bird laughs wearily. "Where have I been?"
Playing basketball. "I know I missed a lot, but I'm making $2 million a year, and I'm seeing and learning a lot of things, and I wouldn't be doing none of it without basketball. I know a person has to expand, but I'm sort of in college here, and I'm getting smarter." Consequently, he checked out a Springsteen concert and came away an unusual fan. "I'm still not into loud music, but you should see how hard that guy works for four hours. By the time it's about through, you're sick of him, but he still wants to go more. Whew, it wore me out. He's great." Leave it to Bird to admire a man for his perspiration.
In contrast, Boston's other usual starting forward, Cedric Maxwell, is a connoisseur of leisure. At the moment he is caring for a bad knee. During the off-season Maxwell finds it restful to steer his long car to a construction site and watch other men sweat. While he has an undeniable flair for grand occasions on the court, and was the play-off MVP of 1981, now and then in the ordinary going he throttles down for an evening as if idling at a building project. This mildly annoys most of the other players, but it galls Bird, whose farm-bred ethic makes no allowance for sidewalk superintendents.
"My goal in life when I was younger: get out of school, work construction --be a construction guy--pour concrete. I never worried about what I would do, because I always knew I could do something. I put up hay all my life. In school the only thing I thought about was basketball, but I went to class and did my homework. I felt sorry for the players who didn't, and I tried to talk to them, because I knew they were going to have a tough life. And sooner or later it's the same thing on the basketball court. The guy who won't do his schoolwork misses the free throw at the end. In high school we used to shoot fouls at 6:30 in the morning before class, but one of my best friends never showed up. In the regional finals our senior year, he missed three one-and- ones in a row, and we lost in overtime. I never said nothing to him. I just looked at him, and he knew."
The season before last, after the royal Celtics suffered the first four- game sweep in their play-off history, against the Milwaukee Bucks, distinguished First Substitute Kevin McHale puffed out his ostrich breast in the locker room and declared for the average player, "I can walk out of here with my head held high." But Bird spoke for himself, bitterly: "I'm gonna go back home this summer and work harder on basketball than I ever did before." Last year Boston achieved its 15th world championship, and Bird was the MVP of the tournament as well as the season. In the final seven-game play- off, the Lakers won the first in Boston and appeared to have taken the second --with 15 sec. left, Los Angeles held both the lead and the ball--only to blink and lose in overtime. Following a 33-point Laker romp in game 3, Bird referred to the Celtics as sissies, and in the singular episode of the fourth game, McHale ran over Los Angeles Forward Kurt Rambis. The series changed.
That familiar Bill Russell sampler, "He improves every man on the court," has been restitched on Bird, who positions himself so nimbly and is such an innovative passer it scarcely registers that at nearly 6 ft. 10 in., he may be slightly taller than Russell. Neither fame nor finances have compromised Bird's relationship with teammates, because the others not only profit from but are infatuated with his game, especially its essential principle that the most deserving party gets the pass. A 14-ft. jump shooter stationed 17 ft. from the hoop might as well be standing in Oshkosh. Other players on the frantic run may glimpse jersey colors, but Bird always sees people in profile, frailties included. "From a certain spot Kevin will score every time, but from another point right around there he's sure to walk or foul. If I'm pressured into giving him the ball in the wrong place, I'm thinking to myself, 'Don't shoot, Kevin, pass it out.' " As McHale scored a Celtic-record 56 points last week, Bird personally arranged the final nine, with deft assists that included a court-long pass for the lay-up that broke the old regular season mark of 53--Bird's.
He plays a forward position but is closer than either the Lakers' Magic Johnson or Detroit's Isiah Thomas to the ancient point guards, who were considerably less gifted than the moderns but infinitely more mindful of quirks and clocks and subtler vagaries. In the simplest expression for his game, Bird always seems to do the right thing. "I've had good coaching everywhere," he says gratefully--two coaches at each high school, college and professional stop. The first in each case was a stiff fundamentalist, the second "always like K.C. Jones, who tells me, 'You know how to do this, you know how to do that. Go do it.' " Bird values both types, but his special affection for Celtics Coach Jones is evident. "He's a competitor, that's the thing. K.C. takes it personal."
If an impression exists that Bird wins every game on a final-buzzer shot, it traces to two consecutive episodes in January, primarily one basket against Portland to complete a 48-point performance. Range is of no concern to Bird --from beyond the three-point distance of 23 ft. 9 in., he makes nearly half of his shots--so his system for clearing air space at any time is just to step back one yard, ample compensation for even the springiest defenders. His right hand--the one he shoots with, not the one he writes with--is gnarled from a 1979 softball accident that required him to alter his release. Crooking his elbow, he launches the basketball suddenly yet daintily on a lofty arc from off his shoulder. Against Portland, the ball rose out of an odd corner angle and fell after time was exhausted in what seemed to be frozen frames. + "Everyone was quiet in the arena," Jones recalls the hush. "You could see the ball spinning in the air." So far, that seems the only really distinct point in the interminable season.
The Oilers are at home. Temporarily down to a solitary goaltender, awaiting a replacement from the minor leagues, they have recruited an Edmonton policeman, Floyd Whitney, for a practice session. "You're the target today, eh?" one of the stubbly giants greets Whitney reassuringly, as the Stanley Cup champions slide sleepily onto their indoor pond. Despite a proliferation of Europeans, hockey players still tend to be white, toothless Canadians from small, picturesque places, who skated to grammar school on iced-over footpaths until diverted during high school to the big city, where they enjoy drinking beer and occasionally throwing each other through plate glass windows.
Once slicing along at practice, the Oilers are awakened in every way. Though the lively pace of the scrimmage seems only slightly less dangerous than a regular game, helmets have been discarded, and the blush of exhilaration shows on all of their faces but glows on Gretzky's. Inoffensively, he laughs aloud at the successful plays, and drops his long jaw and howls at the blunders, drawing happy curses all around. Wimp does not fairly describe his 5-ft. 11- in., 170-lb. appearance in this bulky company, but it comes to mind. Almost every shot Gretzky takes, Officer Whitney snares in his first-baseman's mitt, an astonishment that the goalie explains later with a chagrined smile: "I didn't even see some of them. He was aiming for my glove."
Near the end of the session, Gretzky slips into a corner and vanishes. Concentrating on Finnish-born Right-Winger Jari Kurri, the Oilers' and the league's second leading scorer, Whitney half-steps out of the mouth of the goal to minimize Kurri's angle, and just then a puck plunks off his back into the net. Whitney says, "If you take your eye off Gretzky, he'll bank it off your skate, your back, your helmet, your wife. I could hang a nickel in the net, and he'd hit it every time." As majestic as the sight of Orr full bore used to be, at least he appeared out of somewhere.
