Without looking up from the newspaper I tried to identify some familiar voices arising in the Air Canada departures lounge of the Toronto airport.
"Hey Harry." one said.
"Oh, hello Ken." said the other.
When I looked up I was surprised to find Harry Neale, a CBC NHL broadcaster, and Ken Dryden, of the NHL Hall of Fame, sitting across from me.
It was Friday February 6th, 2004. We were all on our way to Minnesota. Harry and Ken were on their way to the 54th NHL All-Star weekend hosted by the Wild. I was going as coach of the Ontario Speed Skating team at the North American Age Class Long Track Championships.
My thoughts turned to getting them to autograph a book - The Home Team - Fathers, Sons and Hockey by Roy MacGregor - that I had with me, which was a gift from my father that Christmas.
Harry Neale's autograph was my primary goal. Growing up in Cambridge Ontario I spent many hours in the Galt Arena Gardens for hockey, speed skating, school skating races, and watching the Cambridge Hornets. In the entry of the arena hung pictures of the Allan Cup championship teams for the 1961 Galt Terriers, 1969 and 1971 Galt Hornets, and the 1983 Cambridge Hornets. As a member of the 1961 Galt Terriers Neale had his picture there too. I felt kindred to him because we had played in the same old barn.
When their conversation was disrupted for Dryden's autograph I took the opportunity to ask Mr. Neale if he would mind autographing the book for me.
"Certainly." He said taking the book and a pen from me.
While he flipped to a page to sign I chattered "I'm from Cambridge. I would always see your picture in the Galt Arena Gardens"
"Galt? I haven't thought of those days in a long time."
He finished signing the book and motioned towards Dryden for him to sign the book too.
While Dryden signed the book Neale asked if I was heading to the All Star game. I replied that I wasn't but instead going to coach speed skating, adding that Brad Marsh's son was one of the skaters.
"Brad Marsh's son eh!? Is he a good skater?" Alluding to Brad's notoriety as a poor skater.
"Yes." I replied. "He will be one of the top skaters in his age group at the competition."
"Well that proves skating isn't hereditary" he teased.
Neale took the book from Dryden and handed it back to me. I thanked the two of them and let them get back to their conversation.
True, skating or the acquisition of any other motor skill is not hereditary. It takes practice. The differences between Brad and his son's skating ability could be attributed to the amount of specific skating practice time and other factors such as relevant feedback received.
Joan Vickers begins her book, Perception, Cognition, and Decision Training, by defining motor learning and motor performance. Where motor learning "requires physical practice and his affected by age, maturation, amount of time devoted to practice, plus a host of other factors. Motor performance occurs when "most of the learning of the skill has been done and the challenge is now one of motor control, or the ability to plan an produce a movement that successfully achieves a particular goal".
Vickers points out that the way a coach provides feedback has a profound effect on how well athletes learn and perform. Intrinsic feedback arises internally from the production of movement. Extrinsic feedback comes from external sources such as a coach.
Brad's son had the benefit of both specific skating practice and extrinsic feedback. With knowledgable speed skating coaches he practiced specific motor movements and received feedback about the look and feel of efficient skating so that he could begin to develop and process intrinsic feedback for himself to perform.
With regards to other skaters, such as hockey players, spending more time to refine the efficiency of their skating Charles Hamelin, Canadian Olympic gold-medal winning speed skater, refers to his friend Marc-Edouard Vlasic, of the San Jose Sharks and 2014 Olympic gold-medal winner: “For him, I think the best thing he could learn from me is skate faster. I'm not saying he's not fast or not a good skater, because I really think he’s a good one. But I'm sure I know things that could help him to be more efficient on the ice. More efficient = easier to go faster. More efficient = less tired. Less tired = more energy day after day. Less tired = less injury. Less tired = more shift in the legs.” (The Hockey News)
Any skater should then be considering what and how much specific practice they are doing to improve their skating efficiency. They should also be considering who is directing their learning and providing feedback to best achieve their performance goal.
Gary Roberts, the Toronto Maple Leafs' All-Star representative, was also on the same flight so I got his autograph in the book at the baggage carousel in Minnesota.
I got to know Brad Marsh seeing him from time to time at speed skating ovals across the country during his son's skating career. In 2012 I finally told him this story while riding our bikes during the Amherst to Tantallon Nova Scotia leg of his 90 Day Challenge Cross-Canada ride for the Boys and Girls Club of Canada. He autographed the book while we relaxed with a beer at the end of the day.