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Skill Adaptability

I have discussed previously skilled intentionality, which is the best part of sport in my opinion. I have also discussed how skills pay the bills, and how to develop skilled athletes. My own definition of skill is the ability to adapt goal directed behaviour to the surrounding constraints. Skill acquisition is generally the term given to motor learning in sport, but better terms might be skill adaptability or skill attunement (Araujo & Davids, 2011). Luis Suarez was one of the most adaptable players I've seen, and his range of goals for Liverpool in the 2013/14 season demonstrated this.

Viewing skilled behaviour through the constraints-led approach (CLA), I will look at some of the constraints that cause athletes to adapt their behaviour. Therefore, it important to clarify what a constraint is:

  • A constraint is an information source that regulates action (Davids, 2010).

In other words, rather than looking at the constraints that cause athletes to adapt their behaviour, we can simply look at the information that regulates action. The CLA could also be termed the information-driven approach. Within the CLA, there are 3 categories of constraints: individual, task, environment (for further reading, see here). In a nutshell, variability in the individual, task, or environment forces/causes an athlete to adapt their behaviour.


Given the many degrees of freedom that are present within the body, it is virtually impossible to repeat the same movement twice in any skill. Take kicking the ball in soccer as an example:

  • How close is the plant foot to the ball?

  • How flexed is the plant leg?

  • How far back is the kicker leaning?

  • What is the rate of muscle tension throughout the body?

  • How extended is the opposite arm to counterbalance?

There are so many things that could be different from kick to kick, even within an individual’s body as they repeat the action.

An argument could be that repetition without repetition is always present, it’s impossible to achieve repetition after repetition. I think this is true, but it misses the point of variability/adaptability. The purpose incorporating variability into practice is to encourage athletes to adapt and to challenge players. This adaptability may occur without having to make any changes to the task or environment, but is a scenario like this challenging players, especially if there is no variability in the outcome.

A video that sparked a lot of conversation online was one of Steph Curry’s shooting practice routine (see HERE There are several questions to unpack just from watching the video:

Is this repetition without repetition?

Technically yes. Although there is very little variation between shots at each position, based on the coordination of degrees of freedom, it is virtually impossible for him to execute the exact same action repeatedly.

Is this optimally challenging Steph Curry?

Probably not, based on the insane performances he produces. He can hit 3-pointers with 2+ defenders on him in a game.

Is this drill focused on skill development?

I don’t know, but I would speculate it is just something Steph Curry wants to do to feel good to perform well. And that’s more than ok. Although this particular practice task doesn’t seem to be coach-driven, ensuring players feel good and are not devoid of confidence going into a game is a really important consideration for coaches. Reducing the complexity of training tasks to ensure a high success rate to aid confidence is a perfectly legitimate coaching strategy.


This is a key area for coaches when adopting a CLA. An overview of the many factors that can be altered can be seen through the modified STEP model (see here). The original STEP model (see below) also provides a useful framework to modify a task. Through this framework, there are an infinite number of variations to any given training task, with the degree of usefulness dependent on the intention of the task. To illustrate, we can look at an example from rugby.

Tackling is a crucial part of the game. While rugby is an evasion sport - players should be looking to evade opponents and essentially avoid a breakdown, contact and collisions are an inevitable part of the game. Especially with young kids who are starting out in the game, safely educating players on not putting themselves or their opponent in danger is absolutely critical for player safety.

Prerequisite learning: 1v1 tackling. The tackle starts on one knee, and the opponent simply walks to towards the knee on the ground, without trying to evade the tackle. Here the tackle is occurring at slow speeds and without any uncertainty. This task is very constrained, but I believe this is suitable for novices – it reduces the degrees of freedom within a tackling scenario and suitable challenges kids to learn. This can be progressed to higher speeds and with tacklers starting on their feet. When kids become more comfortable in the contact zone and tackling off both shoulders, then coaches can enter into tasks that are more ecologically valid i.e. there is more uncertainty and opponents are free to try and evade the tackle.

The starting point: 1v1 tackling, in a small (2m x 2m) grid. Ball carries has to try score a try in the opposite end of the grip, while the tackler must bring the defender down to the ground.


The size of the grid can be increased. This will allow for 2 things. 1) increased speed at the point of contact. With the ball carrier running from a greater distance, they will likely be moving faster when they reach the defender. 2) There is more space for the ball-carrier to evade the tackler.

