Results for category "Ecological Dynamics"

6 Articles

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

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…


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.

A Perspective on Decision Making During Interactive Behaviour in Sport

Mark Upton
Aug 21, 2015

Like many of my posts, the stimulus for this has been recent conversation & content that I have engaged with. This post provides a perspective that can be considered in relation to a couple of themes…

  • perpetual debate and discussion regarding “technique” & “decision making” – the training & progression of each, understanding how they relate to each other.
  • “decision making”/“brain training”/“cognition” becoming hot topics in sport with plenty of suggestions for testing and training it – usually off the pitch/court.

Ok, on with the show. Watch the video below from about 0:55 onwards….

The clips you see are good examples of decisions having to be made rapidly (on and off the ball) in a dynamic environment with continuous interactions between players and the ball. I would argue players/teams who can function well in these situations are most valuable/successful.

These situations provide context for the text below – some theory & research from Paul Cisek on decision making during interactive behaviour (this is inclusive of, but not specific to, sporting contexts). You will see that the distinction between technique and decision making, in terms of a discrete serial process of a decision first being made and then a “technique” executed to carry out the decision, is brought into question. Instead Paul suggests they are interconnected… which prompts a thought about learning design needing to cater for this (“simplification, not decomposition”). Paul writes…

With respect to decision-making, the evolutionary perspective
motivates us to build theories of decision-making
that are fundamentally aimed at addressing the challenges
of the kinds of decisions faced by our very distant ancestors,
whose behaviour was primarily interactive and not deliberative.
Here, we will take this approach and focus on what may
be called ‘embodied decisions’ — decisions between actions
during ongoing activity.
For example, an animal escaping from a predator is continuously
making decisions about the direction to run,
ways of avoiding obstacles, and even foot placement on
uneven terrain. Of course, humans also engage in such
embodied decision-making during our daily lives, whether
we are walking through a crowd or playing a sport.
Importantly, embodied decisions have properties that are dramatically
different from the economic choices that have
dominated decision theories. First, the options themselves are
potential action opportunities that are directly specified by
the environment — what Gibson called ‘affordances’.
The variables relevant to evaluating these options are overwhelmed
by geometric and biomechanical contingencies and
not merely related to offer values. Consequently, evaluation
of the sensorimotor contingencies becomes the major challenge
for the neural mechanism, whereas pure offer value estimation
is computationally relatively trivial. Second, the options themselves
are not categorical, like button presses in a psychology
experiment. Instead, they are specified by spatio-temporal
information, highly dependent on geometry, and even their
identity is extended and blurry at the edges. Third, embodied
decisions are perhaps the primary and archetypical kind of
simultaneous decision. Animals encounter goods sequentially,
but they are always surrounded by simultaneous action
opportunities between which they must select.
Finally, embodied decisions are highly dynamic. As an
animal moves through its world, available actions themselves
are constantly changing, some are vanishing while others
appear, and all the relevant variables (outcome values, success
probability, action cost) are always in flux. This precludes
any mechanism relying on careful deliberation about static
quantities or estimation of probabilities from similar examples,
because each embodied decision is a single-trial situation
with unique settings. Consequently, the mechanisms that
serve embodied decisions must process sensory information
rapidly and continuously, specifying and re-specifying available
actions in parallel while at the same time evaluating the
options and deciding whether to persist in a given activity or
switch to a new one. Thus, the temporal distinction between
thinking about the choice and then implementing the response,
so central to economic theory and laboratory experiments on
decisions, simply does not apply to decisions made during
interactive behaviour.

(I have used footage from a football match in a previous post that reinforces this last point)

Even at the neural level, where in the past there has been a tendency to allocate decision making to certain regions of the brain and execution/action to others, Paul reveals things are far more interconnected than previously believed…

Decision making does not appear to be localized within particular higher cognitive centers. Instead, there is growing evidence that decisions, at least those reported through action, are made within the same sensorimotor circuits that are responsible for planning and executing the associated actions.

Perhaps the most practical value for sports and coaches will come from furthering our understanding of decision making at the scale of the “brain-body-environment” system as a whole, more so than looking at components of this system in isolation. Resultant insights will hopefully lead to more effective learning design/spaces that enhance players ability in time-constrained & dynamic situations.


Cisek P, Pastor-Bernier A. 2014 On the challenges and mechanisms of embodied decisions. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 369: 20130479.

Cisek P, Kalaska JF. 2010 Neural mechanisms for interacting with a world full of action choices. Annu.Rev. Neurosci. 33, 269–298.

Boston Park Games

Al Smith
May 27, 2015

One of the wonders of air travel is seeing with new perspective the city you’re leaving behind as you head skyward. I’m writing this on a flight from Boston where I had the considerable good fortune to spend a few days speaking with some of the best sports coaches, scientists and health practitioners in the US at the Boston Sports Medicine Performance Group Summer Seminar and Catapult Performance Directors Forum.

