Running and Hoops: Then and Now

I have always been amazed at how far basketball skill has come in the past fifty years. Today’s players are so much better than players from previous eras that it doesn’t even look like the same sport.

To put this development in perspective, let’s compare some footage over time. Bob Cousy was one of the top players from the 1950s. He was considered one of the game’s flashiest players, earning him the nickname “Houdini of the Hardwood.” Check out some of his “fancy dan” moves:

“Fancy dan”!? You call that fancy? Cheeky maybe. These moves don’t strike me as particularly fly, or even def. Perhaps he should get points for “kicking it old school” but I’m not sure this level of play would get him onto a respectable college team today. No offense to Cousy, but the game has moved on big time.

And even the basic fundamentals have changed. No one uses hook shots or one handed set shots anymore. And it appears that Cousy never used any of the basic building blocks of modern dribbling – the cross over and through the legs dribbling techniques that allow vicious changes of lateral direction. Check out the ankle breaking moves in this vid:

Of course we shouldn’t be surprised that athletes get better over time. The techniques of the game evolve and the fittest techniques survive. If you look at any sport from fifty years ago, you will see the athletes using techniques that are dated to their era.

But I find it interesting that this rule doesn’t seem to apply to running. Let’s compare some vids. Here’s Roger Bannister breaking the four minute mile:

Now compare Bannister’s running form to this recent race between Mo Farrah of England and Ibrahim Jeilan of Ethiopia in the World finals in the Men’s 10,000 meter. By the way, the finish is breathtaking:

Wow! Awesome!

OK, where was I? Ah yes, running technique. I’m not an expert on running form, but I don’t see a big difference over the years. Sure the times are much faster, but I would guess this is attributable to improvements in pure fitness, not technique.

In running, most of the greatest athletes never received any coaching whatsoever in their running technique. This would be unthinkable in other sports. Despite the popularity of various recent running methods like Pose or Chi running, there remains a debate in coaching today as to whether technique training has any usefulness at all.

So why is it harder to improve on running technique than other sports techniques? My answer is that running form has already been optimized by our genes to such an extent that further tinkering can provide only negligible additional benefit. Many scientists believe that humans are born to run, and that our bodies come equipped with brains that are able to unconsciously optimize running technique. Of course, you need to provide natural conditions for the optimum technique to emerge such as barefootedness and a non-sedentary lifestyle. And if these conditions are not provided for ten years or so maybe you need some coaching to get your form back. But the basic point is that humans don’t need to be taught to run any more than a cheetah does.

But they do need to be taught to play basketball.

And that’s my excuse.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

12 Responses to “Running and Hoops: Then and Now”

  1. I agree completely. I immediately thought of how I saw amazing leaps in performance and price/performance ratios in computing…everywhere except CRT monitors. I was discussing it once and realized that while hard drives had dropped to 1/10 of the price for a given unit of storage in just a couple of years, monitors had only dropped about 10%. I suddenly realized it was because CRT technology was already quite mature from the television industry, so the immaturity and lack of development wasn’t there like it was for memory and hard drives.

    I think running is nearly identical. Not only are we designed to do it, but we do it longer than any sport. You ran before you played basketball, football, whatever. If running becomes your sport you come into it with a higher level of maturity and thus running styles are not going to show the changes that we’ve seen in sports, which really just show an evolution of thinking about the sport, and a propagation through coaching memes.

  2. Bill,

    Good points. Yes, kids have pretty good running technique at early ages. For most westerners things just get worse with each passing year.

  3. Hummmmm………. Interesting article, to which I am afraid I must completely, but respectfully disagree 🙂
    I do not really know all that much about basketball, but my personal experience of track & field (granted, 30 years ago…) is that I had to spend my first 8 months to learn how to run.

    After a rugby match, the T&F sprinters’ trainer that was on the track with a group while we were playing, asked me if I wanted to come on Sunday and see how I was doing – “Sure, why not?”
    Sunday came, and after warm up, I was timed in a few dashes & had a few jumps measured, etc… long story short, I joined the T&F team for training in sprint and, instead of following the main group, I was, for 8 full months, at every training session working one on one with the assistant coach to correct foot position, arms position, shoulders, head, impulse, hips, you name it… everything had to be adjusted and corrected.

    Maybe I was an extreme case of imbalance and mis-coordination, but others that joined, did also spend some time re-educating & correcting their flaws before joining the main group.
    It is my experience that running (sprinting) must be learned; it is very technical and, for most, the basics as well as the finer points do not come naturally.

