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Confined by control or drowning in freedom

Several recent experiences have informed my thoughts around this. In the last couple of weeks, I have taken in a BMX freestyle training session, a diving training session, regular rugby training sessions, and I read a short blog post from Mark Upton which has helped to frame my thinking. Also, it has been a great reminder of how fortunate and privileged I am to be in the position I am in. I am no expert in anything, definitely not coaching or skill acquisition, so the ideas I speak of here are just that – ideas. I do not claim to know more than others or to know best.

To quickly discuss the blog post (linked above), it discusses a continuum of too much control versus too much freedom. A recent example I have seen where a coach tries to equip his athletes with the tools to cope with freedom, but in reality, he is tightening their leash (enforcing more control over their actions), see control over context - O'Sullivan et al. (2023). The example was a “cheat sheet” for an upcoming game, where the coaches had listed a set of starter plays, strike plays, and set piece options to pick from, which were picked specifically based on the opposition. Granted, he did not do this because he is a dictator. Rather, he genuinely thought this would support the players. However, to quote from the blog post above:

“..there seems an emerging (or long-running?) narrative regarding people who bemoan youth and senior players not taking more ownership/responsibility for improving themselves. An immediate reaction might be to nod in agreement. Yet if we dig below the surface, often the environments these same people are involved in creating suggest (sometimes subtly) a desire for control, compliance, docility..”

Before I discuss any further examples, to be clear I am not working with any coaches who are control freaks or dictators, or any coaches who are careless and don’t care for their athlete’s safety, health or performance, and that has never been my experience. In all my experiences, I have only seen positive, safe and deeply caring coach-athlete relationships. I think the number one reason why coaching practices are different across sports is because of the culture within that sport. In my experience, coaches genuinely try and do the best they can by their athletes.

If you ever want to be astounded by extraordinary athletic feats, go to an elite level competition or training session in another sport.

Diving practice – confined by control?

The diving practice itself was fascinating. I would argue that it was completely coach-centered, and the athlete made almost no decisions in the session. By way of example, in the first 45 minutes of the session, the coach who I was observing offered over 100 pieces of feedback to his athletes (multiple divers) and asked only two questions. The response to both questions were one-word answers which did not stimulate a dialogue. Of the instructions and cues, 90% of them were internally focused, rather than externally focused. From here, I would make two points:

  • Evidence that may suggest coaches should use more external focus cues does not necessarily mean that coaches were wrong to use the internally focused cues they used. Internal cues may be suitable for more skilled athletes as they possess the self-awareness to make specific changes. How applicable and robust is this evidence (McKay et al., 2023)?

  • Past successes using a heavy instructional based pedagogy (with mostly internal cues) does not necessarily mean that coaches are right in continuing to use predominantly this practice. Was their previous success because of their coaching, or in spite of it?

This brings about a wider question: how aware are coaches of their practice, specifically how much information they provide through feedback and instruction and the type of cues and metaphors they use? My guess is that tradition plays a big role, and they learned from previous coaches they worked and competed under, who learned from coaches they worked and competed under. Do they think about how an athlete learns, the value of errors, self-regulated learning, movement exploration, or are they just doing what they've always done? If they have only done one thing, how can they measure where a coaching strategy is suitable or not?

It is also important to note, these coaches were very open to having conversations and discussing ideas, and discussing things that might help them support athletes. There is so much more for a coach to consider than just skill learning, as I have discussed here.

From a practice design perspective, the coach said to me just before it started, "it’s like air traffic control!" And it was. It did not seem that athletes had any autonomy over their session plan and structure. The way the session was set up, the athletes generally did all of their prescribed reps of one type of dive, before moving on to another type of dive (i.e., blocked practice). Part of the reasoning for this (I assume) was due to the increasing difficulty throughout the session, starting with 3m dives, then 5m, then 7m, and then the most difficult dives last followed by some accessory-type work. The athletes showed improvement from rep 1 to rep 4, but was this a performance (short-term) or learning (relatively permanent) improvement (Renshaw et al., 2022; Soderstrom & Bjork, 2015)?

Diving is a very "perfectionist" sport. Coaches know the judging criteria. By having eyes on every dive, they can offer feedback against what the judging criteria is. But while coaches may know what a great dive looks like, do athletes know what a great dive feels like? How do they develop this quality and awareness? In my opinion (and it's just that), it's not by being told if what they did was good, but with the volume of practice they do, it is very possible that this awareness is developed despite the coach-centered, feedback-heavy practice where they seem to be very reliant on feedback from their coaches. But, crucially, are they coupling their own attunement with their feedback? My guess is yes! Athlete self-awareness and attunement can still be developed alongside a coach's support (see below for how athletes are provided autonomy in their training reviews).

