Why is competition such a great teacher?
Posted by Dean Holden at February 2nd, 2013
By Jack Blatherwick, 31 January 2013
“Players learn more from competition than from drills around cones,” claimed Dave Peterson, former Minneapolis Southwest High School and U.S. Olympic Team coach. He was conducting a clinic in upstate New York and his 1988 Olympic team demonstrated a variety of scrimmage activities for 150 youth coaches. Peterson continued, “There are thousands of hockey decisions every shift, and those who make the right ones are better players, regardless of their skill level.”
Coach Pete was ‘old school.’ He had seen drill books with the cones clearly drawn, but he tossed them aside. His approach to development was simple: “Play.”
The logic is an important lesson for coaches who are encouraged to teach by a standardized model. “Passion and energy increase immediately when players know they are going to scrimmage,” he added. “Is there anything more important than passion?”
Old-school logic has recently been validated by technology in neuroscience. Using new brain imaging techniques, a team of researchers from Bristol University in the UK found that subjects learned much from their competitors, not just from their own trial-and-error. Mirror neurons in the brain are highly active when the opponent attempts plays against us. Because these neurons are hard-wired into motor learning patterns, that opponent’s skill might become part of the observer’s own repertoire, even without a conscious decision to add it.
As we plan for long-term athletic development, we should never forget that competitive experience is invaluable. There is a popular trend toward over-emphasis of isolated skills in structured practices. Boring. Kids can practice skills on their own as they see the need.
Team practices are a golden opportunity to put it all together. Successful execution in games is not just a matter of isolated skills; it’s more about learning to fit those skills into the right competitive moment.
Anticipation is critical. For example, after years of returning serves in tennis, the experienced pro knows where the ball is headed even before the server’s racket makes contact. A defensive back in the NFL learns to read the eyes (and mind) of an opposing quarterback. Wayne Gretzky put it this way, “I am always moving to where the puck is going to be next, not to where it is right now.”
So scrimmaging is important in learning to anticipate – clearly the most important skill in hockey. However, it is also an environment for players to mimic others through mirror neurons. We have known for several years that these specialized neurons are active when a subject (even a monkey) observes a movement by another person, almost as if the subject himself had made that movement. It’s easy to see why the youngest players always learned from older ones in northern Minnesota scrimmages that included all ages.
On that day of Coach Peterson’s clinic, the team demonstrated scrimmages with different specific objectives: 4-on-4 scrimmage in which no one was allowed to control the puck for more than two seconds. This forced players to anticipate the next play like Gretzky: Those without the puck moved to get open, because their team-mate closer to the puck needed to pass as soon as he got to it. 6-on-6 or 7-on-7 scrimmage forced everyone to make plays in tight areas, much like scrimmaging on smaller ice sheets or cross-ice.
In another scrimmage, assistant coaches randomly inserted a ‘wild-card’ player or two in a different-colored jersey. The extra man played for the team with the puck, so everyone had to be aware of all the tools they had at their disposal.
Coach Pete concluded the clinic with this advice, “Keep the energy high in your practices; compete all the time. Use a variety of scrimmages. When we used to practice outside in minus 20 degree temperatures, if I had laid out cones for skill drills, and players were standing in line, they would have all gone out for basketball. Don’t let your players sleep-walk through practice.”
For a short review of the brain imaging study, go to www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/204582.php