Bear with me for a moment while I lay some groundwork on how math can help us understand the concept of technique. If that sounds to you a bit like going to the dentist, I am sorry. However, I am excited to try to convince you otherwise.
Mathematical modeling is a discipline where people represent the key aspects of a specific system on paper or a computer using numbers. When modeling a system, one can consider variations of the scheme by manipulating a landscape of possible configurations (or set-ups) of the system.
Imagine laying out a landscape like this somewhere over the surface of the earth such that on this landscape you could move any combination of North / South and East / West. By moving across the landscape in this way, you would be, in effect, changing from one set-up to another for some system. Then you could consider how well that set-up would produce an output that would work for a given task. This level of effectiveness of the output would be the height of the landscape at that North-South / East-West position (just like the ground you stand on at some place on the earth has a certain height compared with sea level).
In this article, the system I want you to think about is a human body. To take an example, imagine that the landscape of techniques lays over a map of the Twin Cities area. Say the area by downtown Minneapolis is an area with techniques for slap shots and the area by downtown St. Paul has wrist shot methods. As you trace the path on I-94 East from Minneapolis to St. Paul the techniques would somehow gradually change from a slap shot to a wrist shot. Many of these would be some awkward blend of the two shots and would hardly work to generate good velocity on the puck. If the height of the landscape was the velocity that one could get on the puck with the technique at that spot, then the landscape would be highest near downtown Minneapolis (because slap shots generate the highest velocity). The landscape would get lower and maybe even close to zero at points on I-94 headed toward St. Paul, and then moderately high (for the medium velocity of wrist shots) again near downtown St. Paul.
For the rest of the article, the landscape you should imagine moving around on is all of the different techniques that the human body can use to move itself from place to place (in the real world). Moreover, the height of the landscape at any point is given by how efficient a specific movement pattern is for getting around on a hockey rink with ice skates on. Let's narrow it down to just movements that would propel the body in the forward direction.
A visual of the notion of a technique landscape.
Think of all of the possible ways you could move your body. How many of them would produce efficient forward motion? Let’s think about a few specifically. You could reach out and grab a glass of water. You could spin in a circle. You could get into a downward facing dog yoga pose. None of these will move you forward in ice skating (at least not very much). In fact, the vast majority of the landscape would do almost nothing to generate forward momentum on ice.
So, almost all of the landscape is flat right at the point of zero. Also, some of the landscape is actually negative (highly efficient backward skating would be most negative). Still, many techniques do create forward motion, and once we get to these, we start to climb the foothills toward efficient technique.
Now, consider the movie Waterworld. In this film, the entire earth except for a mythical small island was inundated with water. The idea is that this island was once Mount Everest and yet, now, on the flooded earth, is the only dry land that remains. If our forward skating technique landscape was flooded with so much water that just a small island remained, what techniques would we find on that island?
That island would be techniques that are all very close to the best possible method for the forward stride. Let's drain the water back out of the landscape and think about how people can move their techniques towards a more natural movement that would be on that island (or, now that the water is gone, on the top of that mountain).
Neuroscience doesn’t have the details sorted out, but one common view on this type of learning is that repetitions with reinforcement are the keys to learning a movement. So, each time a player executes a repetition they do it with some technique. They are not perfect in recreating a given method, so even for the same person, the routine for any given attempt is a bit different from the rest. This difference means they are moving around on our landscape (different spots on the landscape being different techniques). When they do this, their nervous system unconsciously monitors how well the approach worked (for forward skating, generating more speed or acceleration equals better performance). Remember, how well it worked corresponds to the height on the overall landscape.
When the technique used has good results, the structures in the nervous system that were activated to produce that technique are reinforced. This reinforcement has the effect of making it more likely that the learner will use many of those same parts of the nervous system in a similar sequence to produce a similar technique for the same task in the future. Remember that this successful technique was higher in the landscape than other less successful ones. The effect of all of this is that the system will climb the landscape by strengthening the nervous system patterns that produced results higher on the landscape each time they happen and work toward a spot where they can climb no further. We know this as a “peak."
What does all this mean for hockey players and hockey coaches? The question comes down to whether or not we should be focusing on getting players to one specific peak. Heading for "one specific peak" is the same thing as optimizing a technique for one particular, well-defined task. In some sports, this may be the right approach. What about hockey? That will be the subject of Part 2.
Quality coaches keep players away from those lower peaks.