“There’s no skill in athletics.” Discuss.

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Yesterday, I managed to watch not one but three sports live at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Hockey in the morning, followed by three hours of gymnastics and a night at Hampden Park watching athletics. With such an array of talent and variety of skills on show, it reminded me of a controversial comment recently made by a friend of mine: “I hate athletics, there’s no skill in it.”

I will clarify two things from the outset. That comment was made by a hockey player – and a scarily skilful one at that. Secondly, I love athletics. Despite the constant (and sadly often accurate) allegations of doping and the occasionally irritating prima donnas, the idea of athletics having no skill cut me rather deeply. I grew up training and competing on the track, watching athletics on TV and idolising running stars. My favourite home video is of me doing laps of the dining room table as a toddler with full commentary by my Dad. My first sporting memory is watching Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell win golds at Barcelona ’92.

With my hockey career currently ‘on hold’, I am seriously tempted to dust off my spikes and head back down to the track. After 10 years of full time training for hockey, I’m pretty sure I would now be faster and stronger than I was as a 14-year old kid, but would I be as good? Potentially. But – and here’s an allusion to my side of the argument – not without some practice. I’m convinced athletics involves skill. Some of the events (I’m thinking pole vault, high jump and hammer) are inherently characterised by technical ability. They may be influenced by genetics and physical attributes that are ‘improvable’ through training, but they take years to master and most people would find them extremely complex to do.

Even running, an activity I would regard as possibly the purest form of human movement, is a technical activity to my mind. Perhaps it does come more ‘naturally’ to some than others, but it is obvious when you are watching a skilful runner. Speed and efficiency may come in different guises, but Michael Johnson, Cathy Freeman and Haile Gebrselassie are beautiful runners. They haven’t just won medals, broken records and made history through superior genetics. Their success has come from technique, tactical awareness and mental strength. I know it’s “just running”. But I still believe there is a skill to running a great race that makes it more than purely a physical battle.

As mentioned, field events are largely skill-based and as such require a combination of technical ability and physical prowess for successful execution. In the same way that we aren’t born with an innate ability to drag flick a hockey ball or do a double back somersault, I think it’s safe to say that a successful discuss thrower has finely tuned his or her specific skill through practice. I know this could be seen to contradict my argument that running is skilful – in that for most people, learning to run is a natural and progressive human action. However, I would simply reiterate my assertion that whilst most people can run, not everyone can run skilfully.

As the title of this entry does say, “Discuss”, I suppose I should provide some balance. It could certainly be argued that other sports involve a wider set of skills. Hockey is an obvious example of this that I am probably well-qualified to asses. A great hockey player will be technically proficient in many skills, specific to their preferred position or style of play but with wide ranging abilities to execute techniques in different situations. I think it’s fair to say that being described as “skilful” is a more sought-after compliment than “hard-working”, “quick”, “strong” or “tactically aware”, despite these being essential parts of a great hockey player’s armoury.

Given the breadth of techniques used by a single player, it probably is the case that overall hockey is more skilful than athletics (decathletes and heptathletes may disagree!). I suppose what I’m getting at is that I see this as a scale, not a black and white classification. Sports are just skilful in different ways. For example, gymnastics is undeniably physical. It requires strength, flexibility and power in bucketloads (not to mention a healthy portion of bravery). Although gymnasts may specialise in a particular discipline or apparatus, most top competitors perform on all apparatus and the coveted title is ‘All round champion’. This requires a number of techniques to be mastered to the top level, with more difficult moves scored accordingly. On my scale, gymnastics perhaps falls somewhere between hockey and athletics.

As with most things in life, this discussion will be seen in different ways by different people. Perspective and experience are key. Sometimes, a sport we have never tried looks easy, sometimes it looks incredibly difficult. Any champion in just about any sport needs skill in my book. Anyway, even if you don’t agree with my take on athletics, there’s always a way to twist any argument to make it work!… As this whole entry was inspired by a quote from a friend, perhaps it’s fitting that I should finish it with another. As my Dad just said to me, “There is a skill in athletics – don’t get caught.”

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