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.