Gretzky Lied to us All: He did not know where the puck was going.
Wayne Gretzky famously said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been”. The most overused quote in sport, business, and countless other realms is simply untrue. “The Great One” lied to us all.
Either Gretzky didn’t understand the intricacies of his success, or it was purposefully said to make him seem beyond human. It is easy to believe he simply knew what to do and could foresee the future as that’s how it appeared. However, it wasn’t simply magic. The reality was that he couldn’t see the future, he didn’t know what people were going to do. And I mean this with the greatest respect. That quote downplays how brilliant and skilled he actually was. He wasn’t someone who could see the future; he was someone who created it.
There’re 4 main components to interacting with an environment. The process is called the OODA Loop and is a well-known military concept. Simply it is: Observe → Orient → Decide → Act. Or See → Think → Decide → Move. While a physical act takes roughly the same amount of time among professional athletes (they are all in impeccable shape), the ability to see things or make complex decisions under pressure can create fractions or full seconds advantage over opponents. He was special not because he was able to perform an action faster than opponents but because he was able to act earlier than an opponent. He was acting first and shaping the environment; others were simply responding to what Wayne was doing. They always lagged behind.
Wayne almost always knew exactly what the environment around him was like. He had nearly 360-degree awareness. He knew where opponents were, teammates, and more importantly, where the spaces were. He not only saw these adapt and change in real time, he understood complex patterns and relationships between players. He understood the habits and limitations of teammates. This was the first component — Observe.
Orienting oneself in a dynamic, high-paced, stressful environment is one of the most challenging things to do. To do this repeatedly, for long periods of time is one of the most impressive things one can do. This is where Wayne really excelled. He understood not only what he was capable of, he understood how he could shape his environment. He was able to instantly make sense of even the subtlest changes in the environment and what it means to him. This was the second component — Orient.
Once Wayne knew what any change in environment meant to him, he was able to flip that question; what can he mean to his environment? While there is nearly an infinite number of possible decisions that can be made within any game, he was able to sort through and pick an effective one. He could do this almost instantaneously. This was the third component — Decide.
This next step is when people get to witness the magic of Wayne Gretzky. This is when he creates space for himself, makes that impossible pass, skips past a defender or scores the wonderful goal. This is when all the invisible steps before become seen and noticed. This was the 4th and last component — Act.
Now was Wayne Gretzky the most skilled hockey player? No. Was he the most athletic? No. What he did was run through the OODA Loop faster than any other player in the league. In essence, he was always a step quicker than an opponent because he’s literally starting more actions every second than those around him. He’s making more decisions on better information before anyone else on either team. This was the real secret to “The Great One”. He acted first, and he acted more often. Not only this, but he is acting before an opponent even has time to begin their action. Effectively, Wayne was actively changing the environment before opponents even have a chance to understand it. Opponents are always making decisions on old information. To an opponent, it is like solving a crossword puzzle where the squares, letters or questions keep moving. This is how he was able to score roughly 1000 more career points than the next closest NHL player. He did not do this by being able to know where the puck was going, nor could he see the future. He created the future while others were still figuring out the past.