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An Ecological Dynamics approach to Physical Education

Some of the resources I have used for this piece and for the development of my own practice. A mixture of ecologically driven and otherwise. But all have helped me in my coaching/teaching practice. Grateful to all who share their wisdom and expertise!

I have previously written about merging athletic development with skill acquisition, and how this can apply to speed (specifically acceleration), agility and conditioning. While I am not currently involved in developing those qualities right now, I would like to return to that area in the future. Now I would like to use the principles I have discussed in previous posts and apply them to the development of physical literacy. The title of the post may be ambiguous to some, I have written about Ecological Dynamics (ED) and Physical Education (PE) previously, which should provide some foundational context.

The biggest issue I see and experience with looking at PE through an ED lens is the breaking free from encultured practices. This affects my daily practice as a PE teacher, but also the words I use to describe the landscape of challenges I face. For example, I went bowling recently, after a hard day of university lectures (tongue in cheek), and I said "I'm not great at bowling as I never developed the fundamental movement skill of throwing." This is indicative of my thinking and the purpose of this post is to help me work through some of the barriers that I face as a PE practitioner. I have done a lot of reading and research for my own curiosity and my university work (MSc thesis and PGCE assignment) and I have shared some of the resources I have used above.

Fundamental Movement Skills to Functional Movement Solutions

Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS)

FMS are something that I have written about previously (see here). FMS have long been considered the foundations on which sport specific movement is built on. An individual with a well developed FMS has the potential to become a skilled performer in a wide variety of sports. Going back to the bowling example above, I hadn't developed my throwing skills (one fundamental movement skill), so that meant I was going to be poor at bowling, or that I am poor at darts.

Typically, FMS can be grouped into types of movement: locomotor skills; object skills; and body control skills.

  • Locomotor skills: involve the body moving in any direction from one point to another, e.g. walking, running, hopping, skipping and jumping.

  • Object manipulation: involves controlling objects with the hand, foot or an implement (tennis racket), e.g. throwing, catching, striking (hands, feet, implement)

  • Body/Stability skills: involves the body balancing in one place (static) or while in motion, e.g. twisting, turning, balancing (static or dynamic).

This linear thought process is symbolic of the traditional method of designing practice sessions or PE lessons. Warm-Up - Skill Drill 1 - Skill Drill 2 - Conditioned Game - Full Game. When applying this in a Gaelic football context, this could look like:

  • Warm-Up

  • "Truck and Trailor" handpass drill

  • "Figure of 8" kickpassing drill

  • 10v10 possession based game (large area to small area)

  • 10v10 full game on modified pitch

There could be a rational thought process behind administering a session like this (albeit not a lot of thought was put into this session design). But ultimately it is based on a linear thought process of develop a skill in isolation before using it in a game situation etc. This linear process can also be applied to the development of individual skills. Again to use a Gaelic football example, the skill of soloing (kick pass to yourself) is typically broken down into:

  • Hold the ball in the hand on the kicking side (left hand for left foot).

  • Step forward with non-kicking foot and drop ball onto kicking foot.

  • Flick the toe upwards towards the body. Straighten the leg.

  • Extend the arms forward to catch the ball.

I have used this linear, task decomposition strategy before when I coached Gaelic football to primary school children in Hong Kong. It is highly likely that a primary school child in Ireland will have seen Gaelic football being played previously, but for a child in Hong Kong, it is highly unlikely, especially if the child is French (this was at a French International school in Hong Kong). So the cultural link to Gaelic football is non-existent. Referring to the 4 points on the skill above, I remember coaching the skill during a lesson. We were moving between point 2 and 3. I asked the child to drop the ball onto his foot and point his toe backwards. He did exactly as I asked, and it wasn't a solo!

Functional Movement Solutions - Adaptability

To view the process of teaching skills through an ED lens, FMS become functional movement solutions. Taken from Chapter 4 in The Myths of Sport Coaching (Whitehead and Coe, 2021):

Functional movement solutions refer to the repertoire (cognition, perveption and action) of behaviours which allow an individual to navigate the environment, interact with others and negotiate tasks to achieve intended goals (Chow et al., 2020).

Newell's model of interacting constraints.

From an ED viewpoint, behaviour emerges through the interaction of various contraints. These constraints can individual, task or environmental (see image above). Motor learning is a continual process of adapting behaviour. This then develops attractor states, which can explain the transferability of skills from one domain into another, for example, kicking in Gaelic games to kicking in football (soccer), or throwing in cricket to passing in rugby. A child who is exposed to many varied movement environments will experience this adaptive process much more frequently, leading to a greater number of attractors. To follow on from the previous exaple of soloing - in a game, a player is not always going to be able to perform a solo unopposed. Being able to solo at high speeds, low speeds, in crowded areas, open areas, tight spaces and wide spaces are all examples where a player will have to adapt their practice, which will in turn create stability in their movement solutions (see functional variability below). As a practitioner your best ability is adaptability, and the same is true of a player in any sport.

Non Linear Pedagogy (NLP) in PE

This section of the blog has been taken directly from my latest PGCE assignments.

Prescribing the same lesson plan for 30 students is likely to result in 30 different outcomes, albeit some will be similar. Different learners will learn at different rates. This non-linearity in learning can be observed across many contexts in which movement skill acquisition is the goal. Such non-linearity is not uncommon or atypical of physical education (Chow et al., 2011). NLP is a pedagogical methodology that acknowledges and accounts for this non-linearity in learners and offers principles to determine a learning environment’s effectiveness (Chow et al, 2020).

