Abilities, Skills, and Media Experts

After I wrote “Athleticism, Movement, and Skill,” a friend forwarded an article from ESPN that attempted to determine the degree of difficulty in every sport. I could not ignore the ineptitude of the article without a comment. 

First, the article used a “panel of experts.” These experts included such luminaries in the sports world like Jim Caple and Chris McKendry. Being hired by ESPN to broadcast the news of the sports world does not make one an expert on sports skills or athleticism. There are two panelists who belong on such a panel.

If I was to create such a panel, it would include someone like Vern Gambetta or Loren Seagrave; Dr. Peter Vint, the head of high performance at the USOC; Dr. Damien Farrow, a skill acquisition specialist from AIS; someone like Dr. Marco Cardinale who edited one of the best books on strength & conditioning; a skill acquisition expert like A. Mark Williams from John Moores in Liverpool; a motor learning specialist like Dr. Joanne Vickers or Dr. Richard Schmidt; and a physiologist like Dr. Giorgis Nassis or Dr. Inigo Mujika. These are experts, not television or internet personalities. They also have a background in and affinity for various sports from soccer to ice hockey to track & field to cycling to team handball.

Next, the article states:

“We identified 10 categories, or skills, that go into athleticism.” 

Wrong. The list starts with the five biomotor abilities: strength, endurance, flexibility, speed, and coordination (they specify hand-eye coordination). Abilities are believed to be primarily innate, while skills are learned and developed. Therefore, to call these “skills” would be inaccurate.

Further, skills do not combine to form athleticism; these abilities form to combine the potential for the expression of skill. The skill of a clean does not come before strength and power. There is a base of strength and power that enables one to learn the skill of the clean. As one masters the skill, he increases his strength and power as he nears his genetic ceiling. However, the potential for power precedes the technical skill of the clean, just as jumping ability comes before one learns the skill of the high jump.

Beyond the five biomotor abilities, the list includes two derived abilities (power and agility). These are abilities derived from the biomotor abilities. Power is a combination of speed and strength, as an example.

Their definition of agility is also problematic:

“The ability to change directions quickly.” 

In the last decade, researchers and practitioners have differentiated between change-of-direction speed (CoDS) and agility. CoDS is the ability to change directions quickly, and usually represents a pre-planned movement. For instance, a slalom ski course requires great CoDS, but the movements are planned. Agility requires the ability to change directions quickly in relation to an external stimulus. Therefore, agility is reactive, not planned. Young, James, and Montgomery (2002) presented a model of the main factors determining agility that divided agility into two primary factors: change of direction speed (CoDS) and perceptual and decision-making factors. The perceptual and decision-making factors were divided into four sub-factors: visual scanning, anticipation, pattern recognition, and knowledge of situations, and CoDS was divided into three sub-factors: technique, straight-sprint speed, and leg-muscle qualities (Young et al., 2002). Therefore, while CoDS is a derived ability (strength, speed, and coordination), agility is considered a learned skill.

The final categories are made up qualities: nerve, durability, and analytic aptitude. Nerve was defined as “the ability to overcome fear.” This is a psychological quality, and a panel could have created any number of psychological qualities. Do psychological qualities differentiate one’s athleticism?

Durability was defined as “The ability to withstand physical punishment over a long period of time.” Making this one of 10 categories automatically biases the results toward contact sports.

Finally, analytic aptitude was defined as “The ability to evaluate and react appropriately to strategic situations.” This is trying to evaluate the cognitive-perceptual demands of a sport. Is golf really more demanding in cognitive-perceptual skills than volleyball, team handball, boxing, rugby, and other sports? How does speed skating score a 3.5, while horse racing scores a 6.5?

In some sports, like swimming and track & field, events are separated. However, in team sports, positions are not separated. A goalie and a midfielder are as different in terms of requisite athletic qualities as a sprinter and a middle-distance runner. A quarterback and an offensive lineman are as different as a pole vaulter and a shot putter. However, the article does not differentiate positions.

For the purposes of breadth, I am not going to go through all of their choices. Instead, I am going to look specifically at boxing (#1) versus mixed martial arts (#6). I am choosing these two because of their similarities, and my experience learning both sports.

