Results for category "Learning"

10 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…


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.


All Blacks – Learners

“great to great”

Mark Upton
Nov 1, 2015

The All Blacks victory in todays World Cup Final (over a gallant & respectful Wallabies team) sparked a perusing of my Evernote “dossier” on the Kiwis, compiled over the last few years. This contains a number of articles, snippets and notes from all manner of sources, including a couple of conversations I’ve been fortunate to have with AB staff.

So many gold nuggets and pearls of wisdom are immediately evident – where to start?! I want to provide a couple of examples that relate to learning and the concept of everyone in an organisation being a learner. This is a strong theme of ours and highly relevant given this weeks successful launching of #relearn.

Independent Learners

First up are these thoughts from Graham Henry on developing independent players…

“We’re trying to move players from being dependent to independent. On a 10 point scale, we’ve got quite a few independent players in that team. McCaw is a 15 out of 10. Carter, a 12 out of 10. Kieran Reid and a number of other high quality athletes and professional people are down that totally independent end of the scale. The youth that come in are down the dependent end of the scale, usually. And we’ve got to develop that independence so that they drive their own development, so we’re not continually nudging them to get there.”


My recent involvement in a study into some of the greatest modern sportspeople also supports the notion of “driving their own development”. So this is critical and yet not being fostered anywhere near enough in young peoples developmental experiences – in sport or education. A handful of stories and experiences were shared by those in attendance at #relearn that confirmed environments where the opposite is occuring – highly dependent young people being paralysed when the opportunity or requirement arises to act independently. These shared experiences add to our growing understanding of the dynamics preventing the emergence of independent people. These dynamics can be shifted and we will be doing our best to help those who are trying to achieve this shift in their environment.

Not Just Players as Learners

The 2nd example I would like to share comes from a day spent with Gilbert Enoka midway through 2012. We were fortunate to have Gilbert visit the professional Australian Rules Football Club I was working at during that time. I have a number of learnings from that encounter that I consistently refer to and apply.

One that really made me think “how fascinating!” was a question Gilbert posed to us regarding sustained success. Less than a year after their epic 2011 World Cup victory, they had clearly set themselves to repeat that achievement 4 years later (hence why todays victory sparked this reflection). The term Gilbert used was going from “great to great”. Steve Hansen has mentioned this during the 2015 campaign…

“One of the hardest things in sport I reckon is to go great to great because you expect things to be like they were.”


Gilbert was interested in our ideas and thoughts on how to achieve this and we engaged in a decent discussion, without being able to provide any definitive answers! This was so intriguing to me due to the circumstances. Here was a guy involved in a team that were recently crowned World Champions and arguably the most successful sports team in history. Our most recent success of any kind was finishing minor premier 7 years earlier. Yet Gilbert was curious, humble and genuinely keen to learn.

Gilbert demonstrated that it is not just players who need to be learners. In a complex and rapidly changing world, sustained success requires the whole club/organisation to be learners – to adapt. This type of learning demands greater substance than just cherry picking of ideas that align with existing beliefs or copying methods used by successful teams. It requires trust, critical thinking, an open mind, diversity of experiences and ideas, humility, courage, a willingness to let go of the past, and understanding that learning is a life-long journey with no pre-determined destination.

I’m not sure exactly what transpired in the last 3 years, but clearly the All Blacks have learnt how to go from “great to great”.

In summary, to quote from myfastestmile founder and co-creator Al Smith

“the more we talk about learning stuff, and the less we talk about winning stuff, the better we get at developing excellence and the more likely we are to win”

The Value of “Working Out Loud”

My Journey Understanding Practice Design & Learning

Mark Upton
Oct 12, 2015

Below is a blog post I published almost 6 years ago. Having stumbled across it again recently it was an interesting reflective exercise to contrast my understanding and thinking then compared to now. Pleasingly it has reinforced I continue to learn and evolve as there are quite a few things I have written below that I now see differently. (note: it’s not for me to tell you what they are but we can help with your own learning journey)

Although not my intention when writing the post 6 years ago, the bigger theme is the value in “thinking/working out loud” by regularly blogging (or journaling) half or fully formed thoughts & reflections on things you are pursuing personally or professionally. Keith Lyons and Julian Stodd have both inspired me in this regard. I’m particularly interested in this approach as a legitimate method to evaluate learning over time. Also on my mind is John Stoszkowski and his recent research highlighting the potential benefits of social/informal learning IF accompanied by adequate critical thinking and reflective skills.

Working out loud in a public forum requires a unique form of courage – to embrace vulnerability and humility. These characteristics may underpin “expert learning” (?) and having people of this ilk in coaching and support roles seems vital in helping players and athletes be their best.

