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Towards an existential crisis? The pragmatic (skill acquisition) scientist.

I have been in my current program for about 14 months now. My masters is entering the final stages and with all data collected I am nearing the metaphorical finish line of this particular pursuit. I finished my data collection a number of weeks ago, and since then I have embarked on a process of sense-making – what is the data telling us and why? I have been sharing initial findings (this post is not about that); I have been conversing with other people who are either way smarter than me, more established than me, or both; and I have been reading some articles that have stimulated a lot of thought (1, 2). A random selection of the questions I have asked myself:

  • What do I know? Does any of what I say work? How do I know?

  • What are the current limitations around collecting evidence (i.e., reductionism)?

  • With publication bias, is there evidence that doesn’t get published because there are no conclusive findings (however one defines conclusive)?

  • Does absence of evidence mean evidence of absence? With absence of evidence, is it ok to conclude that it does or doesn’t work, i.e., guilty until proven innocent, or innocent until proven guilty? A good scientist should follow the evidence.

  • What role does confirmation bias play in identifying evidence? A scientist being selective about evidence they present is a red flag. Are they making money from what they are preaching?

Specifically, around skill acquisition, a massive debate exists around theoretical approaches – two of which are information processing (IP) and ecological dynamics (ED), something which I compared for my first masters project (read here). But does it matter? Can a coach work from only one or only the other, or can it be both - each at appropriate times? If the latter, what determines when to use one versus the other? Should you focus on the elements that one theoretical approach can support, or the elements that the other theoretical approach can’t? What components of each theory have been bastardised? Do coaches or applied practitioners care about a theoretical approach?


Pragmatism – what does it mean?

“Pragmatism emphasises the practical problems experienced by people, the research question posited, and the consequences of inquiry” - (3).


“Pragmatists deny there is a single reality and see no way for scientists or others to determine whether their theories are closer to the truth than are their colleagues. For these reasons, pragmatists have abandoned discussions that concern the correspondence of theory and reality in favour of dialogues where the value of different types of knowledge are viewed as tools for helping us cope with and thrive within our environment” - (3).


With a pragmatic hat on, context becomes they primary component of an applied practitioner’s decision-making process. Take the question – “is variability good or bad?” (1). How can you possibly answer that question without understanding who you are working with, or the overall aim? The initial skill level of the player is one of the key factors when determining a suitable approach. If we look back to the 3 stages: coordination, control, skill. What is skill? In a nutshell, it is the ability to adapt. Skilled players have a great ability to adapt (4). Players at the early stage of learning (coordination) do not have that ability to adapt. A player's ability to adapt will impact their ability to tolerate variability. Determining the skill level of the player (coordination, control or skill), we can determine the appropriate level of variability that needs to be present in the task.


Recently, there was uproar over a video of underage football training session when they were passing the ball against a wall to themselves (a low variability task). But from a 20 second clip, many felt it was appropriate to judge the suitability of the training task. In my view, because the training clip (the ball against a wall task lasted about 3 seconds) did not align with their preferred method of practice, they felt it was appropriate to criticise and use it as an opportunity to guide and encourage others to their own way of thinking. In my view, while methods are obviously important and the source of many disagreements among practitioners, understanding the context will assist in determining the relative suitability of each method, rather than blindly adhering to methods without considering the contextual factors. Ideally, principles should be meta-theoretical, allowing for broad application (5).


Perhaps, the most obvious trade-off in my eyes is around representative learning design or practice specificity and practice repetition. The higher the representativeness/specificity, the lower the quantity of practice of any given skill. The lower the representativeness/specificity, the greater the similarity to competition. I have discussed this previously as the skill continuum: repetition-representative. While representative practice is more likely to transfer to competition, this doesn’t discredit the repetitive practice.

  • What if a specific athlete needs greater quantity of practice, to boost confidence, or to assist with their rehabilitation from a serious injury, so they need reptitions in a controlled environment?

  • What if the learner is a complete beginner or novice, or they are an expert trying to relearn their mechanics, and they need repetitions in a low variability environment (see the continuum below)?

