76 posts

Falling Prey to The Data


It seems technology and data companies are becoming very adept at exploiting the narratives around “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”, that data provides “objective, cold hard facts*”, and if you have data you are using an “evidence-based” approach.

(a further thought — the allure of automating data capture is also very persuasive)

Whilst often not explicitly stating it, companies do this to create a perception their offering is the key to you enhancing player/team development.

However, to make these claims you must, at the very least, have a sound theoretical model of how human development works. In the most recent example I came across, a ball projection machine for football was being promoted as enabling players to improve by PRECISE (in terms of how the ball was being delivered) repetition of striking a ball . And of course their product could produce all sorts of data about a session.

Just one small problem — the “evidence” in skill acquisition and learning science (schema theory or dynamical systems theory), whilst valuing repetition, would suggest some level of VARIABILITY is usually helpful for developing skill. So this is actually nothing like an evidence-based approach – in fact further towards the opposite end of the spectrum. Worse, the real danger is coaches moving away from what may be sound (often tacit) models/theories of learning design to something less so, because they fall prey to the narratives mentioned above.

Key point: Just because you can produce data doesn’t make an intervention/action evidence based**. And it certainly doesn’t make your program “elite”, “high performance” or any other buzzword you fancy.

Start by thinking about this question – “what is your model of the learner/learning process?” In my experiences, if you are well-informed on this (by theory, experiential knowledge and critical reflection) you are in a good position to exploit both simple and advanced applications of data/technology to enhance human development.

(occasionally reminding ourselves we are trying to develop people, not engineer machines…. that is useful too)

* Ben Alamar has made a very insightful observation that one of the biggest misconceptions about metrics is that they provide the “facts”, a single truth. This is rarely the case.

** given the complexity of humans, there are also dangers with strictly adhering to (seemingly) legitimate evidence-based approaches…maybe I’ll address that in a future post.

The Learning Landscape

Mark Upton
Feb 3, 2016

“the impossibility of knowing the totality of the learning landscape is not as important as understanding that such a vast, ever-changing landscape exists.”

Our 2nd #relearn event was held in Marlow, Buckinghamshire last week and provides the stimulus for this post.

(If you want a recap of the event, the ever-thoughtful @imsporticus has shared his reflections)

One of my post-event reflections was I could’ve done a better job facilitating the emergent group conversation. Whilst we are far from advocates of directing and controlling what is covered and how, I felt the discussion became overly constrained in seeing the learner/learning, in this case a player/athlete, and coach as inextricably linked. Some chatter the next morning on twitter went further down this route, ending up talking about the coaching process, rather than the learner and the learning process. Clearly a coach/facilitator/mentor etc can have a significant influence on learning, but it is so much broader than that. Later in the evening an example was given of a far-away country where high quality sports facilities are left open and accessible for young people to use without the need for adult permission and supervision. Considering what I have seen in England in the last two years, that sort of unstructured play opportunity could have a huge impact on learning and player/athlete development, but has nothing to do with a coach. This is just one example.

In the midst of ruing the missed opportunity to explore the breadth of the “learning landscape”, I was reminded of an article I have read a number of times by Diana Stirling, Associate Researcher at the Learning Development Institute – “Learning and Complex Adaptive Systems”. Diana mentions in the opening to the article that she is not a scientist but hopes to bring ideas from complexity science to a discussion around designing effective learning environments, with some particular challenges for formal education as we know it.

In my opinion the article does a brilliant job at doing just that, painting a more complete picture of learning and its dynamics than is often portrayed. As the article is written in a relatively relaxed style compared to academic papers, I have extracted a number of segments and inserted them in this post. They make for accessible reading and fit together quite well. Without going into great detail, some of the themes are:

  • humans (individually and collectively) are complex adaptive systems – they are dynamic, interactional, and changing, not static (that would be a complicated system and we have spoken many times about the limitations of treating people as complicated rather than complex)
  • conscious learning, whilst important, is only part of the learning landscape. Learning is adapting to best “fit” the environment/context
  • some clarifications on how the brain works, how much it really “controls” and debunking the view of “knowledge” as a static entity residing in a fixed location in the brain
  • bringing these ideas to bear in some critical thinking about current learning environments and future directions (whilst Diana has the formal education system in mind these ideas are extremely relevant to the learning of people involved in a range of roles in sport)

Whilst appreciating you will interpret the below in your own unique way, my hope is it becomes clear how broad the learning landscape really is and how embracing, rather than rejecting, this can help people be their best.