(the above could be something for you to explore and discuss further at our up-coming #relearn event)

For those interested, below is the blog post from late in 2009 (it is based around Australian Rules Football but should be relevant for most team sports)…

Our game continues to evolve in complexity and so does the amount of tactical knowledge players are required to take the field with. No longer does the most technically talented team dominate (although that is always a good base!). Port Adelaide in 2004, Sydney in 2005 and Hawthorn in 2008 are examples of premiership teams that have triumphed against more “talented” teams. I believe they all executed superior team play and tactical knowledge that complimented their technical skill and the intangible factor of a “hunger for the contest” that can never be under-estimated in a physical game such as ours.

Just consider in the past few years some of the tactical elements of our game that have come to prominence:

  • Zonal Defending — both in general play and when the opposition are kicking in. This can extend from a few players up to an organised 18-man zone
  • Player Roles — more defined expectations of areas they will cover and their responsibilities offensively and defensively
  • Forward Line Systems — deliberate patterned or “choreographed” movements that create space and allow 1v1 situations. Random movement by forwards is no longer good enough
  • Ball Movement Patterns — movement out of defense, preferred areas to enter from and into the forward line, strategies for when ball movement becomes slowed or opposition have numbers back
  • Stoppage Structures and Systems –patterns of moving the ball from a stoppage
  • Game Scenarios — winding down the clock when in front, stopping an opposition run-on, changing the tempo of the game

I am a firm believer that the “what” and “how” are two critical competencies of coaching. Let me explain how these relate to the elements listed above.

For the coach taking charge of a new team, or looking to change the game plan of his current team, he must define his approach to the elements listed above and many more. This is the “what” of coaching. The “what” concerns your game plan/style of play and your philosophies towards these. It is vital that the coach be well researched and knowledgeable in the modern game so he can make an imformed decision about what methods he believes will create a successful style.

Once those methods are decided upon we come to the “how” competency — “how” are you going to effectively coach these elements? The amount of knowledge transfer and on-field training that is required to have all these aspects ingrained well enough to withstand finals pressure is enormous. The key factor in achieving this will be the quality of the teaching/learning environment you create. Hence the crux of this post and my belief that this is where the next competitive advantage exists for any coach willing to learn and commit to some of the processes required.

A favorite quote of mine comes from Tex Winter, a basketball coach known for being the modern teacher of the triangle offense that the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers have used to claim many championships:

”It is the way we teach, not what we teach, that really counts”

Lets now work through some of the areas that need consideration to achieve an optimal teaching and learning environment:

  • Training drill design
  • Training session design
  • Training progressions/sequencing
  • Feedback & instruction during training

(there are more things that could be added to this list but I will start with these as broad headings for now)

1. Training Drill Design

Ok, the first one here is training drill design and I have it listed first because it is probably the most important.

I think for the last 10 years most coaches would be aware that drills or activities need to be designed to replicate phases or scenarios from the game . This does not necessarily mean 18 v 18 match simulation. It can relate to a kicking drill that exposes players to the types of kicks they most often use in a game (a good exercise is to go through a game and note down all the different types of kicks that are used in a game — you will be surprised how many subtle variations there are). It could be a “breakdown” drill that works on the first phase of ball movement when the the ball is won in the defensive 50m area. Where possible players should be put in situations where decision making and technique execution mirror game-like conditions (remember skill = decision making + technique execution). Game-Sense, Teaching Games for Understanding, Game-Based Training, Simulation Training etc are terms you probably would have heard to describe this type of training and drills.

Assuming you have drills that expose players to match situations, the other important concept to apply is called “constraints-based” coaching or drill design. By manipulating constraints in a drill you can effectively “guide” players towards the correct tactical solution, or adjust the complexity of the drill to overload players when appropriate. Constraints can be categorised under 3 headings — task, performer (ie player), and environment. Task constraints are probably the most known and used and these can include such things as field size, playing numbers (both in terms of density and numbers advantage), scoring and rules (ie must handball after taking a mark in the midfield). Constraints based coaching often allows “implicit” learning to occur which can be the best form of learning for some skills. If a players learns something “implicitly” it generally means the coach has not directly instructed the player on how to achieve the movement or tactical solution. Instead, the imposition of a certain rule in a drill could guide players towards finding the correct movement or solution through trial and error. Implicit learning has the added advantage of being more resistant to competition pressures (as it avoids “paralysis by analysis”) but is generally NOT appropriate for complex tactical situations such as a strategy for moving the ball inside 50m when opposition have flooded numbers back. This sort of scenario requires “explicit” learning to occur where the coach will give specific instructions about how to achieve the task.