Exactly in the manner of the Celtics, the Oilers came through a humiliating four-game sweeping two seasons ago by the four-time champion New York Islanders. Gretzky, who, Coach Glen Sather says, "scores goals nobody else even dreams about," scored none in the series, and his dreams were disturbed - for a summer. The first goal he finally got in the five-game rematch last year was a backhander. "I enjoy hockey even more now that I can say I'm a champion," he says. "To be champion changes everything, just the way you feel about coming to the rink. Many a time I've stared and stared at the Stanley Cup."
He expresses more than just respect, a fondness for Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and especially Denis Potvin of the crumbling Islander dynasty. Mimicking strikeout Pitchers Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan, Bossy and Gretzky pass the three-goal hat-trick record to and fro. But Gretzky is most conscious of the defenseman Potvin, and not only because Potvin is one of those formidable superstructures whose presence on any side of the ice sends the pacifists to the other. Two years ago, in a slip that irritated New York fans, Gretzky referred to the Montreal Canadiens as hockey's greatest team when he meant its most storied organization. No Canadian misunderstood, as Potvin was gracious enough to explain on television, winning Gretzky's gratitude.
Gretzky is glad for the home stand, not because he objects to the road --"It's one of the most fun parts of the game"--but because he is the sports world's most overwrought flyer since Broadcaster John Madden. "What may stop him is that flying," says his father Walter, from whom he inherited the queasy sensation. On Canadian airlines, Gretzky is brought to the cockpit for soothing by the pilots. It is hard to express what a towering figure he is north of the 49th parallel. His $21 million hockey contract extending to the end of the millennium constitutes about a third of his earnings after adding cereals, pillowcases and Barbie-size Wayne dolls. All the same, he tolerates the attention without strain and enjoys pointing out that Saskatoon and Flin Flon are not exactly New York and Chicago. At times the arenas he visits will supply him a private exit ("I get nervous. I don't like crowds"), but generally he courts inconvenience. "If I walk into a room and don't hear anyone say, 'There's Gretzky,' it just doesn't feel right." After practice, shuttling teammates require his signature on posters and sticks for causes of their own. "But there's already a signature printed on it," he complains. "Yeah, but that's a phony, just like you. Sign it, you little jerk." They laugh brightly.
Only the newest players behold him with open awe. "The first time I stood on the ice beside Marcel Dionne, I was 18. I can remember exactly how excited I was. I've seen that same look in younger eyes." For perspective, he has several devices, but his most effective helper is the small, bespectacled clubhouse boy, Joey Moss, who has Down's syndrome. "I grew up around it," Gretzky says. "My dad's sister is mentally retarded. I love Joey, I love to shake his hand."
Books, he dislikes. But soap operas are his passion, particularly The Young and the Restless, on which he played a small role two summers ago. During an annual trip, Gretzky also enjoys low-rolling in Las Vegas. The casino swallows him for days. Otherwise, hockey has been absorbing. "I don't have a whole lot of time for anything else. I play the game." He likens the N.H.L. to a university, and calls hockey the study of geometry. "People talk about skating, puck handling and shooting, but the whole sport is angles and caroms, forgetting the straight direction the puck is going, calculating where it will be diverted, factoring in all the interruptions. Basically my whole game is angles."
The clubhouse feels like his den. "It's great to be the captain of a great team," he says, another distinction he shares with Bird, although the Celtics' captain dislikes the pregame socializing and the community arguments only captains are permitted to wage with the referees. "It's true," Gretzky agrees, "the fans think you're arguing for yourself all the time, but it's great. Here, Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey take charge too. It's fun to be champions."
Sawing the ends off his long sticks, fashioning a collage of tape and talcum, Gretzky remains after the others to tinker and think. "If anyone wants Neil Diamond tickets," someone advises the room with a shout, "call Dorothy." Gretzky looks up in puzzlement. "Who's Neil Diamond?"
"Hick from French Lick" is an easy description of Bird and his hometown, but unfair on a couple of counts. If the spa waters have calmed since the days when Franklin Roosevelt and Al Capone journeyed to southern Indiana for a sulfurous cure, French Lick continues to be a resort community of considerable grace. The leading citizen is identified on a circular standard, larger than a Gulf sign, marking LARRY BIRD BLVD. Every street's a boulevard in old French Lick. The location of the Bird residence is given away by a full blacktopped court, complete with two glass backboards, reclining in a grassy glen just a good stretch of the leg from a sunny country house.
Georgia Bird, a calico woman, has managed to raise five sons and a daughter, as her famous boy explains, "cooking in restaurants and such," having been something of a kitchen legend herself. Her husband Joe had a tragic thirst and killed himself in 1975 about a year after their divorce. From a dwarf named Shorty, the late proprietor of Shorty's pool hall, the boys first learned that their father had been a terrific basketball player and might have gone places had he not left school around the eighth grade to begin a life of work. Relating this memory, Larry's brother Mark, 31, conveys an understanding affection for the man who was at times the best finisher at the Kimball Piano & Organ Co. A shorter and fleshier version of Larry, Mark shares the features right down to the yellow mustache.
The youngest brother Eddie, the current flash of Springs Valley High, resembles him too. "The same mannerisms, the same temper--no, temperament," says Coach Gary Holland, whose first year at Springs Valley was Larry's last. "I was getting on Eddie the other day, and he was so upset he decided to put one in left-handed from the right side of the basket. We all just shook our heads." Last month, when the N.B.A. All-Stars were weekending in Indianapolis, Bird returned to the Springs Valley gymnasium, where his mural looks down like a chapel Madonna. He recollects, "I hadn't seen Eddie play since sixth grade," and they were both moved. "He had his best game of the year. When people are saying your brother is the greatest ever, how does an 18-year-old stand up to that?"
Larry was just 17 when he went off to Indiana University, 50 miles away. He lasted 24 days. A common and logical assumption is that he was terrorized by the undisciplined disciplinarian Bobby Knight, a coach who orders haircuts while throwing furniture. In fact, it was a roommate's brimming closet wardrobe that daunted Bird, an embarrassment of clothing. "I was a homesick kid who was lost and broke," he says. "If I knew then what I know now, I'd have run right back. Coach Knight and me wouldn't have had no trouble. He'd have loved my game."
A year with the city cutting grass, coating benches, striping streets and riding the famed garbage truck gave him confidence to start over at Indiana State, where the Celtics' crafty president Red Auerbach drafted him as an eligible junior. "Red's kind of like the daddy who was never there for Larry," his mother says. "He thinks that Red is just it." Auerbach sounds like a father: "If Larry ever did something bad, I wouldn't fine him. I'd just not let him play for a couple a games. That would be the worst thing you could do to him."
