Results for category "Complexity"

4 Articles

an Aussie, a Scotsman and a Kiwi walk into a hangout

Al Smith
Dec 11, 2015

One of the most enjoyable parts of the work we do involves the challenge of bringing theory into practice. We believe its hugely valuable to have strong theoretical underpinnings to our work but equally we’re extremely pragmatic about aligning only to theoretical frameworks that help us to make sense of what’s going on in our world.

The concept of embodied cognition from ecological psychology is one that we‘ve been repeatedly drawn to and …often times… got ourselves tangled up in. To our great fortune in such times of need we’ve been able to draw on the advice of those far better informed than us to help make sense of the theory so that we might better consider its translational value.

…enter Dr Andrew Wilson stage left…

In order to delve deeper into this world we recently caught up with Dr Andrew Wilson. Andrew is an ecological psychologist who researches, blogsand tweets about motor skill from an ecological perspective. What ensued was a rich and challenging conversation that we found to be hugely valuable in furthering our understanding of this important area of research. We hope it will prove to be of interest to a range of practitioners as well as any current or aspiring ecological psychologists who are eager to play their part in bridging the theory to practice gap.

We started by asking Andrew to compare and contrast the basic tenets of cognitive psychology versus ecological psychology through the lens of characterising expert behaviour in football:

Andrew then introduced us to the Biomotion Lab at Queens University, Canada in order to elaborate his theory by way of some visually striking point light displays of biological motion that you can view here.

We discussed the difficulties of translating research findings from domains far removed from the complexities of motor skill in sport, such as learning theories based on becoming expert at interpreting medical images.

We explored the potential value of an emerging theory of learning from ecological dynamics that describes the process of becoming expert as a team by developing shared affordances for action or in Andrew’s words helping players to ‘see the same game’.

Andrew then finished up by sharing some insights from the five years of graft that went into developing an ecological understanding of expert behaviour in throwing.

We covered a lot of ground in a fairly short space of time but found the discussion fascinating and hope you do too…


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.


Learning Design – Playgrounds, Affordances & Variability

Mark Upton
Sep 21, 2015

In an effort to convey our ideas, and taking the lead from others we are learning from at the moment, there may be value in working/thinking out loud. Hence the contents of this and future posts…

One of our key underpinning theories is Ecological Dynamics. Within this theory is the concept of “affordances” — the opportunities/invitations for action on offer in a particular environment. Affordances are relative to the action capabilities of a person so certain objects, surfaces, spaces etc afford different actions for different people, ie a medicine ball affords throwing for an adult but probably not for a young child. A key underpinning of affordances is perception-action coupling. Affordances are also closely associated with “embodied” decision making I covered in a previous post.

In our mind, a coach plays the role of a learning designer (or even a “learning dynamicist”- perhaps need to follow up on that thought later!), creating learning spaces. A key part of this design is the incorporation of affordances for players to explore. This is not unique to sport of course – tremendous thought goes into designing spaces for children to engage in movement learning, including playgrounds like the one pictured at the top of this post. I took this picture in my local park. The children in the background playing football are my son and some of his school friends. I thought this provided a nice contrast of 2 different learning spaces with varying affordances – the playground affording equipment to swing or rock on, and behind this the grassed open space, ball, goals and “players” creating many affordances such as striking/controlling a ball and evading other players. (You may also want to check out our posts on a visit to the park and Boston park games).

Through affordances, the playground and football game offer choice, challenge and variability to participants. In research by Prieske et al (2015) looking at the attraction of challenging affordances in a playscape, they found that children were not necessarily drawn to the most challenging affordances, but they did explore and engage in the wide variety of affordances on offer. In other words they sought out variability. Prieske et al mention previous work by Nebelong (2004) and his assertions about the importance of designing opportunities for variable action…

Nebelong (2004), a landscape architect who argued against common standardized playgrounds, gave a similar advice, based on related grounds.

“I am convinced that ‘risk-free’, standardized playgrounds are dangerous — just in another way from those with obvious risks. When the distance between all the rungs in a climbing net or a ladder is exactly the same, the child has no need to concentrate on where he puts his feet. Standardization is dangerous because play becomes simplified and the child does not have to worry about his movements. This does not prepare him for all the knobby and asymmetrical forms he is likely to be confronted with outside the playground and throughout life. (p. 30).”

Hence, the above considerations suggest that in designing playgrounds we need to create variation. By doing so, we would take into account the differences in action capabilities among children and also follow theories about how these capabilities can improve.

I’m sure you can see the applicability to learning design in a sporting context. By building in a range of affordances and enabling young players to explore, we will see the variability so crucial to learning. Equally, we will help players to become “perceptually attuned” to the dynamics of a sporting arena. Just as the child has no need to concentrate (be perceptually tuned in) when play equipment becomes standardized and repetitive, neither does the young player in a learning space that contains repetitive drilling. When they can execute the same pass to the same position every time, without having to worry about opposing players intercepting the ball, their perceptual sensitivity suffers. Equally, a well-designed learning space will demand heightened perceptual sensitivity and in the process help players to (often implicitly) become attuned to the key information in the environment that can be used to guide actions – “attunement to affordances”.

Whilst the above may be common sense for some coaches and others involved with learning design, it is clearly not universal. In fact a recent conversation about coaching in a category one English football academy highlighted the significant amount of practice time spent on “technical grooving”, in essence the “dangerous standardization” of a learning space mentioned by Nebelong. Whilst grooving and standardization maybe suitable for exploiting a complicated system such as a machine, they are not appropriate if we want to tap into the adaptive capacity of a human – a complex system. This is a common theme and highlights the lack of understanding of the concepts mentioned above, a lack of theory of the learner and the learning process, but on a positive note, a massive opportunity to do learning design/spaces so much better.

My thinking about how much more creative learning design could be in football was further fuelled over the weekend when visiting this new trampoline park pictured below.

final touches being applied to a well-designed learning space

Whilst absent in this photo, imagine over 100 children of various ages engaged in exploring the range of trampolines, foam pits, balance beams, dodge ball cages etc. These affordances have been skillfully built into a space that just a few weeks ago was an empty industrial warehouse. Observing the children in action affirmed their tendency to seek out variability — rarely engaging with one area/piece of equipment for long or in the same manner. Adult supervisors were on hand to guide and intervene if necessary, but the key work of the adults had already been done “behind the scenes”. As Al has mentioned previously, this in no way lessens their role…


What I saw reinforced what can be achieved with quality learning design – engagement, aspiration (challenge) & connection (socially). This is going to be a key part of our approach in shaping an offering for people and organisations who are striving to be their best and/or helping others to do so.



Nebelong, H. (2004). Nature’s playground. Green places. May, 28–31

Prieske, B.; Withagen, R.; Smith, J.; et al. (2015). Affordances in a simple playscape: Are children attracted to challenging affordances?
Source: Journal of Environmental Psychology Volume: 41 Pages: 101–111


better coaches = better players….or do they?


When we think about and discuss ways to enhance player development we often jump straight to coaches/coaching…

“better coaches = better players”

However, an alternative starting point is to understand the learner and (influences on) learning of the perceptions~cognitions~actions required for a particular sport. This inevitably uncovers a multitude of interacting factors (across “time and place”) that will influence the quality of player development outcomes.

Clearly coaches/coaching is one of these influential factors. However, by broadening our minds to consider the entire (complex) system of player development we potentially increase the chances of positive outcomes. Starting with a narrow focus on coaching, often driven by a cause & effect belief between quality of coaching and quality of player development, may in fact limit the frequency of those positive outcomes.