Daily Archives: January 12, 2008

Blindly following what the “best” players do

One of the most common pieces of advice regarding how to perform sports skills is to look at what the best players do. It stands to reason that the best players must by definition have the best technique or the best execution. How else could they be the best?

The truth of this philosophy may be somewhat different. The way athletes perform is at least partially a product of their training. In other words, some of what they do is what they have been trained to do, whether that’s right or wrong. Simply observing them doesn’t necessarily mean the techniques you’re picking up are optimum. They are what they are.

Here’s an extreme case from another sport. Up until around 1968 there was a particular technique used by the best high jumpers in the world. If you studied film of pretty much any high jumper, you would see him/her approach the bar, push up off the inside foot, drive the outside leg up, then when the body is at its peak kick the trailing leg up and over. This was the standard. By watching film you could find the little subtleties that made the best high jumpers capable of getting the highest.

Then came a guy named Dick Fosbury. He didn’t worry about what the best in the world were doing. Instead, he tried to figure out how best to use his body. What he came up with was a very different technique, one that had him turning his back to the bar, leaping up, and going over head-first. People thought he was crazy. Many thought the technique was dangerous, with a potential to break the neck of the high jumper. But he wound up winning a gold medal in the Olympics. Today the Fosbury Flop is the standard for high jumpers.

The point is that had Dick Fosbury focused all his efforts on what the best in the world did at the time he never would’ve been able to innovate a new and better technique.

Closer to home, many Major League Baseball hitters will put their back elbows up in their stances, despite the fact that it doesn’t do anything positive and can actually be detrimental. But somewhere along the way, some coach told them to do it, and it just became their habit. They learned to overcome it by getting into a better position at launch. But if you just watched them you’d assume it was an important part of what they do.

Observing top players is certainly valuable. But it isn’t gospel. It’s still important to think things through and make sure what you’re seeing is the best way to do things. Put your time into comparing what you’re seeing to the way the body works more effectively and you’ll get your best bang for the buck.

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