Warning: There are no “answers” provided here – just a stimulus for deeper thinking!

Diana Stirling – Learning & Complex Adaptive Systems

“When the human individual is viewed as a complex adaptive system and learning is seen as an essential dynamic on which the system depends for survival, conscious learning is recognized as the tip of the learning iceberg.”

“In having achieved survival up to the present moment, the agent as a system and the larger system(s) of which the agent is a part have engaged in a particular kind of learning that is inherent in adaptation. This learning involves maximizing the system’s fitness with regard to the larger environment.”

“To define learning as primarily a conscious human activity and judge other systems based on this view does not make good scientific sense. It makes a great deal more sense to take the longer and wider view that is supported by biology and evolutionary studies. From this perspective, a complex adaptive system must learn in order to survive. To learn in this sense means to successfully adapt to change. Seen in this light, the conscious human experience of learning is only a tiny fraction of all the learning taking place in an individual human at any moment. Learning does not necessarily involve understanding or meaning. All complex adaptive systems can be said to learn in this fundamental sense of the term.”

“In classic experiments as well as in experiences with victims of brain damage it has been shown repeatedly that within certain parameters, the brain can reorganize to adapt to its changed condition. This plasticity of the brain argues against its having a rigid structure. The familiar illustration of the brain divided into sections, each one labeled with a particular function, turns out to be misleading, at best.”

“Recent research on the brain has revealed that many of our former notions of brain organization were off the mark. The idea that there exists somewhere in the brain representations of objects or ideas seems highly unlikely in the light of results from researchers like Kelso, Fingelkurts and Fingelkurts, Varela, and many others.”

“The basic problem with the question: If the brain is not in control, what is? is that it assumes that some discrete entity must be in control. As the discussion of complex adaptive systems demonstrates, the problem lies in this assumption. To really grasp the implications of what complexity science asserts requires one to relinquish the assumption.”

“To view learning as a dynamic of the complex adaptive systems which comprise an individual human requires a shift of perspective. One has to relinquish the notion of the outside agent that controls the system in favor of an understanding of the immensely intricate dynamics of interrelations between and within systems from which no agent can be extricated.”

“The metaphor of the mind as a computer that controls the machine of the body does not hold up to scientific scrutiny. This is a crucial point when it comes to understanding the relationship of the nervous system to individual identity and a discussion of human learning. If Kelso is right, this challenges some of our assumptions about who we are as humans, how we learn, and how best to educate ourselves and our children.”

“The previous discussion of complex adaptive systems and brain functioning lends itself to a view of learning as an active, evolving process rather than as a product. In addition, it suggests that the learning process is a nonlinear one. Simple ideas of cause and effect cannot adequately describe the learning process. The ever-changing nature of the learning process makes a definition of learning in terms of products unworkable. The very best one can hope for by naming products is a snapshot of a moment, recognizing that, like all snapshots, the moment it describes is irretrievably transformed by time. Thus, the snapshot can never provide a definitive description.”

“It requires a recognition of each human as a unique entity within whom there is an irreducible and irreproducible context in which learning is taking place. The context is irreproducible in any other human, as well as in that same human at a different moment in time. Learning is not the process of capturing a moment, but a process integral to creating the moment. This is an important distinction, and one which merits consideration in any discussion of the design of formal learning environments.”

“While learning as a process may be fairly easy for the reader to go along with, learning as a nonlinear process may be a bit more difficult. Learning as a linear activity is deeply embedded in our language and philosophies.”

“Here the view is of knowledge as a noun, a static representation in the mind, and the process of learning is seen as an attempt to move discrete units of knowledge back and forth between the learner and…what? or whom? To use the word knowledge in reference to learning is to conjure an image that belies the intricate dynamics of which current brain research suggests knowledge is comprised.”