Every single athlete looked over at their coach after every single dive expecting feedback. The culture of feedback seems to be ingrained in the sport. One thing I would say - although there was hundreds of pieces of feedback and instruction throughout the session, there did not seem to be an environment of fear or abuse, not even close. Everyone seemed very happy and comfortable, especially the athletes, and there were great coach-athlete relationships present. A coach-centered environment does not necessarily mean a non-enjoyable one, and from what I saw, this environment certainly wasn't a non-enjoyable one. A coach heavy environment does not mean athletes suffer


Speaking with the coach at the end and understanding the video review process helped me get a grasp of the bigger picture. Looking at the practice in isolation, it might seem that the athletes are very limited in autonomy. That's not the reality. But it did stimulate some thought. Some athletes take ownership of their review by looking at their videos and identifying their work-ons. Some need support (this is normal). There is a massive contrast between self-regulatory learning after the session and what goes on during the session. If the aim is to develop athletes who are able to self-regulate their own learning, could this start in the training session? One strategy might be that coaches phase out their feedback over time (feedback every second rep, then every third, then every third, then every fifth, and eventually it is self-selected feedback). With self-selected feedback - athletes are in charge of when the coach speaks, they can ask for feedback when they want it. Hopefully they will learn to detect their own errors and then correct them.


BMX practice – drowning in freedom?

While diving is a perfectionist sport, there is much more ambiguity in BMX freestyle. Before a competition meet, the precise dimensions of the course are not known, and there is a lack of transparency of how the judges score each trick and routine. This makes it difficult to prepare for. With my skill acquisition hat on, the need to prepare athletes to be adaptable becomes critical.

Athletes were (it seemed) in complete control of their program. They could practice whatever trick they like, as often as they like, and complete as many reps as they like. Very different to diving. But in other ways very similar. One athlete definitely displayed a PERFORMANCE effect (she got better within the session), but how this transfers to a relatively permanent change (i.e., LEARNING) can only be assessed over a longer period of time. Simply, when you practice the same trick multiple times (i.e., blocked practice), there will obviously be an immediate improvement, but does this mean there will be longer-term learning. Would random or variable practice have greater long-term benefit, even if the immediate results are not so good? Also very important here to consider the athlete herself - does she need the confidence that comes with an immediate performance improvement?

The world champion athlete: He was first out on the track, did the most reps early on for warm-up, and seemed to be the most purposeful with his practice. While he never fell, he was clearly unhappy with some of his execution, which is good as it shows he was performing at the limit of his capabilities. He was able to push himself into the growth or learning zone without needing any prompting from anyone else (probably a key factor in why he is the best in the world). But he was also smart enough to understand how to keep his difficulties desirable (Bjork & Bjotk, 2020; Nelson & Eliasz, 2023) (Goldilocks principle - not too hard, not too easy, but just the right amount of challenge).

One thing I would possibly consider (it looked a lot like free play) is the concept of time or scoreboard pressure (affective learning design) (Maloney et al., 2022; Maloney et al., 2018). This might look like each athlete having a restricted number of reps, or athletes can earn more reps by completing certain tricks (to encourage them to try their weaker tricks or tricks that they will use in their upcoming meet). Free play is still a great tool, but it seemed that some athletes were more intentional about their free play practice than others. Free play doesn't mean free of learning, which is what it seemed to be for at least one of the athletes, but how do I know?

Older BMX freestyle athletes are probably not used to having a coach (their self-regulation was evident, which is a great skill to have), but that will probably change over the next few years with the development program athletes filtering through to the elite section. Could a coach support the education of their attention or their intention, or their reflective practice ("what did you notice there?"; "what needs to change for that to work?"; "what did you do well there?")?

Moving forward

Should diving athletes be provided with more freedom? Should BMX athletes be put under more control? If we place each sport on a continuum of total control to total freedom, should we be aiming to bring each sport to the middle of that continuum? If we try and achieve that, do we risk losing some of the authenticity present within each environment? Does the optimal balance (of freedom to control), or the sweet spot look different in each sport, and each environment?

Unless we appreciate the sociocultural constraints with each sport (and each environment within each sport) (O'Sullivan et al., 2021), an overly contrived solution may be applied. All of these experiences present good questions for me to consider.


Bjork, R., & Bjotk, E. (2020). Desirable Difficulties in Theory and Practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 9, 475-479. 

Maloney, M. A., Renshaw, I., Greenwood, D., & Farrow, D. (2022). Situational information and the design of representative learning tasks: What impact does a scoreboard have on expert taekwondo fighters' behaviour and affective-cognitive responses? Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 61, 102175. 

Maloney, M. A., Renshaw, I., Headrick, J., Martin, D. T., & Farrow, D. (2018). Taekwondo Fighting in Training Does Not Simulate the Affective and Cognitive Demands of Competition: Implications for Behavior and Transfer [Original Research]. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. 

McKay, B., Corson, A., Seedu, J., Faveri, C., Hasan, H., Arnold, K., & Carter, M. (2023). Reporting bias, not external focus: A robust Bayesian meta-analysis of the attentional focus literature. 

Nelson, A., & Eliasz, K. L. (2023). Desirable Difficulty: Theory and application of intentionally challenging learning. Med Educ, 57(2), 123-130. 

O'Sullivan, M., Vaughan, J., Rumbold, J. L., & Davids, K. (2023). Utilising the learning in development research framework in a professional youth football club [Original Research]. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 5. 

O'Sullivan, M., Woods, C. T., Vaughan, J., & Davids, K. (2021). Towards a contemporary player learning in development framework for sports practitioners. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 16(5), 1214-1222. 

Renshaw, I., Davids, K., & O'Sullivan, M. (2022). Learning and performing: What can theory offer high performance sports practitioners? Brazilian Journal of Motor Behavior, 16, 162-178. 

Soderstrom, N., & Bjork, R. (2015). Learning Versus Performance: An Integrative Review. Perspectives on psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 10, 176-199. 



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