In any case, at no stage has information been removed from the task, the information is just different. Technically, there are always information-movement couplings present. Even in a coach-directed, unopposed task, information is still present. It just is not information that is present in a competitive environment. Of course, it may not result in the greatest level of skill acquisition, but skill development does not occur in a vacuum and it is therefore important to consider all other factors within the complex coaching environment, in particular the athlete's needs (more on this below). Isolated, decontextualised practice tasks may be a developmentally suitable challenge for the athlete.


Bastardisations and false dichotomies

There are people who argue for one theory over another (and I have as well for a long time), but there are also people who aim to boost the theory they subscribe to by discrediting “opposition” theories. This has led to an argument of one versus the other (i.e. a false dichotomy) or strawman arguments (two of which I will discuss briefly below). But really, what does this achieve? It creates unnecessary division which ultimately will not support collaboration and growth. The theoretical approach that a person subscribes to is like a pair of glasses - it is what they use to see and describe the phenomena that occur in front of them. As such, many of the disagreements when describing phenomena or research come down to, in my opinion, semantics.


A common argument against an IP approach is that there shouldn’t be a one size fits all approach to coaching. And I agree. People are different from each other, and from themselves at different time point (read here). One size does not fit all. But I have only heard this being said by others about an IP approach, I have not read this anywhere (maybe someone could direct me to a source?). I feel this is like a rumour that has grown legs, passed on through word of mouth. In my mind, this is not what an IP approach is about. To elaborate further:

  • In ED, a common term used is attractor state, which can be defined as stable and functional patterns of organisation exhibited by open systems (i.e., a human being) (6). Frans Bosch has written a book on agility and details 7 “attractors” in agility common to all movers. From an ED approach, you can identify attractors within movement patterns (agility or sprinting in particular, but also applying it to other skills) and then recognise the fluctuators within each movement to co-develop an individualised movement solution with their athlete.

  • Using different language, could this be described as a technical model? A technical model which coaches can work towards while accepting the bandwidth that comes with each component and or inherent variability that occurs with each movement. Could this technical model approach to skill development be confused with a “one size fits all” model to development?

Same phenomenon, different glasses.


Two quotes from Dan Pfaff at the ALTIS Apprentice Coach Program come to mind here:

  • “As a coach, you’ve gotta coach to something” - i.e., coaches need some kind of model to coach to, but that does not mean a coach should ignore individual differences and variances within each athlete.

  • “Folks, there’s not 10,000 way to walk!”

On the other side, a common argument against ED is that it has no place for direct instruction, or that everything must be representative. But this is another bastardisation. Danny Newcombe’s environmental design continuum is evidence for this (thanks to Kevin Mulcahy for sign-posting this). As we can see from the image below, subscribing to ED theory does not cut a coach off from implementing certain types of practice, like drills or unopposed practice.


As mentioned, many of the disagreements when describing phenomena or research comes down, in my opinion, to semantics. Recently, a constraints led-approach paper was recently criticised for being more illustrative of a guided discovery approach rather than a constraints-led approach (7). In my opinion, the best illustration of these semantically-driven arguments is in a paper that describes decision-making from various theoretical approaches (8).

  • From an IP perspective, in order to develop the decision-making process, “it appears vital that practice and instruction sessions include the coupling of perception, cognition and action components.”

  • From an ED perspective, “Decision-making can be regarded as emerging from constraints in the player-environment interaction that push the players to pick up informational variables about the possibilities for action afforded in the unfolding dynamics in order to accomplish performance goals.”

Same phenomenon, different glasses.


A major debate has existed forever around cueing, and whether cues should be of an external or internal nature. Where an athlete directs their attention is where their focus will be, and where attention goes, learning flows. An internal focus of attention cue directs an athlete’s attention to their own body. For a squat jump exercise, an internal cue would be “rapidly extend your ankles, knees and hips.” An external focus of attention cue is something that directs an athlete’s attention to something outside of their body. For the same exercise, an external cue would be “imagine there is a pane of glass above your head and you are trying to smash it.” Internal cues, in theory, bring a lot more conscious control to a movement. External focus of attention is a key principle of nonlinear pedagogy (9), and it is commonly adopted by practitioners following an ED approach. However, there has been research to suggest that both internal and external cues have a place (10), and that one has no added learning benefit over the other (11).


