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Skill Adaptation vs. Strength Adaptation

By Andy Blaylock , 02/26/20, 7:15PM CST

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The first part of a series in which hockey trainer Andy Blaylock examines how different environments impact skills training.

Skill adaptation vs. Strength adaptation

If you place an animal into an environment, it will adapt. This generally-held premise isn’t always the case, as, for example, some situations are simply a bad fit for many animals. In these cases, the animal will not be able to achieve enough adaptation and will soon die.

But chameleons which change color before your eyes and, maybe even more remarkably, the mimic octopus can change coloration, body pattern, and swimming motion. Amazingly, it does this to imitate other fish such as a flounder or starfish and to escape predators or ambush prey. These are spectacular examples of high-powered adapters in the animal world.

Humans are a special kind of adaptive animal as we have a wildly diverse array of behaviors we can implement. In some sense, we are super-powered animals when it comes to adaptation. Still, we don’t have the physical flexibility of the mimic octopus. Our adaptation excellence comes from our modularity of behavior.

However, while it takes days, not seconds like with the mimic octopus, our body form can adjust to our behavior via strength adaptation. This is precisely what happens when we go to the gym and do a strength workout.

It goes like this. We put our bodies through some behaviors specifically designed to be at the limit of what those vessels are capable of. This triggers a response by the body, which will make it easier to meet that same demand if encountered again. And this results in physical changes to potentially any of the systems used to accomplish the behavior. This includes methods to bring the energy to the muscles, the muscles themselves, and even the bones, tendons, and ligaments which control and direct the force generated by the muscles.

Maybe most importantly, it leads to changes in the nervous system, which produces and directs the signals that cause the muscles to contract and thus use the energy and create that force discussed above.


Left side: Mimic Octopus in disguise. Right side: The animal that scientists believe it is mimicking.

However, this is not the only way in which human bodies can adjust to make meeting the demand of creating a certain behavior easier to execute the next time. If the behavior has intricate elements that require complex timing and coordination, we call that a complex skill. This complex skill may or may not demand a lot of strength. But either way, one way to make it easier to perform the behavior the next time is to adapt in a way that automates some of the complexity of the motion into a “program” or “pattern” that can reliably be triggered as part of future attempts at the more substantial skill.

These remembered programs may be about a tiny portion of the complex skill or the whole thing. They may be about some level in between. Generally, each program references other programs which cover small parts of themselves (of course the exception to this is that there must be some base programs which don’t have “sub-programs” under them).

There is a term that encompasses this concept that is filtering into the public’s awareness. That word is “chunking.” Each one of these programs is in charge of a chunk of the complex skill, and programs for pieces can be attached in support of programs that control larger chunks all in an organized hierarchy.

In this way and only approximately in the early stages of training, the nervous system remembers pieces of the skill, which makes it less of a stretch to figure out how to control the whole skill on the next attempt. Do this enough, and the system remembers the full skill (including automatic adjustments to minor deviations in the environment). Consider walking over uneven ground and talking the whole time. Without thinking about it, the entire walking skill is taken care of even though each footfall may land on the ground that is on a different level or that is shaped differently than expected.

So, skill adaptation is an adjustment to the nervous system such that it can implement a motor program automatically. Strength adaptation is an adjustment to the muscles themselves, the motor system, connective tissue, skeletal structure, or combinations thereof such that they can produce more force as needed to accomplish a task.

So, can strength and skill be fully separated in hockey development?
There is no physical skill in the game that I can think of that would not create more of an advantage for the skater if it could be done with more force. The significant categories of skills are skating, puckhandling, shooting, and passing. Why is adding force beneficial in all of these? To keep the ideas behind the argument simple, speed is valuable in each of these, and a player who can generate more force is generally capable of doing each with more speed.

From that view, the answer is no. We can’t separate strength and skill because they make the effects of each other better.
However, in the skill acquisition process, it is useful to know which of these you are seeking.

At Competitive Edge, the bulk of our students are looking for skill adaptation. If you can assume that a skater has the necessary strength to get into and sustain proper skating position * and to make sure that the speed of specific actions doesn’t delay others **, then we do not need to be concerned about the strength adaptation for our training. Instead, we can focus on skill adaptation.

Focusing only on skill adaptation is great because skill adaptation does not require nearly as much regularity in scheduling. This means that while the opposite is true for strength training, students do not need to commit to a super regular training schedule to get a lot of value out of skill work.

Why, exactly, is that true? That will be the topic of Part II.

Notes

* The classic example of strength being needed to achieve and sustain proper skating position is the challenge of getting into a deep knee bend position and keeping it through a shift.
** A great example of the action of one body part delaying the progress of another in the skating stride is not being able to perform leg extension with maximum force because recovery is happening too slowly, and the two need to be executed such that they synergize with each other’s timing.

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