Over three lovely spring days in the capital of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts we heard cutting edge insights from a host of leading practitioners in their fields — Robert Sapolsky discussing his eminent work on stress; Vincent Walsh arguing with conviction that sport is the brain’s biggest challenge; Michael Boyle, Erik Helland and Michael Zarren on sustaining a winning culture in top level sport; Derek Hansen on the search for speed; and many more besides. I was lucky enough to share a series of talks on a variety of topics with a running theme that’s both close to my heart and central to the work we do at myfastestmile — the use of applied complexity and ecological dynamics to help people be their best.

We’ve spent the past 9 months and more arguing that we need a change of direction in high performance sport to bring into check the excesses of data analytics and predictive modelling that seem destined to drag us down a path to production line athletes and instead to put people back at the heart of what we do. It’s a message that seems to resonate with many and one that found a receptive audience with my new friends in Boston. To be clear we’re not advocating for the abandonment of data or predictive analysis, a thought that was brought into stark relief by a coffee conversation at the forum. As is my want I stopped mid sentence to gather my thoughts and my companion completed my opening “I’m moving away from…” by proffering “…science?”. The idea that data equals science is a pervasive one that’s used to pedal all manner of ills and the notion that embracing complexity involves moving away from science is equally pervasive and doubly troubling. Its for this very reason that we’re advocating for the need to scrutinise the uses to which data is currently being put and to move our thinking from complicated to complex, particularly when the task involves supporting the long term development of people with sporting, or any other, talent.

I left the forum with plenty of food for thought but it was on a walk in the park on the banks of the Charles the next day with my partner Rach that my biggest learning moment happened. As we sat by the river to enjoy the view we noticed behind us a group of 8–12 year old lads and lasses organising a game. What ensued was both delightful and inspiring given the challenges I’d spent the previous days discussing.

They’d chosen a patch of grass constrained by a sidewalk and a lake on opposite sides and clusters of trees at either end. To this they added various high cones, low cones and hacky sacks to designate the playing field (I’ve attempted to recreate it below). It took me several plays of careful observation to figure out what was going on but my first lesson was to come before the game had even kicked off. The smallest lad in the group got busy choosing who would be in each of the two teams and with a final flurry of his index finger assigned two fully grown men who’d been sitting unnoticed on the side-lines one to each team. As soon as I realised I was witnessing an activity under some form of adult guidance I knew it was about to get interesting so I apologised to Rach for another bout of mind wandering and got busy watching the game.


I’ve since been told, based on my rough description, that the game was a variant on ‘capture the flag’ so I’ll point you here for the rules rather than bore you with my attempt to describe them. If you haven’t seen the game I can tell you that it’s a strategic team invasion game of the highest order but what impressed me most was the skilled and gentle guiding hand of the adults present. Each time a phase of play was completed they would suggest some changes to the rules based on what they’d seen to try and keep everyone engaged and I have to say they were winning on that front. The level of engagement across all the kids was higher than I’ve seen in many high performance settings, which for me made for a learning environment of the highest quality. Here was a group of kids learning to attack space, defend space, change direction, change pace, fake, read a fake, instigate patterns of play with teammates, read opposition patterns of play, manage their energy levels, girls with boys, girls against boys, younger and older, and all in a setting where there were no debilitating skill differentiators like ball or racket control. By my eye these kids were deep in the learning zone and crucially there wasn’t a measurement technology in sight or a KPI at the ready to constrain their creativity.

Just as I remembered I was now on holiday and in danger of becoming the latest member of the Boston singles scene my final lesson was served up. As Rach and I stood up to leave we walked past the busy jail of our home team, who were on a roll, and witnessed a beautiful piece of theatre when one of the older kids who’d been in jail a while was whinging about how ineffective his teammates were at effecting his release. The wee guy who’d instigated proceedings by picking the teams strolled up with a swagger and was heard to say triumphantly “suck it up!”. With that the lesson was over.

And so as I drift through the clouds and say farewell to Boston I have a roll call of thank you’s to make: to Art Horne a huge thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak at a learning event of the highest calibre; to the other participants at the BSMPG summer seminar and PD forum thank you for your willingness to share and engage in high quality debate about the stuff that matters; to Rach my eternal gratitude for your understanding (albeit wearing thin) of my incessant mind wandering; to the kids hell bent on capturing sacks thank you for reminding me what great learning looks like; and to the two guys who I didn’t have the heart to interrupt because they had their game faces on thank you for being brave enough to stay out of the way of the learning and enabling those kids to find a way to get better.