Exploratory learning is fundamental to this approach. Using the NLP framework, teaching and learning should be underpinned by a pedagogical design that encourages learners to search for individualised solutions based on the constraints they are presented with (Chow, 2013). While learners’ behaviour cannot be controlled, a teacher can influence it through the instructions delivered to the learner and the design of the practice environment (Hacques et al., 2021). Using a NLP framework, practise design can be influenced by the 5 principles:

  • Representativeness: The training environment needs to reflect the game environment, in particular the information used to guide actions on the field. Representative training design will help players become more attuned to relevant sources of information, to aid their decision making in a game.

  • Constraints manipulation: Interacting performer, environmental and task constraints in sport and PE influences the acquisition of movement and decision-making skill (Chow et al., 2009). Constraints can be defined as providing the boundaries within which learners can explore and search for movement solutions afforded to each individual (Davids et al., 2008).

Examples of each different type of constraint.

  • Attentional focus: The Language of Coaching by Nick Winkelman is a must read for this. Wulf (2007) defined an external focus of attention as one where the performer is focused on the effect of the action, whereas an internal focus of attention is one where the performer is focused on the action itself. Chow et al, (2009) stated that the use of external focus of attention on movement seems to encourage successful learning processes and should be exploited.

  • Task simplification: The alternative to the task decomposition illustrated above. By simplifying a task, rather than decomposing a task, pupils are still being exposed to information and movement coupling.

  • Functional variability: “noise” enhances exploration, and this can encourage the learner to find individual functional solutions to achieve a specific task goal (Davids et al., 2008).

If we recognise that learners are complex adaptive systems who demonstrate key features of non-linearity (see below), PE teachers need to implement pedagogical models that account for such non-linearity. Chow et al. (2011) described these key features of linearity:

  • Non-proportionate changes: practicing for a long time may bring about small changes, practicing for a short time may bring about large changes. By assuming learning occurs in a linear fashion, this can bring about huge frustration, for practioner and player.

  • Various solutions: there can be multiple ways to accomplish a task goal, as long as the intended outcome is achieved.

  • Scaling of task constraints: scaling of equipment can lead to the emergence of different behaviours.

  • Variability in practice: adaptation of movement behaviour over repetition of movement behaviour.

A challenge to learning solely by exploration

From the moment a child is born, they engage in skill development. From grasping, postural control, to locomotive abilities (from crawling through to running). This occurs through a combination of trial and error, copying others and explicit instruction (Abraham and Colins, 2011). In other words, through a combination of exploration, imitation, and direction. It would make sense then, that to create the optimal learning environment, teachers must exhibit a range of styles to appropriate aid students learning. Such styles can include guided discovery, modelling behaviour and autocratic instruction. The right blend of each style will depend on the abilities and prior experience of the students within the class that a teacher oversees.

NLP promotes teachers to exist as facilitators, or as architects of the learning environment, which allows students to learn through exploration. Learning only through exploration can present challenges for students, and ultimately leave significant gaps in their learning. Martindale and Collins (2007) highlighted that learning solely through experience since the subsequent reflective practice is only informed by a unique set of conditions. Simply put – you don’t know what you don’t know. How can a student know what the have never experienced or what they have never been shown? (Abraham and Colins, 2011)

The role of verbal instruction

Following reflection of NLP and the challenges that can arise from it (like the one just mentioned), I have been considering where verbal instruction fits within NLP, and ED. This has come up as I was recently teaching year 7s educational gymnastics, and specifically looking at balances and rolls. Take for example a headstand. If not done correctly, a headstand could cause serious injury, especially to a growing child. It would have been negligent at best to just simply as students to balance on their head and hands. What I found myself doing was delivering step-by-step instructions (like the instructions above for a solo in Gaelic football) on performing a headstand. Looking back, I don't think this was poor teaching at all, but I just have struggled to see how this fits in with an ED framework.

Something that has helped me understand this better is The Constraints Led Approach (Renshaw, Davids, Newcombe and Roberts, 2019). Verbal instruction can be thought of as a constraint itself. It can guide attention to certain elemennts within a learner's environment. Using verbal instruction within a lesson is something that requires a lot of thought and consideration. While it can direct learners' attention to relevant affordances and help them succeed at a given task, it can also prevent a learner from discovering new information and learning in a given task. (One of the most interesting questions in coaching and teaching - are you training for performance or learning? (Soderstrom and Bjork, 2015)). Essentially, too much verbal instruction from the practitioner could remove the explorative part of the process for a learner and rob them of the opportunity of discovering important information. However, in the context of the headstand, verbal instruction to ensure that a student does not get injured is a better and much more ethical solution to waiting for the learner to injure themselves to realise that the methodolgy they are utilising carries a greater risk then reward. Just because verbal instruction is important in one aspect of gymnastics, does not mean it has to be included with all new skills. For example, to explore different kinds of balances, a teacher could ask students to perform 4-point, 3-point, 2-point, 1 point, or partner and group balances, with minimal verbal or explicit instruction. Here the focus is on students exploring and discovering new ways to balance. Attuning to the group, and the individuals within a group is part of the challenge for a teacher or coach, and only then can they subsequently gauge how much verbal instruction is required for optimal learning within the session.


There have been many resources I have used to formulte my thoughts. Some are shown in the image above. For the specific citations mentioned above, please get in touch. Please get in touch if you have any questions or to discuss about anything mentioned further. I hope to be able to build my experiences even further over the coming months and years. Thanks for reading.

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