Sight is a spectacular thing. The refraction of light off of molecules, entering through our eyes, decoded by our brain and giving shape and colour to the world around us.
However, what if I told you that what you see, isn’t really what you are seeing? For, as powerful as the human brain is (the most powerful processing plant to ever exist), there is 1/5 second delay in relaying and interpreting what we ‘see’ from the eyes, through the optical nerve and into the brain. So, the brain (being so smart) protects us by interpreting, anticipating and relaying the scene, 1/5 of a second in the future, to allow time to react. This is a great strategy when say crossing the street, so as not to get hit by a passing cyclist. Not so good when say trying to avoid getting hit in the face by an unexpected soccer ball. By the time you ‘see’ it, you’ve got a red cheek.
In hockey, a goalie NEVER sees a shot! In baseball, a batter NEVER sees a pitch! Relying on vision is passive and reactionary. By the time you ‘SEE’ it, it’s too late.
So, how does a goalie ever stop the puck, if they never see the shot? Drawing on their environment and experience, they interpret the players stance, release angle and eyes, amongst a myriad of other things, to anticipate where the shot is going. Basically, every save is a best guess, and the best goalies are really good at hypothesizing.
So what about reaction training?
We see videos all of the time of athletes using blinking lights, or different coloured balls or sticks to improve “reaction” skills. The problem with this approach is two fold. It’s passive and not context specific.
Most of us have watched a Tyke goalie trying to smother a sliding puck only to miss it and have it slide through her legs. The problem is she was going to where she ‘saw’ the puck, not to where the puck was going. This athlete does not possess the appropriate amount context specific, environmental awareness to interpret, analyse and anticipate quick enough to cover the puck. So when I say that reaction training with lights, or some other novel tool is passive, I partly mean that literally. Unlike that puck, those lights don’t move!
If you waited to see and identify and react to Connor McDavid streaking down the wing, you lose EVERYTIME! The same way ladder drills will not help your feet get quicker, they will just help you be better at dancing on a ladder. Reacting to random objects, and completing light reaction sequences, will get you better at just that, completing light reaction sequences.
So for that Tyke goalie hoping to stop the barely gliding puck from sliding past her, everything from understanding the how fast a puck will glide on the ice, to how heavy the equipment is must be interpreted and combined with what she sees. There’s the context part. Do you think that being quicker at grabbing the green ball, instead of the red ball, while standing on a Bosu ball is going to help with that interpretation? No. Only prolonged exposure to wearing the padding, and observing the puck gliding, rolling, flipping, at different speeds, from different angles will build up that experiential database, which is the framework for her to be able to interpret and anticipate. This is the context.
Reaction is a passive quality, its waiting for something to happen in order to prompt a response. Anticipation is active. It is drawing upon experiences and observations to make something happen.
Take Dennis Rodman, the best rebounder in the game of Basketball. I, like many sports fans, am currently enjoying The Last Dance on NETFLIX. During a particularly interesting segment surrounding Rodman and his impact on the success of the Chicago Bulls, he recounts his process for becoming a master of his craft. He talks about having people toss up shots, from different angles and off of different areas of the rim and back board. Over the course of hours and hours of practice, Rodman is able to anticipate the likelihood of where the rebound will end up based on shooter position, release angle etc. and position himself to where the ball will be, giving him an advantage over a competitor who is waiting for the ball to hit the rim, before reacting to the bounce.
We see this constantly in sport. The best players are not necessarily the biggest, fastest or strongest. They are the smartest. They understand the game, their opponents, the other teams strategy.
Football is notorious for it use of video analysis as a way to get a leg up on the opponent. During my time playing at University, we would watch up to 6 hours of film as a team, and as individuals or positions another 5-10 hours depending on the opponent. As an aside, I’ll never forget my linebacking partner Simon Binder, attempting to add further context to film. I walked into an empty basketball court, and there is Binder with his helmet on and the end cut (front 7 only) of our opponent that week projected life size on the gymnasium wall. Reading and reacting to blocking schemes.
This preparation using film is integral to success, especially in a sport where the typical play lasts 5-7 seconds. As a linebacker, being able to identify a formation before the play started, know what possible plays may be run out of it, then look for cues with the first movement to further narrow that list and move to where the most likely vulnerability will be, all while being aware of potential opportunities for misdirection or misread by a team mate and trying not to get my head knocked off by a 300 pound lineman. If I waited to ‘see’ each of these things, well I wouldn’t have gotten very far.
On the ice, if you wait to see where the opponent is going before you move your feet, you will lose every race. If you are always chasing the puck while the other team cycles, it will end up in the back of the net. And if you wait to SEE the puck in the perfect spot for a one-timer, you will whiff spectacularly. You get better at one-timers, by practicing one-timers. With passes from different angles, at different speeds and in a variety of circumstances. You build up that environmental, contextual database, in order to be able to anticipate the arrival of the puck. Use a heavier stick, the weight must be accounted for. More or less flex? The time necessary for the blade to whip through is now altered and must be accounted for. This cannot be replicated, duplicated or improved with any gimmick or gadget. It is improved through specific practice.
So what’s your point?!
My purpose in writing this, is to remind athletes and coaches to focus on what’s important and tune out all of the noise. We are constantly inundated by this and that new gadget which claims to help our vision, or reaction, or make our feet faster, or our recovery better. The problem is much of what we are being sold on is unproved, invalid or outright dubious.
As a strength and conditioning coach, my job is to improve qualities which are transferable, not ones that look the coolest. Working with mainly hockey players, that list is probably even shorter than it is for field/court athletes. NOTHING we do is sport specific. We aren’t on ice. We aren’t holding a stick. There isn’t someone trying to run use through the boards. It is the sport coaches job to work on the technical/tactical, it is my job to provide the athlete with the capacity to assume the positions necessary, absorb and produce adequate force and be resilient enough to be available for the athlete to complete the tasks necessary to work on said technical/tactical.
Athletes. Identify what the skill is that will most amplify your ability to contribute to your teams success and then adhere to the SAID principle. Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. This means DO the THING you want to get BETTER at. If you want to be a better skater, skate. Improve your edges. Focus on staying lower and finishing your stride. If you want to be a better shooter, shoot. On ice, wearing skates as much as possible. On a goalie. From different angles. Using different deceptions (remember the goalie is anticipating you, not the puck). Spend time in the places that are going to have the maximum return and tune out the noise.
And remember, Anticipation is greater than Vision.
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