“Visser, whose work is steeped in an understanding of complex dynamics, defines human learning as ‘the disposition of human beings, and of the social entities to which they pertain, to engage in continuous dialogue with the human, social, biological and physical environment, so as to generate intelligent behavior to interact constructively with change.’”

“The value lies in approaching an educational environment with the assumption that every participant is naturally predisposed toward learning and in fact, is learning all the time. To design with this assumption in mind is to see the designer’s (and the teacher’s) role as more of a facilitator than as one who is to impart knowledge packets that must somehow be “gotten into” the learner. When we encourage an innate disposition to learn, we are activating a biological imperative. Even if one can accept that every participant is learning, there may be a discrepancy between the learning taking place and the learning intended by the teacher, curriculum designer, parents, facilitator or society. The focus in the educational system is often on what is not being learned, rather than what is being learned. The situation is further complicated by the fact that even learners themselves often cannot identify, are often not even aware of, vast tracts of their own learning landscapes.”

“The main point of this discussion of learning and different degrees of consciousness is to illustrate the fact that, while schooling focuses almost entirely on conscious learning, conscious learning constitutes only a small fraction of all the learning taking place in an individual at any particular moment. At the same time, the learning going on at all levels, conscious, potentially conscious, and nonconscious, comprises the entire individual context in which new learning is taking place. This raises the question of whether one can take into account a learning landscape the totality of which is unknowable. This paper argues that the impossibility of knowing the totality of the learning landscape is not as important as understanding that such a vast, ever-changing landscape exists.”

“A complex adaptive system does not exist in a state of total disorder; such a system is a chaotic one. Instead, there is always a certain degree of order present – some order, but not enough to lock the system into stasis. If the existing, dynamic order of thinking in an individual is an integral part of the context within which thinking takes place, then it stands to reason that the disequilibrium of each individual’s thinking within each one’s unique, dynamic learning landscape may be the most vital component to consider when designing formal learning environments. As we have seen previously, just before phase synchronization occurs in the brain, disequilibrium becomes pronounced. In the experiments we have discussed, there was a slowing of response time just before phase synchrony of the new skill took place. This might mean that a genuine change in the learning landscape of an individual may be preceded by some sort of confusion, awkwardness, or uncertainty. In learning a simple motor skill, this period is quite brief. Does this same process occur over a longer period for more complex tasks or skill acquisition? Do we allow for this in our classrooms? Is there time available for this kind of transition to take place?”

“Contrary to this view of the possibility of many excellent solutions for a presenting problem, often formal learning environments are organized around the assumption that there are single best solutions to well-known problems, and that these best solutions, in most cases, have already been discovered. Building on this assumption, the role of the teacher is often seen as to provide students with this best solution information, referred to in this system as “knowledge.” In turn, students are evaluated on their ability to demonstrate understanding of such knowledge in the form of “right” answers.”

“Generating ideas and pursuing possible avenues of thought is time-consuming. The thinker makes false starts and wrong turns, encounters blind alleys, collapses in a heap, reconsiders, and starts again. It is all part of the search. This may seem to be a waste of time, particularly when the teacher or textbook is perfectly capable of providing a “right” answer without all the bother. However, there may be no quicker way to stymie student interest and motivation than to present material as if all the answers have already been found and the student’s job is simply to memorize them. It is crucial to allow students to take the time they need to make their own discoveries. Providing the opportunity for students to discover answers for themselves also encourages them to develop invaluable thinking skills, which can make learning more interesting and effective.”