Georgia Bird is tingling over a surprise telephone call from the Detroit Pistons' Kelly Tripucka, an old Notre Damer who happened to hear he was her second favorite player. "My sister was for Purdue, I was for Kelly," she says, a delightful illustration of basketball's hold on Hoosiers. It is not unlike the spell hockey has over Canadians. "Here he called me. I couldn't hardly get over it. That's my hero. You meet so many nice people through Larry, and then when you go to see them it's almost like they're one of your own. Who's that nice-looking boy from Boston? He plays quarterback." (How could she know of Doug Flutie and not know his name?)
"All my kids have been good, but to have a superstar, really. Well, I usually don't brag on him." Though she once said, "He always played as though he had to be perfect. A lot of people say that's how it turned out."
From the age of ten in the frozen village of Brantford, Ont., an hour's drive out of Toronto, Gretzky was given no choice in the matter of perfection. The facts of life were revealed to him in the family car returning from an unexpected loss at nearby Brampton, where the arena was so swollen it could not have accommodated three more curious onlookers if a star had risen in the East. The object of this attention stood 4 ft. 4 in. and weighed 70 lbs. Wayne's father addressed him good-humoredly, which is still Walter Gretzky's style, but there was an ingredient of sorrow that has not left his voice completely yet. "You can't be like everybody else any more," he told the great little Gretzky. "You can't be normal. For you there can never, ever be a bad game again. Every game now, everyone will expect a miracle."
Their home is the cheery one with the apple-red goals on the backyard rink, which Walter first installed by the spray of a garden hose when Wayne was four --two years into his hockey career. A telephone technician, Walter played five seasons of amateur hockey, and Phyllis came to the games. "My mother and father are tremendous family people," Gretzky says. "They dedicated their whole lives to their kids: moral support, financial support, whether for hockey, baseball or piano." There are five children, one girl, and it tells something of the father that he steps over a bundle of Wayne's milestone sticks to begin the paneled-basement tour by showing off Daughter Kim's high school track medals.
At 14, Wayne left home to compete against young men in Toronto. "I didn't leave to play hockey really. I wasn't enjoying the atmosphere in Brantford, the peer pressure. It was so difficult for me just to go to school, such a big thing to knock off Gretzky. I had been a lot of places by the time I was 14, everywhere basically. Lying in bed the first night in Toronto, I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. Three days later it came to me, 'Oh, no, what am I doing here?' I was homesick for a year." His most vivid snapshot of childhood longing is a mental picture of five fishing poles tied to the car. "If I had it to do over, I wouldn't go."
Gretzky's formal education ended short of twelve full grades in, of all places, Indiana, where he was a 17-year-old Carmel High School student and, for eight games, a professional hockey player for the fading Indianapolis Racers. They ended up selling him to Edmonton. "I can tell you that high school basketball is a lot bigger than pro hockey in Indiana." Two of his brothers--Keith, 18, and Brent, 13--appear to be following him. "They say Keith will be drafted in the first round this year. He handles the comparisons pretty well, better than I would. Brent's quite good, and he loves the attention. He's the first to tell people he is my brother."
Of course, new wunderkinds with different last names have been toddling out steadily for years, and Gretzky is sadly conscious of them. "It's too bad they get compared. Thankfully, my family always played that down. The funny thing is, it's most often the mother and father who are disappointed if he doesn't make it. The kid is usually relieved." Brent, the world-champion kid, pledges unobnoxiously, "Wayne doesn't know it, but I'm going to be better than he is." Phyllis Gretzky will be pleased if Brent just keeps his mouthpiece in. The only four teeth Wayne has lost were chopped off when he was ten, "in the last minute of the game," she well recalls, "after all that orthodontia, all those nights wearing the retainer." Braces on a young hockey player must be the definition of positive thinking.
Literally an unflappable woman, Phyllis is cooking dinner while a yellow canary swoops freely overhead, a balm for Brent in the wake of a recently deceased cat named Morris. Gazing at the window, she sighs, "It's going to be awfully quiet when all of a sudden there's no hockey in the backyard."
The Edmonton Oilers and the Boston Celtics have each won 45 to 50 games and lost around 15. In addition, the Oilers have tied seven. This puts Edmonton in utter charge of its division, though goalie injuries have intruded recently. While the Celtics are also in first place, as usual they are resigned to teeter-tottering into April with the Philadelphia 76ers, their Eastern archrivals. A startling November fistfight between the 76ers' Julius ("Dr. J") Erving and Bird, who sometimes taunts his victims, mortified both men thoroughly but summarized the rivalry rather well. "People who have to fight tooth and nail can't go out and eat together," Bird explains. "Take Magic Johnson. They say I don't like him and he doesn't like me, but I just don't believe that. We're all so competitive. Dr. J and I will miss each other some day, probably look over our shoulder and wonder where we've gone." Erving simply says, "Bird is the consummate player, the best in the game today."
Fresh from a nine-game tear of 30-point games, Bird is averaging 28 points and 6.5 assists, but he is unmoved by numbers. In one game, when statisticians realize he is a stolen ball from double figures in points, rebounds, assists and steals, Bird declines the invitation to re-enter a lopsided victory. Winning the 1984 foul-shooting title (88.8%) purely delighted him, since Springs Valley's dawn shooter still regards free throws as a measure of honesty. But maybe rebounds gratify him most of all. "Rebounding," he says, "is an art, a talent, a hustle play."
Gretzky understands that breaking his own scoring record, securing his fifth consecutive point title and assuring his sixth straight MVP distinction have lost some shock value. But this never means any less to him. "Every time I break a record I'm excited, even if it's my own. I want to crack the 212 this year (he is on a 214 pace), and some season before long somebody's going to get 100 goals. I'd like it to be me." Phil Esposito's 76 goals with the Boston Bruins served as the standard for eleven years, until Gretzky beat that by 16. "It takes guts," says Esposito, now retired, "to recognize you have that much talent and to dedicate yourself to it."
At the same time, the prosperity of the Oilers' Jari Kurri on the Gretzky line is significant. Sixty points (combined goals and assists) behind Gretzky but trying to shade him in goals, the right-winger has become the first European to score over 60 in an N.H.L. season. "We're instinctive," says Kurri of their partnership. Gretzky grins, "If someone else has a better opportunity, give it to him." Every angle of this geometry makes him rejoice.