The scores were based on a 1-10 system with 10 being the highest. Boxing scored an 8.63 for endurance, while MMA scored a 5.0. The first problem with endurance is the lack of specificity: Is this a category based on the energy systems? Is this aerobic endurance or anaerobic endurance? Is this category based on the derived abilities: muscular endurance or speed endurance?

They define endurance as “the ability to perform a skill or action for long periods of time.” Boxing is contested in 12 three-minute rounds. MMA championship fights are contested in five five-minute rounds. The total time is longer in boxing; however, there are shorter bursts of action. Wrestling scored a 6.63; wrestling is contested in three two-minute periods. Therefore, there is no chance that total time or number of periods determined the difference between boxing and MMA. From a strict definition, none is an endurance sport.

21 sports finished between boxing and MMA in endurance. This, I do not understand. Football does not require more endurance than MMA, but in the expert panel’s opinion, it does.

The difference between MMA and boxing is some arbitrary guesses by people who have likely never participated in either sport. From experience, grappling is more exhausting than striking, and throwing kicks is more exhausting than throwing punches.

In strength, boxing scored an 8.13, while MMA scored a 5.88. As an example, boxing scored between wrestling and the throws in track & field. MMA scored between the high jump and baseball. The perplexing thing, to me, is that if wrestling requires more strength than boxing, as the expert panel found, and MMA incorporates wrestling, how does MMA require less strength than boxing?

Boxing scored higher in power and agility than MMA, but the scores were at least close. Based on their definition of agility, MMA should be higher due to the potential for take-downs and scrambles. Similarly, I would imagine that a roundhouse kick requires and exhibits greater power than a punch. Boxing and MMA scored the same in speed. MMA scored higher in flexibility, which makes sense due to the submission aspect of the sport.

In nerve, boxing scored an 8.88, while MMA scored a 6.63. In MMA, they use lighter gloves with less padding, meaning faster, harder punches. Also, in MMA, elbows, knees, and kicks are allowed. While neither is easy, it’s easier to spar with a boxer where punches basically came from three places (straight (jab/cross), hook, uppercut), rather than multiple places. It’s also much scarier to have a guy mounted on top of you and having to defend punches, elbows, and submissions than being on your feet sparring. Both take nerve, but there is no separation between the two, and if one is to rate higher than the other, it has to be MMA. Of course, I have no idea how this fits into a discussion of skill or athleticism.

I completely agree that durability, as defined by the article, is higher in boxing than MMA, and that is why MMA is a safer sport, in my opinion. However, MMA finished between alpine skiing and distance running and behind soccer and lacrosse. If boxing is number one in durability, I don’t see how MMA rates so much lower.

Boxing scored a 7.0 in hand-eye coordination, while MMA scored a 6.0. As an example, soccer scored a 6.5! Boxing is a very demanding hand-eye coordination sport, but MMA is as well as there are more variables (kicks, knees, elbows, take-downs) to account for, and the target is changing levels more often due to faking takedowns.

MMA outscored boxing in analytic aptitude 6.88 to 5.63, as it should due to the additional complexity that take-downs, submissions, knees, kicks, and elbows present.

Hopefully, the example of boxing vs. MMA showed the flaws or biases of the panel. While I am not going to argue that MMA fighters are better athletes than boxers, there is a greater task complexity in MMA than boxing. If skill is part of the equation, I rate MMA higher; there are more motor problems to solve in MMA than boxing. More importantly, however, is the inconsistency of the panelists in their ratings of these two similar sports.

The end results are not terrible, as ice hockey finished second, which was similar to my article. However, I arrived at ice hockey while looking at four things – Speed, strength, stamina, and skill – with a heavy emphasis on skill as determined by task complexity. When I evaluated pure athleticism, focusing on the five biomotor abilities, I sided with the decathlon.

The panel evaluates the difficulty or demands of the sport. Honestly, I cannot imagine a more demanding sport than an ultramarathon or an Ironman triathlon. However, because it is difficult or demanding, does that make an ultramarathon runner the best athlete or the most skilled performer? Does being extreme in one quality make one a better athlete than someone who is less extreme, but more diverse?

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