“A common expression in English cautions one against ‘reinventing the wheel’ – the implication being that rediscovering what has already been discovered by someone else is a waste of time. This may be one of the underlying beliefs of our current educational system. Seen from that perspective, the logic of encouraging students to achieve right answers makes sense. Such an approach theoretically avoids wasting time by giving students the knowledge of what has gone before. Presented in this way, knowledge is static, unchanging, correct. However, if a human being is a complex adaptive system, and if learning is a dynamic of that system through which transformation occurs as a result of the experience of co-creating the world, then such an approach is, in fact, an utter waste of time. Seen from this point of view, the wheel must be invented again and again, by each one in his or her own way. In this contradiction is the essence of a major struggle in educational practice. In an effort not to waste time and to demonstrate the “results” on which funding and public support depend, formal educational practice is designed to fill students’ minds with data that can be measured and graded. This practice depersonalizes the educational experience, creates an environment in which students compete with one another for their places on the bell curve and values getting “the right answer” over personal vision and the co-creation of meaning. Simultaneously, educators, parents and students themselves bemoan the lack of student engagement, low levels of critical thinking ability and high disillusionment with a system in which students are often seen as unable or unwilling to learn.”

We as a learning society can’t have it both ways. We can choose either to set up flexible learning environments in which learners can take the time they need to create personal understanding or we can continue with the present system, thereby giving up the benefits of such an approach.


Stirling, Diana. “Learning and Complex Adaptive Systems.” Aichi Universities English Education Research Journal. 30 (2013): 183–226. Trans. Mitsuo Kondo (pdf)

#relearn – round 2

Mark Upton
Jan 27, 2016

Very much looking forward to the 2nd installment of relearn in Marlow, Buckinghamshire this evening. With a slightly different attendee demographic from the first event, it is going to be an intriguing journey across the 4 hours we are together. The diversity in the group is fantastic – we have coaches, managers/coordinators of sporting departments, sport scientists, academics and other roles – and yet there appears a common thread around creating environments for helping people be their best. Certainly a case of “connect on your similarities, benefit from your differences”.

The diversity of the group is one unique aspect of this event. The other is taking a learner-centred approach as we adapt to meet the needs of the attendees. Creating a space for them to engage, present their aspirations(and the inherent challenges), and to connect with the collective wisdom and experience in the room.

Our role is to apply a small number of constraints that will facilitate the emergence of a positive and challenging (maybe even slightly uncomfortable at times) learning experience. For us, the sprinkling of uncertainty this approach brings instills a slightly uneasy feeling – yet one we know we must embrace. We also sense that many are uncertain themselves about this type of event and are perhaps more familiar with, and prepared to fork out significant sums of money for, the “sage on stage” dynamic. The absolute ease with which uncritical cherry picking – “I like that”, “I don’t like that” – can take place in that environment is something we are trying to avoid if possible. This is a significant cultural shift that will take time.

So, the scene is set. We look forward to sharing our reflections on #relearn 2 in the next week and hope to engage with you in your learning journey at some point.

7 Principles of a Nonlinear Pedagogy

Mark Upton
Dec 18, 2015

“nonlinear pedagogy can provide the theoretical framework for researchers and practitioners to develop effective learning designs” (Chow, 2013)

How do players best learn to select & control their actions to meet the demands of a dynamic environment as found in football/rugby/hockey/basketball/netball etc? To help answer this question, below are my interpretations of the key principles from Chow’s (2013) notion of a Nonlinear Pedagogy. Considered through the lens of 15 years experience coaching, analyzing and observing junior and high performance sport, I feel they hold much promise for the design of creative learning spaces that will help players master these dynamic environments.

1) Players (humans) are complex systems whose movements and actions emerge under constraints

Learning & performance is continuously shaped by interacting task, environmental & individual (player) constraints. These constraints vary at different timescales (i.e. body height and weight change relatively slowly compared to feelings of anxiety or fatigue) and their interactional nature can see relatively subtle changes catalysing significant shifts in learning & performance (sometimes termed “nonlinearity”, and hence NonlinearPedagogy). The ability of the coach to identify and expertly manipulate constraints is a key in effective learning design & pedagogy. The interactional nature also explains why certain components of performance practiced in isolation, i.e. “technique”, may collapse when task constraints (inclusion of opposing players) and/or individual constraints (emotions) change.

constraints framework, based on Newell (1986)

For more insight into the constraints framework in the context of short and long term player development, have a look at my articles “the perfect storm”and “playful mastery” in issues 5 and 6 of the Cruyff Football Player Development Project Magazine (membership required).

2) Variety is the spice of life!

