Athleticism, Movement, and Skill

On this blog, I have written about athleticism in relation to Steve Nash, Roger Federer, and Jimmer Fredette, and argued that the media and others misunderstand the terms athletic and athleticism and use athletic as a synonym with power. Steve Nash is not considered to be athletic, in terms of an NBA player, because he does not dunk. However, power is only one athletic quality, though an important one, and Nash excels in most other athletic qualities, which is the foundation for his impressive skill level.

Todd Hargrove, on his blog Better Movement, is writing a series of articles to determine the sport which features the best athletes. Before he published his third part of the series, which hopefully reveals his answer, I examined the topic and some of his ideas.

Hargrove explains his definition of athlete in his first part:

Athlete is generally defined as someone who excels at sports because they are possessed of four major “S” qualities: Strength, Speed, Stamina, and Skill. 

Much of his essays focus on the last of the four: Skill. In terms of talking about athletes and athleticism, skill creates the most problems. This creates problems for me because I generally differentiate athletic, technical, and tactical skills and espouse my belief that technical skills develop on top of more general athletic skills. Using Nash, his shooting ability is a technical skill, but this skill develops on top of his athletic skills such as hand-eye coordination, deceleration, coordination, dynamic balance, and more.

Without these athletic qualities, Nash’s shooting would be diminished, which may support skill’s inclusion in any discussion of athleticism. However, from that vantage point, discussing all of the other qualities is superfluous, as skill would be the one that matters, as it exhibits all the other athletic qualities. In that sense, determining the most difficult or most complex skill would be the answer to the sport with the best athletes.

Another approach would be to focus on the five biomotor abilities: Strength, speed, power, flexibility, and endurance. A great athlete would excel in these five abilities.

One can see quickly how the inclusion or exclusion of skill from the discussion changes the argument. Focusing on the biomotor abilities, it would be tough to argue against the decathlete as the sport/event featuring the best athletes. This is a traditional viewpoint, as the decathlete has earned the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete” for generations. Other candidates would be gymnasts, ballet dancers, boxers, rowers, and others.

Based on Hargrove’s hints, he has eliminated many of these sports from his argument. As an explanation of his emphasis on skill, he writes:

Here’s a rough way to look at our four “S” qualities in relation to each other: Strength is how much force you can produce, speed is how fast you can produce it, stamina is how long you can produce it, and skill is how intelligently you can direct the forces into the environment to do useful work, solve motor problems and achieve goals.

From this perspective, it seems to me that the fourth quality, skill, is the most interesting, and I will therefore give it special consideration over the other three.

While I am biased toward skill, including skill introduces the brain’s role in movement and sports. When we discuss sports performance, we focus on the physical and the external. We use terms like muscle memory even though the muscles have no capacity to remember anything, and muscle memory is actually a motor pattern stored in the brain and initiated by the central nervous system. We cannot see the brain or understand fully how it works, but we can see the muscles. We attribute physical qualities to things we cannot see or explain, like suggesting that a point guard or quarterback has “eyes in the back of his head” rather than expert cognitive-perceptual skills. When we talk about athleticism, we are biased toward those things that we can see:

We ignore those things that we cannot see, like the information processing system within the brain that enables a player to make a split-second decision from among a multitude of choices while moving at full speed. Is this skill, athleticism, or both?

The traditional bias is that LeBron James’ dunk demonstrated tremendous athleticism, while Xavi’s pass illustrated uncanny skill. However, that short-changes each of them. I thought James’ dunk was the most skillful play that I saw this season: The body control, hand-eye coordination, awareness, catching skills in the air; that is athleticism and skill. Meanwhile, to suggest that Xavi is unathletic overlooks the dexterity, body control, foot-eye coordination, and more that the pass required.

The athleticism in James’ dunk is readily apparent, whereas the athleticism in Xavi’s pass is more subtle, so most would argue that James’ dunk is the more athletic play. Similarly, we notice physical attributes like Dwight Howard’s shoulders, whereas we ignore those which we cannot, like a well-organzied CNS. However, which is  more athletic: Possessing boulders for shoulders, but not being able to shoot 50% from the free-throw line or weighing 170lbs, but being able to spot a 100MPH fastball within a quarter-inch of one’s target? We tend to think of the 100MPH pitch as a learned skill, and question a baseball player’s athleticism, but what about Howard’s shoulders is athletic? Isn’t his size primarily a combination of genetic factors and hypertrophy-based, fairly non-functional weightlifting? Is that more athletic than this (skip ahead to 1:15):

Hargrove writes that “Bernstein defines dexterity as the ability to correctly solve motor problems as they arise, including unexpected problems….Part of what makes animals more dexterous is their ability to control more degrees of freedom in movement.” Experts have greater degrees of freedom than non-experts:

A novice pistol shooter freezes the degrees of freedom at his wrist and elbow; all the movement occurs in his shoulder. An expert pistol shooter has greater degrees of freedom at the wrist and elbow. This seems counterintuitive – greater freedom at the joints would seem to lead to greater error. Instead, the greater degrees of freedom compensate for each other.