Gretzky fairly boasts that he "never touches a stick" in the off-season, but does not account for the solid summer he spent rounding up the children of Brantford to practice breakaways on lone goalies in an indoor ice rink, using tennis balls. "I'm still not that good on breakaways, but I'm four times better than I used to be." The truth is, shinny games tempt him. Meanwhile Bird is embarrassed to admit, "Last summer I caught myself shooting around for five hours. I thought, 'What's wrong with me?' It's like I get this guilty feeling that I'm not playing enough, that someone is playing more." Dr. J? Magic? "Some kid in the sixth grade."
Bird and Gretzky are each involved in a long-standing relationship with one woman. Gretzky's sweetheart Vickie Moss is a cabaret singer. Joey, the Oilers' clubhouse boy, is her younger brother. From a momentary marriage to a cheerleader, Bird has a seven-year-old daughter he sees in the summertime. His companion is a Kelly Girl secretary named Dinah Mattingly. Neither man is extravagant, though Gretzky likes to dress. No longer fazed by clothes, Bird plucked his MVP trophy in shirtsleeves from a crowd of tuxedoes. Both are adept at trading in the Ferraris and Trans Ams they are frequently awarded, or handing them down to brothers.
As long as men beat sticks against the ice, not to mention each other, Gretzky will be remembered. Bird's legacy should also be durable, though he attaches little importance to history: "As far as that goes, it's enough for me that the flags are flying in Boston Garden." Neither expected to possess his sport for long or forever. "When I finish," says Gretzky, "I'll walk away from it totally, be my own person, my own businessman." This plan amuses Gretzky's friend Howe, who lingered 32 pro seasons and is a Hartford Whalers' executive now. The way Bird looks at it, "When it's all over with, I'll just go off and be glad. At the end of every season, when you get up the next morning, you think: 'Hey, no bus to take today, no plane to catch tomorrow.' It's the greatest feeling next to the championship." One gentle concern: he wonders if French Lick or even Terre Haute will ever suit him again as a place to live, now that he's seen Paree.
They do not know each other, but they do. Hockey has become a small study to Bird, like the Kennedys, and for a similar reason. "The Bruins own our building," he says, and Gretzky has been his focus. "He's got to be the greatest athlete who just about ever lived." For his part, Gretzky says, "I don't know a whole lot about basketball, but Bird is the one I watch." One skating without the puck, the other running without the ball, they are a diverting sight even away from the play, practically a game of their own. Maybe they are playing the same game.
Dean M.Ed (Coaching)
Ch.P.C. (Chartered Professional Coach)
Game Intelligence Training "Great education depends on great teaching."
CULLEN: A WEEKEND AT THE SLOAN SPORTS ANALYTICS CONFERENCE
Scott Cullen TSN March 9, 2011
As those who are brave enough to follow my Twitter feed know, I spent a couple of days in Boston last week, attending the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference; a gathering of bright minds to discuss a wide-ranging number of topics in sports and the use of analytics to provide insights.
While this was the fifth annual event, it was my first time going. I've read in the past about ESPN.com's Bill Simmons' involvement in "Dorkapalooza" and, with hockey analytics having its own panel for the first time, it seemed like the time was right to check it out.
As expected with topics like "Skill and Chance in the NFL Draft" and "The Moral Hazard in Long-Term Guaranteed Contracts" (and, as promised by Simmons), the conference was a male-dominated affair.
There were 1500 tickets sold, up from 1,000 a year ago, and it didn't appear that any more than two or three dozen attendees were women, yet moments after I arrived for Friday's first presentation, a blonde, towering in tall black boots walked past me and I had an inkling that maybe sports nerds don't necessarily have to come with pocket protectors. More on this later.
The first panel was moderated by best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell and included Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, basketball announcer and former coach Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Verstegen, the CEO of Athlete's Performance, and New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck. Primarily, the panel discussed an idea that Gladwell suggested in his book, Outliers, that 10,000 hours of practice were required to reach an elite level in a discipline, whether it be chess, musical composition or sports.
The result, then, was the question of whether or not an athlete could be enough of a "natural" in a sport to reach an elite level without putting in that kind of time.
Tuck shared some interesting anecdotes. First, was a story about his high school days, when Jamario Moon (the journeyman former Toronto Raptor now with the L.A. Clippers) was the unbelievable natural athlete who could jump out of the gym and do whatever he wanted as a high school basketball player.
At the same time, Gerald Wallace (now with the Portland Trail Blazers) was the kid who was, unlike Moon, always working on improving his game and the result has been a career that is much closer to those at top end of the NBA, including an appearance in last year's All-Star game, even if he wasn't as physically gifted as Moon.
Tuck himself, admitted that he grew up in such a small town that he didn't have quality football coaching until he was 16, a point at which he embraced it wholeheartedly and ultimately surpassed so many who had better preparation on his way to becoming one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL.
Of course, Tuck is 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds with rare athleticism, so let's not take this to be a statement about how simply anyone can practice enough to become an NFL player, but there are others with special physical attributes that haven't reached the heights of Tuck, so the differentiating point is that being coachable and willing to work at the game can be what separates the great from the good and the good from the marginal at the highest level.
To that end, both Morey and Van Gundy decided that Tracy McGrady was the most natural talent they had encountered, but may not have reached his ultimate peak because his physical gifts allowed him to dominate so easily that he didn't have to work on the finer points of his game, those that could have possibly allowed him to experience more success when he reached a level (say, the NBA playoffs), when the advantage of his individual skills wasn't enough to overwhelm the competition.
Perhaps it was easy to throw McGrady under the bus, since he's a rare talent who hasn't had playoff success, but Morey and Van Gundy certainly would have had an up-close and personal knowledge of McGrady's work habits.
Gladwell summed up his position on the matter, saying, "A lot of what we call talent is the desire to practice."
When you consider that a great hockey player like Sidney Crosby may not possess the greatest pure physical gifts, but is so diligent and committed to working at his craft (remember when he was a face-off liability as a rookie?), that there is something to the value that attitude and motivation can play in determining a player's ultimate potential.
I would have liked to hear their take on Josh Hamilton, who seems like he has to have rare natural talent to have abused his body the way he did with drugs and still be one of the premier hitters in baseball, but it just didn't make it into the discussion.
A few other interesting points to come out of this panel:
Van Gundy, who generated buzz with his strong opinions and a sense of humour, said that Stromile Swift may have been the biggest waste of potential greatness that he encountered as a coach, but said it was eventually understandable because Swift just wasn't that interested in basketball.
Like any athletic kid who was on the way to becoming 6-foot-10, Swift was steered towards basketball and obviously experienced enough success to get drafted second overall (by Vancouver) in 2000, but didn't love the game enough to work at it.