The shape of the grid can be altered. By only making the grid longer, this will increase the speed of the ball-carrier but won’t alter the evasive opportunities. By making the grid into a funnel-like shape (narrow at one end, wide at the other), the defender will be encouraged to accelerate to meet the ball carrier and tackle them where they have less space to evade.


Here, the intention of the task needs to be front and center in the coach’s mind when implementing it. If developing the skill of tackling is the aim, then the task must encourage tackling to emerge. In a 1v1 task, then the attacker can only carry the ball, so the defender HAS to tackle (practice design principle of coadaptation). If there is one defender v 3 attackers, then the attackers can easily avoid the contact by moving the ball. This can be a useful task, but it is not conducive to developing the skill of tackling.

Another consideration here is the challenge point for the players. With young players, a 1v1 tackling task in a large area where the attacker can build up a high speed can be quite intimidating. If it does not go well, then the experience can be quite humiliating for the tackle. Too many humiliating experiences will lead to drop-out. Age and developmentally appropriate activities, and suitably challenging tasks are crucial to ensure the long-term involvement in sport and physical activity. Retention for life is a key aim, especially for youth development coaches.


Tackle pads are a great option to build confidence in the tackling process and reduces the risk of injury or harm. Tackle pads can be added to almost any situation. In a 1v1 task, if the ball carrier carries a pad rather than a ball, this will encourage the tackler to aggressively hit their opponent to try and force them back. In a small-sided game, tackle pads can be incorporated in the breakdown to encourage players to enter the breakdown after a tackle (not specifically tackling focused, but still an example of how equipment can be used to encourage behaviour change).


With underage groups, size and physical maturity differences can be quite large and this can have a major impact in how comfortable players are with entering into a contact interaction. In rugby, the player who is bigger and stronger than everyone else will have a clear advantage. In a 1v1 task, this advantage is exacerbated even further. But this is where coaches need to consider the long-term impact of what they do. For the kid who is more physically mature, if they spend their entire youth career just running through opposition teams because they can, what happens when they get to U18+ and all opponents have caught up and matured? They haven’t developed the ability to offload or read the game around when there is a 3v2 on the wing or understand when the right time is to bring the ball into contact. While they were very “successful” at youth level, this does not automatically lead to long-term success.

For the smaller kids, if they are not given a fair chance to express their skills with others who are at similar maturation levels, it is very possible they get overlooked. In a sport where there are physical contests like rugby, it is very possible that the less mature players get humiliated and embarrassed. As stated earlier, too many humiliating experiences can lead to dropping out from the sport.


The best example in sport of where environment plays a crucial role in the emergence of behaviour is in tennis. In tennis, players play on 3 types of court throughout a season – hard court, clay court, and grass court. Unsurprisingly, the very best players can adapt and be successful on all surfaces. Think Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer (take your pick of who the GOAT is). Grass is generally considered the fastest, followed by hard court, and then clay court. For further reading on tennis court surfaces, see here.

Another element that can affect the behaviour of athletes is scoreboard pressure. How does behaviour change when defending a narrow lead in the closing stages of a game? Maybe this has more of an effect on the coach, who then has a conservative effect on the players through the language he/she uses. How does the scoreboard influence the supporters, who then project their feelings and emotions onto the team. How does the scoreboard impact the opposition, do they change their tactical approach, which means that the team needs to coadapt their behaviour. The environment contains so many variables that can influence a team's behaviour, and as much as possible a coach should strive to 1) be aware of the range of variables and 2) look to replicate these in training where possible.


My work is in coach and athlete development, but I have a bias towards skill development. As much as possible I will try and encourage learning environments for athletes to allow them to express themselves in a skillful manner. However, skill development does not occur in a vacuum. Skill development is a part of what coaches need to consider. When working with any age group, but with youth players in particular, our number one priority has to be to create a setting where players 1) feel safe to come and learn, and 2) feel inspired leaving.


Araujo, D., & Davids, K. (2011). What Exactly is Acquired During Skill Acquisition? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 18, 7-23.

Davids, K. (2010). The constraints-based approach to motor learning: Implications for a non-linear pedagogy in sport and physical education. In Motor learning in practice (pp. 23-36). Routledge.

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