2. Training Session Design

After covering training drill design some may think that the quality of learning that occurs and difficulty in a training session will be purely about the drill design. This is not necessarily the case. Even better learning and transfer can occur by considering some of the following principles when planning your training session and the drills to be used.

A concept that can have an influence on the complexity of the session is the order of your drills. By continually “switching” from open game-like drills to more closed technique based drills and back again will challenge your players capacity to adapt quickly. This can reveal how well learnt certain skills are and enhance the learning as well. Similar benefits can be achieved by going from an in-close drill such as a handball game on a small field to a full-field game.

Also related to drill order in sessions is what drills you do first and last in sessions. Traditionally the first drill after the warm-up will be a kicking or handball drill that is not overly taxing from a decision making point of view. A better option on occasions is to place your most game like drill first. This will demand players be able to quickly “switch on” — as is required on match day. The ability for players to execute the game style and skills in this drill without having the opportunity to “ease” into the session will again be a good measure of how much learning has occurred. Another option is to consider what drill you place last in a session, particularly during pre-season when fatigue can set in towards the later stages. Exposing players to performing under fatigue is actually a constraints-based approach as mentioned earlier (under the heading of “performer” constraints). Defensive principles are generally what fall away first under fatigue in a match so drills that have a defensive focus are always good to place at the end of sessions.

A final thing to mention on the order of drills is that new concepts or concepts that players have had little training exposure to should be incorporated into drills early in the training session when players are mentally and physically fresh. It is likely that these concepts have been explained using video or whiteboard in the pre-training meeting so the sooner they can be put into action on the training track the better.

Another effective training session design is one that I like to call the “choose your own adventure” session (anyone else remember reading those at school?). In this type of session the first activity should be something pretty close to a normal game ie full field with normal rules. Do this for 10–15 minutes and then during a 5 minute break make a quick assessment of what concepts were breaking down in the game. Based on those you then choose the next drill or two “on the fly” that best expose players to the problem concepts. These drills should have been done before by the players and well known so they can move straight into them (it will also require good organisation to set up any cones, balls, bibs etc). Once the drills are complete go back to the original game used at the start of the session and see if the identified concepts are executed better. This method of session design is based on the “whole-part-whole” process normally used to train technique-based skills.

3. Training Progressions/Sequencing

When teaching a system of play — be that ball movement patterns, player movement in the forward line or defensive systems — a critical aspect of the learning process is the progression or sequencing of drills to develop that system. The most common approach is to use “breakdown” drills first to train specific elements of the system in isolation so that players get plenty of repetition and teaching. An example of this could be working on forward movement patterns with just 2 forwards before introducing more forwards. Once players begin to master these breakdown drills then the next progression is to start training larger “chunks” of the system and see if the specific principles can still be executed. It is at this point that the coach must accurately assess the appropriate time to progress again into more complex drills (and maybe start to overload the system) versus continue to use breakdown drills.

Again constraints-based coaching can be applied here to vary the complexity of the drill. A typical example of this is the gradual increase in opposition numbers and player density when training ball movement patterns from defense. Initially you may have something like 5 v 3 in the back line and 5 v 3 in the midfield and progress to 6v6 in both defense and midfield. If you started with the 6v6 option it is unlikely any pattern or success of ball movement would be frequently achieved. This makes it difficult for players to physically experience and learn the principles that lead to good ball movement patterns. On the flip side, if you never progress to the most difficult scenarios that players will face in matches then they will always be vulnerable to those scenarios come game-day.

4. Feedback & Instruction

So far we have covered drill and session design along with how to progress these. Whilst these are critical for providing the learning experience for the players, the aspect of how a coach teaches during on-field training can determine the rate at which the learning occurs. What are some of the teaching methods that need to be considered? Most centre around instruction and feedback to players either during drills or between drills. Lets look at a few of the techniques you can apply.

Freeze the play — “the coachable moment”

This is the critical one. The most powerful method of feedback and instruction comes when players are immersed in the experience, ie during the training drill. Being able to identify “the coachable moment” during a drill requires that you understand the principles of what you are coaching and what makes it work or break down. When you recognise this moment a very powerful form of teaching is to blow the whistle and have players “freeze” in their exact positions. By then telling or questioning (I will expand on these next) players can receive feedback on their play (be it correct or incorrect) whilst still having the “feel” of what just took place. This is much more effective than reflecting on this moment at the end of the drill or using video footage in the following days. Important in using this technique is to ensure everyone on the field can hear the point you are making, which can be challenging on an AFL size field. Also avoid over-using this technique — a couple of times per drill would be ideal as otherwise players will start to become frustrated with the stop-start nature of the drill. Players generally just want to “do it”, not talk about it.

