Preface: The idea of robust vs resilient skills is something that I learned about through an interview on The Talent Equation Podcast with Ted Suihkonen, skills coach for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the KHL and owner of Suihkonen Hockey. The interview can be found here and is an excellent listen for players, parents and coaches alike. Suihkonen’s Twitter and Instagram are good for short bites of information about “environment-based” skill acquisition (if you’re into social media, that is).
- Robust Skill: A motor pattern that can be repeated from trial to trial with a high degree of similarity in mechanics. A robust skill can be repeated (almost) exactly from trial to trial, but it may not be variable enough to meet the external demands of the environment in which it takes place (IE, the same toe drag which works when a defender is 10 feet away might not work when that defender is 5 feet away).
- Resilient Skill: A highly adaptable motor pattern, the mechanics of which can be varied as necessary to meet the external demands of the environment in order to achieve an objective.
I used to have a synthetic ice skills pad that I would practice stickhandling moves on. You probably know the kind: smooth white plastic, about 4 ft. x 4 ft dimensions with a hole cut out at one end to serve as a handle. I used to stickhandle a puck or a “Smart Hockey” ball on that skills pad for hours. I would put a hockey game on the TV and practice a stickhandling pattern over and over. I’d practice toe drags on that thing until I could do them with my eyes closed. I could do the same toe drag every time. I had “perfected” my grip and knew just how hard I needed to push the puck or ball in order to meet it with the toe of my blade at the opposite end of the skills pad. I knew just how far I needed to roll my wrists. In that toe drag, I had built a “robust skill.”
Think of a robust skill like a stiff, sturdy tree or like a solid old building. It’s dependable…until it is confronted with a situation that it wasn’t built for. Just as that stiff tree can stand up to great winds, but when it fails that failure is catastrophic because the tree breaks rather than bending (aka, “adapting”)…Just as that solid building can seem indestructible through years of use and then be reduced to rubble by an earthquake because the building can’t shift on its foundation…Just like that, the robust “toe drag” that I had built on my synthetic ice skills pad seemed reliable and sturdy. But, more often than not, when I tried it in a game, it was either ineffective or it ended up with me on my butt and the other team taking the puck back toward my team’s net. Why was this skill that I had spent so many hours on, that I could repeat so reliably, not working in real games?
Because I had built a robust skill when I should have been focusing on building a “resilient” skill. Here’s the problem with robust skills: if you perfect that singular motor pattern in a practice environment, you get good at repeating it UNDER THOSE EXACT CONDITIONS. Then if you take it into a game environment and change ONE SINGLE VARIABLE, the motor pattern no longer works. Change how far the defender is? It doesn’t work anymore. Change how fast you’re moving? It doesn’t work anymore. Do it in the wrong area of the ice or the wrong situation? It doesn’t work anymore.
I had some specialized training technology to train at home (the skills pad and ball) and obviously you can go crazy building the home training area of your dreams with every stickhandling gadget ever invented. But I would caution you to keep the following quote (the source of which I can’t remember) in mind, “the best technology to improve your players’ skills has already been invented…it’s called your other players!” Had I practiced that toe drag under more game-like conditions with an actual human being trying to stop me, I would have been forced to constantly change the mechanics of the skill. Sometimes I would have had to pull the puck a little farther back, sometimes I would have had to do it a little more to the left or right. Sometimes I would have had to forget about the toe drag altogether.
Rather than attuning myself to the demands of a game environment (an environment full of real hockey players trying to stop me) and training myself to adapt my movements to meet those demands, I had focused my efforts on building a mechanically robust motor pattern that I could repeat over and over and over (with little variation and no attention paid to the context of how and when that motor pattern would actually be effective in a real game). Unfortunately, I wasn’t presented with very many game situations in which those exact mechanics were the right mechanics. I had trained my actions, but I hadn’t trained myself to adapt my actions based on my perceptions. This is one reason why taking an “environment-in” approach is so valuable and taking a “technique-out” approach is so frustrating. Whenever you have the ability to practice against real human beings in a chaotic environment, practice like that because that’s what you’ll have to do in a real game. If you’re a coach and you have a group of players, why would you have them practice a skill in isolation or against cones when they could practice it against each other and, therefore, be more likely to transfer that skill into a real game?
Too often we focus on just the outcome of a skill and try to shoe-horn ourselves (or our players) into repeating this exact same outcome, without understanding that the process for how players got to that outcome is so different from trial to trial. Watch closely: there are common principles, but no two toe drags are exactly alike. If we want to play like that, our goal shouldn’t be technical or mechanical repetition, it should be developing the ability to combine perception of the game with adaptable actions that solve the problems of that unique moment of game-play.
Unfortunately, we can’t always play a competitive small area game. We can’t always practice in the most game-realistic environments. Sometimes we have to practice at home and by ourselves. We have to do the best with the situation we’re in. I’m not saying that practicing at home by yourself is worthless training. But the question you have to ask is how can you maximize its effectiveness and not make the same mistakes I did? The answer: forget repeatability and INTRODUCE VARIATION. Rather than repeating the exact same toe drag, I should have been finding ways to make it as different as possible from rep to rep. I should have tried a short toe drag, then a long toe drag. I should have tried one with a heavy puck, or a blue puck or a tennis ball or a lacrosse ball (or all of the above). I should have spent more time playing keep away with my dog. In the motor learning world, this variation is called adding “perturbations” to a skill. The more perturbations you can add, the more adaptable the skill becomes. Sometimes it’s called “differential learning.” Nikolai Bernstein, the father of modern motor learning science, called it “repetition without repetition” or “repetition of variation.” Whenever you practice at home (a training environment which is likely to be isolated, repetitive and non-game-realistic) you have to find ways to add variation to the movement pattern. Remember, you’re not training yourself to repeat a mechanically identical toe drag (or whatever skill) over and over and over again under ideal conditions. You’re training yourself to use movement to adapt to a chaotic game environment and solve problems. Progress isn’t a decrease in errors, that’s not your goal. Progress is an increase in adaptability. You won’t be successful in a game because you can repeat the exact same toe drag over and over. You’ll be successful in a game because you can execute a huge variety of toe drags depending on the situation. That’s skill that transfers!
The image above was produced by the father of modern motor learning science, Nikolai Bernstein. The dashed line shows the path of the performer's wrist with each repetition of striking the hammer. Notice how the process is always slightly different even though the result is the same? While there are certainly commonalities from trial to trial, no two movements are ever exactly the same. Every action is unique. Even skilled performers have a high degree of variability in their movements. This is yet another reason why mechanical and repetitive training of "robust" skills is a Sisyphean task.
If you take one thing from this blog post, take the following advice: The next time you set out to train your skills (and, if you’re a coach, the next time you plan a practice or a lesson), ask yourself, “am I training myself to repeat a mechanically exact motor pattern that works under ideal conditions but breaks down in a chaotic game environment or am I training myself to use my movements to adapt to the constantly changing demands of that game environment?”
Post-Script: This is what constitutes a “short” post for me. I had to hold a few things back to keep it readable. If you’re interested in digging deeper into the science of skill acquisition and motor learning, check out some of the links below (send me an email if you’re looking for more):