There is no need to impose a putative “textbook” technique. Instead players must learn to adapt their movements (in milliseconds) to the various situations encountered on the pitch. Being adaptable means players will have a certain degree of functional variability in their movements or, in other words, have a number of ways to solve the problems they are faced with in a match. Therefore, whilst training can still focus on repetition of a particular skill or tactical concept, it must inject sufficient amounts of variability – elegantly termed “repetition without repetition”.

3) Skill Learning = forming of information-movement couplings

During a match there exists a constant stream of “information” that is available to be perceived by the player (in the form of the ball, teammates, opponents, goals, pitch markings, surfaces etc). Learning is the process of becoming attuned to key sources of information* that can be used to complete a task, and coupling with functional movement/action. When the sources of information players are using to select & control their actions (on or off the ball) varies from those used in a match, we may only see limited transfer & gains in the match environment. A most obvious example of this – rarely in a team sport will a cone or marker be present on the field of play that specifies where a player should position themselves…yet this is a common sight in many training sessions.

*in team sports there is another kind of “information” that clearly influences perceptions and actions during the match – that being strategies, set plays, positions, formations etc that are given to players pre-match (and sometimes change during the course of the match). How this kind of information interacts with the information available to be perceived in “real-time” , and how to best incorporate into learning design, is a significant topic that is outside the scope of this post.

(Our recent Hangout with Dr Andrew Wilson covers information and task dynamics in much greater detail)

4) Simplification

Whilst trying to avoid completely removing critical information sources, we may need to simplify them to cater for the learners current abilities. We can reduce the speed, distance & variety of trajectories the ball may travel, decrease the number of opponents or player density, and/or enlarge the goals & playing area. We still need to vary these informational constraints over different timescales to allow players to become more sensitive to them (the on-going process of “perceptual attunement”). Increasing perceptual attunement via the purposeful manipulation of constraints is where I have seen some of the greatest benefits for learning and performance.

5) Prescribe a task (“problem”), not the movement (“solution”)

Humans are goal-directed creatures – they often learn best when given a task/goal to achieve and minimal instruction (at least initially). This can facilitate search and discovery of movement solutions, in some cases over a long period of time. As an example, the task goal might be to get past a defender and dribble the ball over a line using any moves/actions the player wishes to try, rather than prescribing at the outset a specific move or technique (i.e. enforcing the use of the inside or outside of the foot, “step overs”, “maradona” etc). Further, instruction given to the learner should create an external focus of attention or use analogies to describe desirable movement patterns – instruction that creates an internal focus of attention could be detrimental, i.e. concentrating on a specific part of the body, such as using the inside of the foot.

Although contentious for some, the above approach may exploit the capacity for self-organisation of individual and collective actions. Mark O Sullivan has recently written a blog post detailing the emergence of pressing traps being created by his youth football players without any instruction or direction on his part.

The final two principles are not strictly part of Chow’s Nonlinear Pedagogy but, based on my experiences, I feel they need to be included in any discussion regarding learning and player development…

6) Your actions speak so loudly I cannot hear what you say

Player learning is largely demonstrated in the “doing” (particularly in a match environment), less so the “knowing” and verbalising back to the coach. Sometimes we confuse the latter for genuine learning, leading to flawed beliefs regarding the effectiveness of our learning design & pedagogy. High quality observation during matches (possibly complimented by post-match video analysis) is crucial for the efficacious monitoring and evaluation of player learning.

7) Rome wasn’t built in a day

If you had to prioritise one characteristic required of a coach and others involved in player development patience would surely rate a mention. I’ve already covered the nonlinear nature of learning – sometimes quick, other times slower. This will be the case regardless of the pedagogy employed. I often get the impression people expect to see immediate results after using a constraints approach for one session. If only! Learning Objectives for a session don’t help matters, creating the illusion (and unnecessary expectation) that the rate of learning can be fully controlled.

The skill of the coach/learning designer is understanding why and how to manipulate constraints when they perceive the developmental progress of a player(s) has stalled for a significant period of time. Identifying the “rate limiter” is key – this could be technical-tactical, psycho-social or maturation issues. Often life events off the pitch will need attention, highlighting the importance of having good relationships with players and understanding them as people in order to be an effective facilitator of learning.