Tell v Question

Whether communicating about concepts with players before, during or after a drill you typically have a choice between two distinct approaches — tell the players what the solution is versus questioning and making them come up with a solution (which may not be the same as yours!). The “tell” method is a traditional approach that originates from the dictatorial-style coach who likes to be seen as all-knowledgeable. This method is not as effective as the “questioning” approach but does have its place when time for feedback and instruction is limited and/or the playing groups game understanding is not yet at the level where they can “solve the problem” (if this was the case it is worth considering if the concept(s) being covered in the drill are too advanced for the playing group).

The “questioning” approach is almost always a great form of teaching, especially in the “coachable moment” as detailed above. I think there are two forms of questioning that you may use depending on how advanced your playing group is. One is the “guided-discovery” questioning which tends to lead the players thinking towards the solution. An example of this might be to ask — “johnny, we want to do x in that situation so what might have been a better option to achieve this?”. Immediately you are guiding Johnny by giving him the answer to what he should have been thinking. He then has to work out what the better option may have been. The other method, which requires a greater ability for players to critically reflect, is “open-ended” questioning. In this method you might ask — “Johnny, what did you think about that play in relation to how we want to move the ball?”.

Either method of questioning is useful for learning as players actually have to process information which makes for a learning experience that “sticks” better than using the tell method. The other thing that I have noticed is that when players answer incorrectly to the questioning they seem to learn better — somewhat counter-intuitive to what you may expect!

If you can master the areas of designing game-based drills, manipulating constraints in the drills and using the questioning methods at the appropriate moment, you will have created a fantastic on-field environment for players to learn.

Terminology (action words)

The use of terminology is important for both on and off-field communication with players. I will focus here on terminology as it applies to instruction and feedback during training. Terminology can be very powerful for quickly conveying detailed concepts with the use of very few words. This makes it useful for coaching “on the run” efficiently. I have been involved in a team where a single term actually described a complex ball movement pattern requiring decisions both on and off the ball. Terminology should ideally invoke strong visual representations of the action it is related to. It should also be “action” or “doing” words — for example “scan”, rather than “awareness”, might be a term to use with players when they are in defensive transition and have to identify positioning of opposition players. Terminology can be useful when coaching technique too and can avoid “paralysis by analysis”. An example of this might be to use the term “snowflake” when you want the ruckman to provide a tap that softly lands in-close, as opposed to going into the biomechanical elements of how this is achieved.

Letting players come up with terminology and have ownership is a great way for them to embrace it and use in their communication on the field. It is vital though that whoever decides on the terminology — players or coaches — that it is then used consistently across the playing and coaching group. Players will be confused, and hence restricted in their learning, if varying terminology is used to describe a certain action.

Technology — video and headsets

Technology has a lot to offer both on and off the field in terms of teaching. I thought it was worth mentioning just two applications of technology to assist feedback and instruction on the field.

Video is obviously a powerful teaching tool when used appropriately. Many individual sports like golf and swimming use video replay of technique immediately after a repetition to enhance feedback or even provide “feedforward” before the repetition. Team sports are more challenging and Australian Rules is no exception. However at the higher levels the video analysis software products are getting to the point where they can provide real-time replays within a matter of seconds. Coaches can be spread all across the field and have certain actions immediately “coded” so that they can be replayed immediately if necessary. These replays can be viewed on a laptop or even sent over a wireless network to an iphone — opening up a lot of possibilities for quickly showing video replays to players on the field. Video can be combined with the tell or questioning methods of instruction and, apart from using the “freeze” method mentioned earlier, is the best way to put players back “in the moment”. Often the video footage is taken from a high vantage point and can reveal off-ball movement and availability of space clearly to the player — helping in their conceptual understanding of “why” a certain action may or may not be appropriate. Still, the challenge with using video on the training field is the ability to do it quickly and efficiently when time is at a premium.

Another piece of technology that can be useful is communication systems that can be worn by the player, such as headsets. The coach can talk to the player through the headsets which is often clearer and more effective than trying to shout instructions to players across a field as large as Australian Rules. Again the ability to communicate this way should just compliment existing instruction and feedback techniques. They are ideal for questioning and prompting players as the play unfolds. For example if it was being worn by a midfielder and the ball goes into their forward line and they are out of the play, you may prompt by saying “what should you be setting up for next?”. Whilst they may not be able to communicate back depending on the system you use, you would hope their actions reflect setting up for defensive transition in anticipation of the opposition winning the ball. Be careful with using the communication system to directly tell players what they should do next as this is not developing their game intelligence and instead they will rely on you as a crutch to make decisions for them — something that is obviously not going to happen on match day!

We have covered four aspects of the teaching/learning environment as they relate to on the field — training drill design, training session design. progression/sequencing and instruction/feedback.

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