Van Gundy was very matter-of-fact about it, noting that Swift made a lot of money, and has done well with real estate investments too, but basketball just wasn't his primary focus.
Van Gundy effectively took a starring role in this panel, telling the crowd that player could be "one of soft, selfish or stupid, but not two." Moments later, someone asked about Bonzi Wells, to which Van Gundy continued, "...or fat," eliciting laughter from the audience.
The determination from many on the panel, then, was that they would rather have the player they knew was coachable and would put in the work to be great, but acknowledged how difficult it is to determine that level of motivation in a prospect. It's easy to be motivated as a collegiate athlete (or junior hockey player) but who knows what a player will become once they have $20-million guaranteed to them?
Tuck commented that some players (like JaMarcus Russell) will see a $50-million first contract and think they are set for life, while others would see a $50-million contract and think of earning a potential $100-million for their second contract.
As an aside, Tuck also said that if highly-touted Auburn quarterback Cam Newton tries to play in the NFL the way he plays in college, with all that running, "He will get hurt."
Van Gundy, while appreciating players who were well-rounded, didn't necessarily want them on his team. Ideally, he would have guys "who played the game and chased girls," though he wasn't even that into them chasing girls, but it seemed more a reference to keeping their life goals simple. It still got a good reaction from the crowd.
When comparing a pair of players he coached on the Knicks, Chris Dudley and Charles Oakley, Van Gundy pointed out it was the guy who went to Virginia Union (Oakley), not Yale (Dudley) who was the genius on the basketball court. Continuing on his theme of single-mindedness (perhaps simple-mindedness?), Van Gundy said he always preferred a player that turned to the sports page first ahead of business or world news. There's a value to a player that knows his role.
Morey asserted that as players get older, their defence gets better, as long as they care. Eventually, physical skills will erode, but once a player establishes their place in the league, the game should slow down enough that they can improve on the defensive side, where hard work and smarts will tend to yield results.
From there, I spent some time in both the Injury and Performance Analytics and talking with Brian Macdonald, an Assistant Math Professor at West Point, who was devising an adjusted plus-minus system for hockey. More on this when I tackle hockey and analytics later this week.
My few takeaways:
Concussions were obviously front and centre for the injury discussion, on a panel that included injury expert Will Carroll and Chris Nowinski, the former WWE wrestler who has been very committed to research on former athletes' brains for the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University.
Not surprisingly, those who are interested in injuries feel like teams and leagues aren't as forthcoming as they could or should be. Caroll's point on the matter was that the information will eventually get out anyway, so there's not much advantage to be gained by hiding it for the hours, days or weeks that it takes to find out what's really going on.
As it was with some of the panels, there wasn't really an inclusion of hockey when it came to this issue, though that might have been for the best. With NHL teams' tendency to be vague, at best, and, at worst, dishonest about injuries, it would figure to only have frustrated panelists further.
An idea that Carroll has been touting for some time, involving biomechanics studies of pitchers' throwing motions, seems like a no-brainer when one considers how much money baseball teams lose to the disabled list every year due to injured pitchers.
After that, was a lunchtime discussion with Apolo Anton Ohno, hosted by ESPN's Ric Bucher.
While Ohno had interesting stories to share about training and competing at an Olympic level, perhaps the most compelling was an approach that saw him trying many little things (ie. change in diet, improved skate sharpening) in an effort to improve by the tiniest of increments, with the goal of accumulating enough tiny increments to give him a significant advantage.
In many ways, the use of analytics is going through a similar process, trying to help teams that are willing to use them to find an edge, if even by incremental amounts.
It's not as though a team is going to go from being worst in the league to best simply because they start using advanced stastistical analysis, but maybe it's the difference between making and missing the playoffs for a team on the bubble, or it's enough to get home-field advantage in the postseason. For a championship contender, maybe it's the fine line that makes the difference in winning it all.
After lunch, it was a look at Sports Gambling, the Source of Sports Innovation? and then The Decision: How Players and Teams Will Choose in the Future
The gambling panel was moderated by ESPN.com's Chad Millman and included fomer MIT student Jeff Ma, perhaps best noted for his role on the MIT Blackjack team (made famous in the book Bringing Down the House and the movie 21), and New York Knicks Director of Player Personnel Mark Warkentein.
Warkentein had a different insight into gambling, as one of his early jobs was as an assistant coach was with Jerry Tarkanian's UNLV Runnin' Rebels, so he spent a lot of time in the Vegas casinos, but it provided real context for the changes that have happened in sports gambling.
Succinctly, Warkentien noted that in the old days, most sports bettors looked like he does (middle aged, overweight, glasses) and now they look a lot more like Ma, young and professional in appearance.
The consensus of this panel was that for anyone interested in handicapping games, the right way to go about it was to generate power rankings based on statistics, thereby removing emotion from the calculation. As the TSN.ca Power Rankings guy, they might as well have been preaching to the choir.
Ma also noted that anyone who says that they are picking 80% or 90% winners in sports betting is lying. He made a point that 60% is very successful and that still means a lot of losses along the way.
Now that he's an NBA Executive, Warkentein knows the value of advanced stats, but realizes that not everyone, like coaches for instance, will be so open to new ideas, which means part of getting a team to use analytics involves selling the value of these ideas. His suggestion? "Instead of taking 26 math classes, take 25 and one drama class."
The comparison Warkentein made was to the O.J. Simpson trial, when having DNA evidence wasn't enough for prosecutor Marcia Clark because, despite having the evidence she needed to tell the story, she couldn't sell it to the jury. Effectively, statheads have to be able to convince the coaches and executives why the information matters and how it is going to make their team better. If it will make the team better, there's obviously more reason to listen to new ideas.
From there I joined in on The Decision: How Athletes Will Choose in the Future, a panel moderated by ESPN's Michael Wilbon that included Spurs GM R.C. Buford, agent Mark Bartelstein, former NBA Player Donny Marshall and Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke.
As hockey fans know, Burke is prone to making bold statements. Working at TSN.ca, I've seen enough of his press conferences to know the drill, but the Sloan crowd simply couldn't get enough.
As those from other sports, specifically basketball, couldn't fathom the thought of violence and intimidation as a strategy, Burke relished it, talking about things like the "clear demarcation between our top six forwards and bottom six" and "placing a premium on hostility."
While other sports questioned the fraternization of athletes with their opponents, Burke took the opportunity to point out how Carolina's Eric Staal leveled younger brother Marc Staal, of the New York Rangers, with a hit that kept him out of the lineup for three games, adding that Rangers GM Glen Sather said the part that people didn't necessarily see was Marc coming back onto the ice to challenge Eric to a fight.