To Conclude…

The above is not a recipe or blueprint for success, nor is it a comprehensive disscussion of each principle (such as the inevitable “exception to the rule” situations). However, as a starting point they should prove helpful in navigating the complexity of learning design and player development. A useful activity may be to examine your current practice activities against these principles and see how they stack up. What might you do differently?


Chow J.Y. (2013) Nonlinear Learning Underpinning Pedagogy: Evidence,
Challenges, and Implications
. Quest 65: 469–484.

Newell, K. M. (1986). Constraints on the development of co-ordination. In M. G. Wade & H. T. A. Whiting (Eds.), Motor development in children: Aspects of coordination and control (pp. 341–360).

Also keep an eye out for this book in 2016 – Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition

Future opportunities to #relearn

Mark Upton
Nov 26, 2015

After the successful launch of #relearn in October in Marlow (and after listening to the feedback regarding the event) we are delighted to confirm future #relearn events in the new year.

There will be an event in the south of England (#relearnSouth) on the 27th of January and a corresponding event in the north (#relearnNorth) on the 17th of February. A specific locations is still being confirmed for relearnNorth but tickets are now available for relearnSouth which we’ll be hosting again at the excellent Coopers Coffee Roastery & Bar:

relearn SOUTH

Following the successful launch of relearn in October 2015 this will be the first in a series of relearn events in 2016…

What is #relearn? Here’s the view of @imsporticus, an attendee at the first #relearn…

“Mark, Al and Andrew have a grand plan. Of creating a space for a community of practitioners from a wide range of different sports, institutions and backgrounds to discuss learning and development in sport. They believe its time to rethink our current approach and have decided to create a forum for dialogue, where through a collective endeavour we can explore that future together in a trusting and supportive environment.”

In the spirit of learning, we will be making some adjustments to enhance the experience — primarily around increasing the duration of the event and allowing time to dig deeper into specific topics and/or challenges.

Stay tuned for further details (such as venues and booking arrangements) by following @myfastestmile

Who moved the apple juice?

Mark Upton
Nov 12, 2015

“The people that adjust and adapt the quickest come out on top”

The story goes like this…

I was recently at my local M&S store getting some lunch. After selecting a sandwich from the shelves, I moved further down the aisle to grab my apple juice from its normal place…only to realise half way through reaching for the bottle that the apple juice bottles had been moved slightly to the left of their normal spot, and what I was reaching towards was in fact apple and mango juice (*cue melodramatic music*). Now I’m sure you’re on the edge of your seat waiting to learn my fate…well, I’m happy to say I was able to rescue the situation by adapting my reaching action and succeeded in grasping the apple juice bottle. Phew! Disaster avoided 😉

Now what has all this got to do with anything related to our themes of helping people in sport be their best through ecological dynamics and complexity thinking? Quite a bit as it turns out..

The overarching theme is how complex adaptive systems (person, team, organisation) have the potential to quickly adapt to (unexpected) changes in their environment, as I did in changing my reach to grasp the apple juice. This is based on the premise that the system has been “designed” appropriately. For people the design is inherent in our makeup; teams, organisations and their execution – sometimes not so much.

In a dynamic environment perceptual attunement is key. It was my ability to perceive information in the environment that enabled me to adapt my actions effectively. My troubles began because I started to execute my reaching action based not on perceiving the current state of the environment, but from a plan devised from past visits to the juice aisle. I’ll come back to this.

Crucial in this “adaptive reach” was the ability of the component parts of my musculoskeletal system to quickly re-assemble into a coordination pattern that allowed me to successfully reach and grasp the apple juice. This is exploiting the power of “degeneracy” in a complex adaptive system…

“Degeneracy essentially concerns the capacity to make use of structurally different components to achieve the same functional outcomes. This property expresses the flexibility and adaptability to fit task constraints for performance goal-achievement.”

(Davids et al, 2014)

Degeneracy in perception-action systems

This organising principle (preserve functional outcome, implement it with whatever you’ve got) actually extends to the level of the perception-action system. Take a task like reach-to-grasp; you can implement the functional outcome of transporting your hand from where it is to the object via an indefinitely large set of movements.