Hargrove equates dexterity with athleticism, and the argument makes sense. Isn’t sport, at its essence, about solving motor problems, whether the problem posed is making a basket over a seven-foot tall defender, using a pole to propel oneself as high in the air as possible and over a bar, getting from point A to point B as fast as possible, or hitting the ball over a net into a position that an opponent cannot return? In a general sense, these are motor problems which have been standardized into sports.

In part 2, Hargrove writes that “motor skill is a quality that is far more complex and ‘evolved’ in terms of design and engineering than strength, speed, or stamina.” In a Wired article about the technology fueling today’s Olympic athletes, Mark McClusky wrote:

“The curve is flattening out. In fact, studies suggest that the current world records in some track events are approaching their absolute limits and that we might have only a percent or two of improvement left in us.”

Can we same the same thing about other motor skills? Have we reached the point where decision-making in sports is at its limit? Are we at the limits of hitting a baseball or returning a tennis serve? Without an absolute measurement, how would we know if we are nearing our limits in terms of the performance of motor skills?

Hargrove uses the work of Bernstein to describe the four levels of control: (A) Posture, (B) large limb movements, (C) targeted movements, and (D) complex actions. As Hargrove writes:

Level D differs from the earlier three levels in that it is significantly more advanced. While Levels A-C are present in almost any vertebrate animal, the rudiments of level D can only be found in the higher mammals, and are significantly undeveloped even in human children. Bernstein calls this the human level.

Therefore, in Hargrove’s argument, it appears that complex actions will differentiate the best athletes. In motor learning, Gentile’s Taxonomy differentiates skills by their task complexity. The taxonomy depends on three categories: Object manipulation, body stability or motion, and variability between repetitions. By this model, the least complex task would occur in a stationary position with no intertrial variation, and no object manipulation (stationary balance task), whereas the most complex task would involve motion, variability, and manipulation (shooting a lay-up against a defender).

Further, when examining the complexity of a task, one performed with the foot is considered more complex than one performed with the hands, suggesting that passing a soccer ball is a more complex task than passing a basketball. Passing a basketball is a more complex task than passing a volleyball because there is no defense to change the task: The initial pass from a serve is sent to a setter and the goal is to get the pass to the same spot every time. Manipulating an object, like a hockey or lacrosse stick, is more complex than one’s own body, so passing in ice hockey or lacrosse would be a more complex task than basketball or soccer. Moving on an unstable surface would be more complex than moving on a stable surface, so ice hockey, water polo, and beach volleyball would be more complex than court or field sports.

Outside of invasion games, other net games like squash, tennis, and badminton have intertrial variability, but they do not have someone actively interfering with the performance of the skill; there is no defender trying to prevent Federer from hitting his backhand down the line. Combat sports involve an opponent actively trying to prevent the execution of a skill, but combat sports lack the manipulation of an object, unless one argues that in MMA, wrestling, judo and similar sports, the opponent is the object. That could be a fair argument.

Based on Bernstein’s concept of dexterity, the idea of task complexity, and the four S’s, my guess is that Hargrove’s final essay will argue the merits of ice hockey versus MMA. MMA wins out over other forms of combat sports because it requires the ability to strike, grapple, and prevent/apply submissions. However, by the truest definitions of Bernstein, Gentile, and Hargrove, I think the choice has to be ice hockey.

Is ice hockey my choice? I remain torn. I differentiate athleticism and skill. If there is no differentiation, than the best player in a sport is necessarily the best athlete. Is that always true? LeBron James surely passes the test; however, is Aaron Rodgers the best athlete in football? Is Xavi the best athlete in soccer? This creates an interesting discussion. If Xavi or Rodgers is not the athlete in his sport, how do you differentiate best athlete and best player?

I started this post with the mindset that I was going to differentiate skill from athleticism, and argue that a decathlete was the best athlete in sports. After all, the skill (cognitive-perceptual skills like pattern recognition, anticipation, etc.) that differentiates a player like Rodgers or Xavi from his peers has more in common with a chess grandmaster than a 100m sprinter (speed), marathon runner (stamina), or Olympic weightlifter (strength). Would that make a chess grandmaster a great athlete since he excels in the skill that differentiates the best from the rest or do we need to separate skill as a quality other than athleticism and recognize a decathlete, rower, or other athlete who best combines the five biomotor abilities as the best athlete?

As one who is biased toward skill, I would like to incorporate skill as a dimension of athleticism. However, I have a hard time discounting the athleticism of a decathlete or rower or gymnast simply because he or she has no defender or does not have to make quick decisions. I’m not sure that decision-making is an athletic quality though it is fundamental to sports performance in invasion games. I tend to think that on a continuum, some sports rely more heavily on specific athletic qualities and some rely more heavily on sport-specific skills. Invasion games like ice hockey, basketball, and soccer would be somewhere toward the middle of this spectrum. I think the sport with the best athletes is the one that relies most heavily on athletic abilities, and I would argue for decathletes and rowers as those who maximize speed, strength, power, endurance, and flexibility.

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