It can be funny gauging the reaction of a non-hockey crowd to the kind of mayhem that is, at times, accepted as the normal course of NHL business and don't think that Burke doesn't play to those differences perfectly.
Talking about the media market in Toronto, Burke told the assembled crowd, "Even a fourth-line grunt is a star in our town," and talked about how much more media coverage there is of the Maple Leafs, even compared to the Bruins, who play in a good hockey town.
Possibly Burke's finest moment of this panel came when he said he likes having a coach that is tough to play for, emphasizing his point with the assertion, "The word 'fun' doesn't appear in the standard player's contract."
Since basketball has embraced advanced statistical analysis so much recently, I stuck around for Basketball Analytics, a panel moderated by ESPN's Marc Stein, with ESPN.com stats guru John Hollinger, former GM Kevin Pritchard, Celtics Assistant Executive Director of Basketball Operations Mike Zarren and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
Naturally, Cuban was a hit with the crowd, before saying a word, as he was wearing a t-shirt with the slogan, "Talk Nerdy To Me."
Once things got rolling, this panel confirmed that, while NBA teams use analytics, it's still a wide open discipline because teams don't all value certain skills equally. Cuban suggested that he's happy for as many stats as possible to be widely available, thereby allowing teams to analyze the data that exists, rather than each team trying to create their own data. That seems like a long way off.
Agreeing with Burke's oft-stated mantra (to those in the Toronto market, at least), Cuban doesn't understand why teams wait until the trade deadline to make deals. If it's a good deal, it's a good deal two weeks before the deadline too.
What Cuban also pointed out was that the NBA isn't an efficient market for trades, that not all teams to every other team equally, leaving deals to happen that leave other teams wishing they could have been in on the action. On another panel, this might have been a great time to ask about the Joe Thornton trade.
Cuban also told an amusing story about the first deal he tried to make as owner of the Mavericks. It was a minor deal and he mentioned it to a friend playing pickup hoops. The friend passed it onto his friend at a local paper and when the story hit the paper, the other team in the deal backed out, ticked off with the new guy in the league not knowing to keep quiet.
Panelists agreed that rumours tend not to scuttle deals, in fact once a name is out there, it generates more calls from other teams, checking the availability/price to acquire a player. They were talking basketball, but surely this would apply to other sports as well.
Maybe an underrated part of the panel, Celtics stats ace Mike Zarren made one of my favourite points about the player evaluation process, stating that scouting information can be used as part of analytics too.
In Saturday's Baseball Analytics, Tom Tippett, the Red Sox's Director of Baseball Information Services, pointed out that using data helps provide complete coverage in a player's evaluation. "You can look at the full body of work...it's not scouting vs. data."
That may have been the overriding message to anyone promoting the analytics side of things. The human element of observation is never going to be eliminated from the process, so the way to get analytics more prominently involved in the process is to find the best way to augment the already-in-place methods of evaluation (ie. scouting).
The final panel on Friday was one of the most entertaining, Referee Analytics, moderated by Bill Simmons, and including Cuban, Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim and NFL referee Mike Carey.
Cuban was on his best behaviour, having been warned by the NBA that this constituted a public forum, making him liable for fines if he criticized officials, so he got out his frustrations by grilling Carey about how NFL officials don't call penalties in all circumstances.
Carey, who excelled in the face of criticism (such is the life of a referee), acknowledged that NFL officials won't call a holding play if they deem it to be immaterial to the outcome of the play, which made Cuban apoplectic -- he wants a foul, er penalty, in the first minute to be a penalty in the last minute, no matter what.
Carey was also the official during Super Bowl XLII, when David Tyree made the miracle helmet catch against the New England Patriots. Despite Simmons' best efforts to get Carey to admit he missed holding calls, or an in-the-grasp sack on that play, Carey stood firm, acknowledging (jokingly) that the one call in his career he'd like to have back was agreeing to be on this panel.
There were more panels Saturday morning, starting with Baseball Analytics. Naturally, baseball is as advanced as any sport when it comes to statistical analysis and talk of things like Pitch fX and Fielding fX seem like the wave of the future, leaps and bounds ahead of where other sports are when it comes to using stats to analyze what is happening on the field.
Part of the baseball panel, Jonah Keri just wrote a book called The Extra 2% about how the Tampa Bay Rays used Wall Street Strategies, always trying to find undervalued parts of the game that would allow the Rays to not only compete, but thrive in the American League East.
The Hockey Analytics Panel was next, but considering we're pushing 3,500 words at this point, that along with other hockey-centric tidbits will come in my next blog.
One of the more entertaining panels was made so by the addition of Burke. New Owners: Challenges and Opportunities moderated by Bill Simmons and including Boston Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck, San Diego Padres owner Jeff Moorad and Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob.
Burke continued his tour-de-force, chastising Simmons for a softball question to Grousbeck, saying, "I never thought I would see you suck up the way you are today."
When it came to dealing with owners, Burke said that in all three of his GM interviews (he got all three jobs), the first thing he's told prospective employers is, "There are two hands on the steering wheel and both are mine." I've heard this from Burke before, but many in the room had not, so it got a big reaction.
Not long after, in fact, Simmons asked Grousbeck if he had ever touched (Celtics GM) Danny Ainge's steering wheel, to which Grousbeck, without missing a beat, replied (referring to the recent suspension of Brandon Davies), "If I had, it would have gotten me kicked off the BYU basketball team."
As Burke drilled home his frustration, in the past, with new owners that figured by December they knew who should be playing on the power play, he seemed to impress Grousbeck, who asked if Burke knew anything about basketball.
Grousbeck delivered his own zinger to the Massachusetts students in the audience. When discussing his purchase of the Celtics, Grousbeck quickly figured out that if the asking price was, in fact, the rumoured $360-million (in 2002) then, based on the team's cash flow, he would have about $12-million of leeway annually, either to re-invest in the team or to provide a cushion if some years weren't so good.
It seemed like a simple calculation and Grousbeck noted that, "Because I went to Stanford Business School, I made the deal. If I had gone to Harvard or MIT, I'd still be analyzing it." Burn!
Also, while it seemed strange to have Burke on a panel full of owners, it provided insight into the relationship between owners and the ones calling the shots for the team.
Additionally, Burke made sure to point out that he works for the richest ownership group in North American sports, as the Ontario Teachers' Pension Fund has more money at its disposal than any of the very wealthy individuals on the panel. That seemed to catch the audience off guard. That cute little hockey league does, at least in this instance, have some serious financial muscle involved.
The final panel of the conference was a discussion about the live sports experience and watching on HDTV, moderated by ESPN's Ric Bucher with panelists Bill Simmons, Mark Cuban, Jonathan Kraft (President, the Kraft Group) and Stephen Jones (CEO, Director of Player Personnel, Dallas Cowboys).