(Wilson, 2011)

It has been suggested that to exploit the in-built capacity for degeneracy requires a (learning) process of search and exploration, and therefore the almost inevitable “failures” that come along with this are to be expected. This search for movement solutions tunes the system into its capabilities, accounts for intrinsic dynamics and arguably paves the way for adaptive movement (demonstrated by stability yet flexibility). It could also lead to the discovery of novel/creative solutions.

“One demonstration concerns the study of reaching. The week-by-week development of four babies was tracked over a 3-month period as they transitioned from not reaching to reaching. Each baby did learn, finding a solution that began with exploration of the movement space.”

(Thelen & Smith, 2006)

“….as in the case of Dick Fosbury, the elite high jumper, sometimes exploration of novel movement patterns can not just improve performance but actually push it to a new, higher level.”

(Davids et al, 2014)

Let’s now come back to the dangers of becoming a slave to “The Plan”.

Possibly the most obvious examples of pre-planned actions that become dysfunctional in a changing environment are the set patterns/plays executed by attackers in team sports. Often these are practiced by the attacking team without any defense present, and the execution is based purely on what the coach has diagrammed. This is seen in basketball when a pass from the guard at the top of the arc to a player on the wing – the pre-planned action that initiates the offense – is intercepted by a defender whose movement the guard failed to perceive. In this case the guard is executing an action based on a rigid plan, rather than perceiving the current environment and adapting his actions to suit. It may be that the defender overplaying the wing afforded a pass into the low post. This is akin to my example of beginning my reach for the apple juice based on a plan of where it usually was. In my example I perceived the apple juice was in fact in a different position and was able to adapt my actions appropriately, the equivalent of exploiting the opportunity to pass to the low post.

I also see this in football (soccer) where a wall-pass (“give & go”) is a common pattern involving two attacking players. Again this is often practiced without defenders, such that in a game the player playing the return pass does so without perceiving whether the receiver’s run has been covered by an opponent. The need to stay in perceptual contact with a changing environment, and become attuned to key information sources (positioning & movement of a defender relative to an attacker), is critical.

Unfortunately naive performance analysis processes are frequently exacerbating the problem. Recently I heard a professional team espouse that, due to their in-depth analysis of various match situations, they are able to instruct players to “play the probabilities, not the possibilities”, even when those odds are only 60/40. That means on 4/10 occasions they will make an ineffective action/play. This won’t cut it at international level. However it may seem appealing because a team can learn these pre-planned actions/plays relatively quickly and get to a 6/10 level which might be good enough at a lower standard of competition.

Interestingly, the exact opposite of this approach is recommended for achieving high performance in a complex adaptive system (such as a rugby/football/basketball match) with the “need to focus on possibilities rather than probabilities” (Johnston et al, 2014), adapting & acting on the most appealing possibilities (affordances) as they emerge from moment to moment on the pitch/court.

Not surprisingly, the coach of the world’s best team has a great experiential understanding of how to approach these complex matters…

“You need some sort of structure to be able to play but at the end of the day the opposition tell you how you can play,” he says. “It’s what I call ABC. You assume something through analysis. Believe nothing and go out and confirm it. So from the analysis you might say that this move might work, but it will only work if they continue defending the same way they have been. If you get out there and they have changed their defensive pattern, then the move is useless. So you need to have your players understanding why the move works and why it won’t work, so that they can adjust and adapt. It is no different from business. The people that adjust and adapt the quickest come out on top.

– Steve Hansen, All Blacks

Problematically for some, adaptive skill must be nurtured over a lengthy period through exposure to well-designed* learning spaces. It demands perception, cognition & movement be blended. This space will foster learning through (guided) search, discovery, and “trial and error”. A sporting culture that cannot delay the gratification of winning and lure of professional contracts for its young players will likely struggle to create, and have players fully engage with, this learning space. If not addressed, such a sporting culture is destined for perpetual mediocrity.

* young players are capable of designing effective learning spaces if given the opportunity. We see this with street/park games.