    Maybe the differences are not as spectacular, or visible, in sprint as in basketball, but I can see huge differences between the style of Carl Lewis, Ben Johnson, Frankie Fredericks, Michael Johnson & Ussain Bolt.

    Maybe you could invest a few hours to go watch the training of the sprinters in a close by T&F, & maybe have a short discussion with the trainers; they might be able to give you better insights – I can only speak from my own personal experience.


    • Fredinchina,

      Thanks for the comments. I have a couple points in response.

      First, I agree that we all need to learn to run, but not that we need to be taught. There’s a difference.

      Second, as I stated in the article, we may need to be taught to run if the natural learning process is subverted by sedentary life or shoes. This may explain your experience.

      Third, I would distinguish short sprints from distance running in regard to its “naturalness” and the resulting need for technique training. Sprinters seem to benefit from coaching on technique. This is not as clear for distance runners.

      Fourth, the existence of technique differences between different sprinters (which I concede) does not mean that such differences are the result of teaching. They are more likely the result of the sprinter learning to optimize technique unconsciously to fit their own unique physical characteristics. I doubt you could find that sprinters from one coach or school have different technique from another coach or school, as you might see in soccer, basketball or tennis. If you know differently please let me know, that would be interesting.

  4. Todd,

    I agree, and certainly on the natural conditions you refer to. May I suggest one more natural condition. Children need to see how to run, from parents or other people. Children learn so much with their eyes. Now that is a whole different thing than the need to be taught how to run.

    And maybe that bridges the ‘gap’ between running and basketball a bit. If young folks are immersed in modern basketball, if they see, hear, sense, smell the game, they will almost automatically learn how to play the game.

    Hunter-gatherers seem to have very little or no formal teaching, even for very technical skills like hunting. The children seem to learn by looking and playing.

    • Peiterdrk,

      I wonder how much of kids motor learning is bases on observation and imitation. For me, I learned to play tennis by watching others. But I’m not sure the same would be true for running. Interesting question.

  5. Interesting blog and great to compare the videos of how baskeetball has evolved, although I disagree (also respectfully) that there’s less scope for ‘being taught how to run’, or more scope for ‘being taught how to play ball. I think in both instances there is a mixture of procedural learning and innate skill. I’ve heard so many commentators (or even team mates) say, “you can’t teach that” when a player performs a new skill in a ball game. Maybe there’s just more room for creativity in ball sports than in T&F?

    For sure, there a basics of technique and the nee to practice but I think that’s true of all sports and most things in life!

    • Steve,

      Certainly not everything on the field is taught, but many of the moves you see in soccer and basketball are not just instantaneous moments of creation but the result of many hours of conscious practice. Do a youtube search for dribbling techniques in soccer or basketball and you will see huge inventories of practice drills for the moves the pros do in the game. This wasn’t around when I was a kid – you just had to figure this stuff out on your own.

      As to running, there is still debate as to whether it can be taught at all. No one would make that argument about a team sport.

  6. One thing I’d like to point out is that moves you see in the NBA today weren’t allowed in Cousy’s day. They would have been called for carrying the ball. I played in the 70’s and we couldn’t get by with any of that stuff. Almost all of the crossover moves would have been whistled.

    • David,

      I didn’t know that! I will assume you are correct on that. It certainly goes along way to explaining the differences in dribbling technique over the years. However, many other differences remain, for example the shot. So the basic point about evolution of technique in sport remains, and this can be seen in other sports as well, such as baseball.

  7. I think the key is simply complexity. Basketball has far more areas for optimization and also far more room for aesthetics to enter the game the difference between old and new school basketball isn’t one of simple superiority the old players were arguable better at team tactics and shooting skills there is element of fashion in the change in style.
    A point of comparison would be look at how technique has changed in biking or rowing in the last 50 years does this parallel Running or basketball. I haven’t looked into deeply but I suspect cycling, rowing, skipping rope all show far less change over time then highly complex sports like team ball sports.

  8. Rafe,

    That is a very good point. Team sports are infinitely more complex than running, and offer way more room for improvement. And certainly cycling and rowing are not “natural” as running is, so if they haven’t ever changed much then perhaps the crucial distinction is not natural versus unnatural but simple versus complex as you say. I don’t know enough about rowing and cycling to know.

    I doubt much of the change in bball technique is fashion. Those guys get the job done.

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