Of course, Jones could talk about all the bells and whistles involved in the new Cowboys stadium and Cuban came across as the brilliant entrepreneurial sort that one would expect.
A few highlights:
Cuban telling Simmons that, "While others are trying to live in the fast lane, (Simmons) lives in the past lane." No doubt, Simmons tends to wax nostalgic for the old days of watching the Celtics at the Boston Garden.
Kraft had an interesting idea about having all players mic'ed so that, eventually, the Pats would be able to provide that audio as an app for those at the game to access on their smart phones. Cuban was skeptical, citing the immense technological challenges involved, but I've long said that the best hockey-watching experience would be the X-rated version, letting fans know just how nasty it can get on the ice. Dare to dream, right?
There is obviously a challenge, given the cost, comfort and amenities of home to lure fans out to game, but Cuban made an interesting point. "If you think about the first game you went to, you don't remember the score...you remember what made it special and that's the emotion and people you shared it with."
One additional point of Cuban's that might have been my favourite, is that Facebook is hardly the wave of he future. If it's somewhere that 500 million people already meet, it's the present, not the future. He also said that Twitter isn't the future and made a simple point: five years ago, Twitter wasn't a big deal, so five years from now, whatever is going to be that massive wave of the future is likely to be something that isn't widely accepted now.
Hearing Cuban's passion for his product, when it comes to the Mavericks, made me think that, if there is anything to the rumours of his interest in the Dallas Stars, the NHL would be lucky to have him. He's a billionaire who wants to win and is a bright and energetic guy; how many fans would like someone like that writing the cheques for their team?
In any case, coming away from this weekend was incredibly inspiring. Smart -- I mean, really, really smart -- people with great ideas about how to make teams better and, in some cases, how to make sports as a whole better is a great way to spend a couple of days.
From the development of analytics perspective, I go back to Zarren, who commented on the growth of the conference, from a point at which they brought their own stools to the front of a classroom at MIT to being on a stage at the Boston Convention Centre in front of more than 1,000 people and perhaps the size of the audience helps illustrate the progress of analytics in sports.
Zarren commented that not only the size, but the physical appearance of the crowd (generally looking rather business-like), showed progress too, noting that there were "a lot of pocket protectors" in their all-male audience that first year.
If there is increased acceptance of analytics in sports, it's for the better. Of course, as a stats nerd, I take that position, but I'm completely on board with the personnel people at the conference that recognize analytics play a part in the total evaluation of players and teams.
It's a matter of doing the best job possible integrating the analysis so that the information doesn't get lost on its way to the field of play.
(Hard to believe after all this, I know, but I'll have additional comments later this week, on the hockey presentations and analytics panel, specifically.)
Dean M.Ed (Coaching)
Ch.P.C. (Chartered Professional Coach)
Game Intelligence Training "Great education depends on great teaching."
By: hockeygod (offline) Thursday, March 10 2011 @ 07:03 AM GMT
Stare to Win
Daniel Coyle "The Talent Code" March 9th, 2011
If you were to visit a dozen talent hotbeds tomorrow, you would be struck by how much time they spend staring.
I’m not talking about merely looking. I’m talking about active staring — the kind of raw, unblinking, intensely absorbed gazes you see in hungry cats or newborn babies.
What’s more, the physical spaces seem frequently designed for staring: practice areas are shared among different groups, so that older and younger can mix (and stare). Walls feature photos and posters of local heroes (the better for staring). Training sessions often seems to be augmented by injections of high-octane staring.
This pattern of behavior strikes most of us as strange and surprising, because to all appearances, staring seems kind of dumb. More important, most of us instinctively view staring as passive — and when it comes to teaching/parenting/coaching, there is no greater perceived sin than tolerating passivity. We strive to create environments of constant, purposeful action that makes our classrooms and playing fields resemble a never-ending episode of Iron Chef. Just staring? It seems like a waste of time.
But is it? Or is there something powerful going on beneath the surface?
I recently visited a group of Special Forces soldiers who had recently taken an expedition to an exotic, far-off place: the corner offices of General Electric. The soldiers spent a few weeks in the boardrooms, watching top executives at work. The soldiers didn’t have any responsibilities other than watching the GE execs make decisions, communicate, and work together. Basically, they stared. And when they returned to their unit, the Special Forces commanders (who’d set up this experiment) noticed an immediate and pronounced boost in performance. They made better decisions, they communicated more clearly.
Another example: classical music teachers around the world have been stunned in the past few years by the quality of learning going by watching great performances on YouTube. There aren’t any real classes, per se, but rather a space where people stare at Heifetz, Perlman, Lang Lang et. al., copy them, and get better.
And another: In a famous episode of 60 Minutes, tennis teacher and author Timothy Galwey taught a person who’d never played tennis before to hit a decent forehand in 20 minutes — without uttering a word. It was all via the stare.
So what’s happening in these cases?
Three things, I’d say:
* First, mimicry. Staring is the fastest, most efficient way to imprint a skill on our brains — far more efficient than trying to learn through the keyhole of words. (First the teacher has to come up with the right word, then the learner has to absorb/understand it, then the learner has to convert that word into an action — it’s a multi-step conversion process, with the possibility for error at each step.)
* Second, high-quality feedback. Active staring gives us a way to measure our performance against those who are better than us. Once their performance is imprinted, we can see how we compare, and make adjustments accordingly. We can feel where we fall short, and fix it.
* Third, igniting motivation. Staring is the royal road to passion, because it’s the main way we link our identities with other people. Those photos of heroes around the talent hotbeds are not a coincidence, because they send a signal that creates a response from the starer: those dudes did it. Why can’t I?
To evolutionary-psychology types, the hidden benefits of active staring come as no surprise. For millions of years, long before language existed to motivate and inform us, our brains learned by staring — and we’re still good at it. Staring is a neural combination platter — fuel for both learning and motivation.
So the question becomes one of design — specifically, how do we mimic the talent hotbeds and get more staring into our lives? I’d suggest four ways:
1. Pick quality targets. Start collecting a video catalogue of brilliant, stare-worthy performances (YouTube is handy for this). All the better if there are slow-motion versions.
2. Treat staring as a daily fuel stop. Set aside five minutes per day for watching brilliance.
3. Design stare-friendly spaces. Isolation kills motivation — make sure age groups get a chance to closely observe each other, to see what they might become.
4. Respect the stare. If you catch someone staring at something or someone (presuming here that it’s something vaguely worthwhile), realize what’s going on and give them some room. There’s some important stuff happening beneath the surface.
