Results for category "Sports"

14 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

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”

Trust is a Must: Some initial thoughts…

Mark Upton
Oct 26, 2015

Recently I have been pursuing as much content and conversation on culture and leadership as possible, adding to my experiences and observations over the past 15 years in performance sport. I’m really enjoying marinating in the complexity inherent in the topic (and therefore absence of “best practice”).

I’m particularly attuned to any mention of accountability and trust as it seems these are almost mutually exclusive – I rarely hear both mentioned in the same breath. My thoughts are beginning to stabilise around the benefits of trust. Mostly, accountability is a proxy for blame and hence fear is usually lurking in the shadows (with its toxic buddy “metrics” close by). These are not the conditions for learning, growth and sustainable success. However, I don’t want to write-off accountability altogether so was considering where it is useful. My immediate conclusion is it can work for short-term performance impact in some situations.

Accountability is predominant in management and leadership rhetoric. Yet if we desire a learning culture – arguably a necessity in the coming years – we need trust as our starting point.

“The best way to gain trust is to SHOW trust. An authority who trusts no one exhibits insecurity”

— @3DCoaches

“leadership should be all about enabling learning”

Harold Jarche & Kenneth Mikkelsen

The first thing I need to trust is purpose. If we can trust each other in terms of common purpose (for us involved with myfastestmile this is to help people be their best) then many possibilities open up – not least the ability to introduce a diverse range of people into a group/team/business and allow them to self-organise. This diversity and self-organisation has the potential for significant gains in problem solving and decision making quality, with such elements key to high performing teams on AND off the pitch.

“Game day is my day off, we’ve done our bit, the coaches. The players, they run the show. I’m not making a judgement on the decision the captain makes. My judgement came when I picked the captain and said ‘right I trust you to do whatever you need to do.’”

— Michael Cheika


A team is not a group of people that work together. A team is a group of people that trust each other”

Simon Sinek

Plenty more to come on this topic!


“they must first build a familiarity and trust between player and coach that transcends football”

Mark Upton
Oct 17, 2015

“The director discussed at length the coaching practices he felt to the be the most relevant in the success of the current FC Barcelona and Catalan national coaching models. He went on to explain that before a Catalan coach can make a real impact on the player’s technical ability, they must first build a familiarity and trust between player and coach that transcends football. Scaffolding this relationship through positive reinforcement, emotional warmth, honest communication, trust and enlightenment proved to play an instrumental part in the depth of talent that was being developed in the region. It seemed that connecting with the person, improved the coaches chances of developing the player.”


I came across the above during one of my “random walks” across the world wide web. It triggered a couple of reflections. One being around the link with our pillars of “Engage” and “Connect”. Combined with “Aspire”, we see these as key interactions shaping the developmental journey of a young person.


The other reflection concerned a session I facilitated with an English Football Academy where this idea (connecting with the young person) was discussed and a percentage of the group were not sold on the importance. This says a lot about the state of affairs that have emerged from the business-driven dynamics of the academy system. However the scope for positive impact is significant IF accompanied by an appetite for exploring different approaches….

Now, it is far from our style to suggest “copying and pasting” methods from one region/culture to another. However in this case, perhaps connecting and relating transcend contextual nuances – instead representing a fundamental requirement in creating the conditions for human flourishing (Deci & Ryan, 2000). We certainly believe this to be the case, which is why it is included in our framework for helping players, coaches and organisations be their best.


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). “The ‘what’ and ‘why’ of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior.” Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227–268.

relearn | a rethink of learning

we believe its time to rethink learning and development in sport and we’re finding that this view is shared by more and…