Dean M.Ed (Coaching)
Ch.P.C. (Chartered Professional Coach)
Game Intelligence Training "Great education depends on great teaching."
Justin Bourne's Blog: Want to improve at hockey? Practice, practice, practice
2011-03-14 The Hockey News
I spent the majority of my weekend at the boys’ high school hockey state tournament in Minnesota, which featured an incredible gear expo on the lower floor of the Xcel Energy Center.
Incredible, I should point out, relates to the vast scope and size of the event, not necessarily to the products found within the booths.
Looking at all the knick-knacks, I couldn’t help but wonder about some of the folks handing over cash at the tables that housed the most mind-blowingly unnecessary products. The question I wanted to ask them was: how much of a difference do you think the improve-your-game trinkets actually make?
I hope they know the answer is ‘not much, if any.’
For those of us who take a sport seriously, you know it can cost a seemingly endless amount of dollars and even more so when you’re interested in self-improvement (golf might be the worst for this). And that’s basically what gear expos are about: the claim of “buy this and it will make you one-tenth of a percentage point better at your sport.” From there, guests try to buy up all the tenths they can in hopes of seeing some tangible improvement.
As it goes with different forms of workouts, diets and beyond, there’s an unfortunate reality we all need to note as sports-loving consumers: to improve at anything, in any way, you have to put in the time and work. You have to do something. It’s that simple. You don’t need gimmicky gadgets to accomplish that, but if that’s what gets you to put the time in, fine.
If you do buy the product that got me thinking about this (the wood hockey ball, of all major technological breakthroughs), it’s not going to make you a worse stickhandler. In fact, it’ll probably make you a better one. Why? Because you’ve been practicing stickhandling.
It could be with an orange, a grape, a golf ball (speed up those hands!) a shot-put (strengthen those forearms!) or, I don’t know, something crazy like a puck and it would have the same result - you simply have to work on your game to improve. You don’t need to get sucked in by the madness, so keep your wallet in your jeans. Remember - if those toys helped players improve faster than good ol’ fashioned practice, professionals would use them.
When it comes to hockey, it helps to have good equipment. I’ve got no problem with spending a bit for the good stuff. But if you buy your kid the Puck Sock to improve his shot, I reserve the right to point out you’re bad with money (sorry, Puck Sock, I just couldn’t remember the name of the weighted stick company who’s equally deserving of my scorn).
If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he hypothesizes the necessary time spent doing something to really master it is somewhere around 10,000 hours. Whether that’s true or not, there’s no denying you need to invest time in your craft to get better.
So play, play, play.
Hockey is a beautiful game, yet instead of playing to improve we’re strapping eight-year-olds into harnesses connected to crossover machines in the middle of the summer to improve their...what? Stride? Or is it to build muscle? I don’t even know. But at least the kids are putting in some time, I guess.
If you want to work on crossovers, go work on crossovers. Repetition is the father of learning, so rinse and repeat. Get some instruction and do the thing you want to get better at an annoying amount of times.
Our society loves to find shortcuts. We are the same people who created an exercise machine that you stand in, put a huge elastic band around your butt and do nothing while it shakes you. We created an ab machine that tenses your muscles using electrical stimulation while you sit on the couch. We hate the reality that, to lose weight, you have to eat right and do something.
There is no magic cure; you have to put the time in. Sadly, no product will serve as a shortcut for you.
So next time you’re contemplating getting the next ‘it’ thing in hockey training, whether it’s for your son or daughter, think twice. If it will encourage them to play more, rock on. Otherwise, save your cash. This game is expensive enough.
Justin Bourne last played for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and is currently a columnist for USA Today. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four Cups with the Islanders. Justin will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin's blogs at jtbourne.com.
Dean M.Ed (Coaching)
Ch.P.C. (Chartered Professional Coach)
Game Intelligence Training "Great education depends on great teaching."
Overall, 62% of draft picks were born in the first four months (33%) of the year 1996. Assuming that births of baby boys were evenly spread over the 12 months of the year, you can see what a disadvantage the boys born in the last third of the year (10.3% of picks) had against the bigger, older boys from the early months.
This happens every year.
Draft pick breakdowns
Thursday, May 5, 2011
A statistical breakdown of today's draft - showing the number of picks by each team and the average height (in inches) and weight (in pounds) of their draftees, as well as breakdown by positions (forwards-defensemen-goaltenders), and where the players hailed from (B.C.-Alberta-Saskatchewan-Manitoba-USA).
For reference, the average player picked today is 70.5 inches tall and weighs 160.1 pounds.
The team picking the biggest players is Seattle, at an average height of 73.2. Vancouver is second but almost a full inch shorter at 72.3 inches. Obviously Seattle put a priority on size.
Shortest team is Medicine Hat at 69.3, followed by Portland and Prince George at 69.9. (Side note here - one of Portland's players, Ryan Collins, has no ht/wt to be found and so I did not average him in. He is the only drafted player excluded from the ht/wt numbers)
When it comes to position, there were 129 forwards, 82 defensemen, and 21 goaltenders picked. Most teams took some kind of roughly proportional mix of those. A few exceptions:
- Brandon took 8F-3D-1G
- Everett took 8F-2D-1G
- Moose Jaw took 7F-2D-0G
Guess those teams were targeting forwards over defensemen. Vancouver took 3F-5D-1G, so they may have been targeting defenders.
For where the players came from, there were 52 from British Columbia, 80 from Alberta, 46 from Saskatchewan, 29 from Manitoba, and 25 from south of the 49th.
Something to think about - Alberta and B.C. typically team up to form Team Pacific at the U-17 Challenge, while Saskatchewan and Manitoba are Team Western. If this draft is any indication of the overall strength of the 1996 born players, how's that U-17 Challenge going to look in 2 years? Alberta alone had more players drafted than Saskatchewan and Manitoba put together. In theory, Pacific should be crushing Western in 2 years.
Manitoba almost got beaten out by the American players. Not a great year for the Manitoba hockey programs?
Interesting to see how some teams draft more heavily from their own region, and some draft from wherever. A few notes there:
- Tri-City picked 4 kids from Alberta and the rest of their draft was American kids. Trying to put the "Americans" in "Tri-City Americans", I guess.
- Regina, the provincial capital, did not pick a single kid from Saskatchewan.
- Lethbridge's 6 Alberta kids included 4 from Calgary. What do they say about keeping your enemies closer?
- Calgary minor hockey produced 24 draftees altogether. That's almost as many as the entire province of Manitoba.
Dean M.Ed (Coaching)
Ch.P.C. (Chartered Professional Coach)
Game Intelligence Training "Great education depends on great teaching."