To illustrate (using a completely redundant example, as a child learning to walk would probably not even be able to comprehend any cues) – asking a child who is learning to walk to walk on their toes (an internal focus of attention cue) would likely cause difficulty, and probably not likely to happen at all. Using this same cue with an adult (arguably an expert walker), and they would be able to seamlessly adapt their movement strategy. It is less about the cue, and more about the context in which that cue is delivered. In other words, the context matters.


The key – understanding context.

Skill Acquisition v athletic development: games-based approach v isolated conditioning

Are games the best way to develop fitness, or aerobic capacity? If they were, Eliud Kipchoge’s training program would likely consist predominantly of 5-a-side football. Game-based conditioning is a great option and one of my favourites, provided it is implemented (you guessed it) in the right context. Games can support the development of game intelligence and decision-making, however there is limited evidence for improving technical abilities and developing fitness levels (12). If a coach is trying to develop technical abilities or develop fitness, perhaps games are not the best option. But, using a game-based approach does not means that a coach can ONLY play games. Another strawman argument.


Viewing a player’s game performance through an ED lens, an individual’s fitness levels could be classed as an individual constraint. The individual constraint will influence a player’s behaviour. For example, if they are fatigued, they will adapt their performance to minimise their workload. Arguably, this is skilled behaviour, but it does not develop fitness capabilities. Another issue with games-based conditioning is the variable workload (which may or may not be a conscious effort of the players). One of the key physical development principles is progressive overload. If a player is to develop their fitness levels, they must be played under progressively more stressed. With game-based conditioning, this is not guaranteed to happen. Isolated conditioning, despite having next to no impact on skill development, can still be a good use of time, as long as it aligns with the needs of an athlete.


Physical literacy (physical education) v physical development (sport)

An interesting discussion at the school I am currently working in came up last week regarding the synergistic collaboration between the sport department and PE department, specifically around the alignment of the PE and sport timetable, and athletic development and coach development initiatives. There are some low hanging fruits, such as moving a sport in PE from term 1 to term 2 to better align with the sport program in that period, or the athletic development team assisting with their S&C component within PE lessons.


However, beyond these “easy wins” (which are still important and can have a positive impact), the collaborative approach would be difficult to implement. PE teachers and sport administrators within a school have two different aims (hence why they are two separate departments). PE is all about developing physical literacy and setting students up for a lifelong engagement in sport and physical activity. A sport program with a participation focus may be closely aligned with the aims of a PE department, but a sport program with a performance focus is possibly less so. However, this is not to say that it cannot, or should not be done. Maybe in different contexts, the two programs can align comfortably.


Optimising for skill development v optimising for something else (e.g., confidence)

As a skill acquisition practitioner, I feel strongly about adapting my service provision to the coaches and context I work with or within. To do this, I must understand THEIR context – the challenges they face and the facilitators they rely on. I once said in a job interview/meeting: “if a coach was working in tiddlywinks, I would help them because that is their context.” To understand the coach’s context, I must invest time and effort with them before providing them with recommendations, or assistance in identifying solutions. Coaches have a lot on their plate, creating skillful players (skill acquisition) is one aspect of their practice. See below for the UK Coaching Coach Learning model. There are 9 components within the model, and Skill Acquisition is 1 of those 9 components. Skill acquisition specialists need to be acutely aware of where they fit in the overall program.


To complement this model, further research has identified the cognitive challenges that coaches face (13). These challenges include making sense of the individual context (something that is always changing) planning for priorities, stress management for the athlete, when to push or pull, and managing the coach-athlete relationship. There are also additional practical considerations for coaches, such as training venues, equipment and technology suitability and relying on external support to ensure that a session runs smoothly (14). When viewing skill acquisition from a wider coaching lens, clearly there is much more to designing a suitable training/practice environment than considering how representative it is. A pragmatic approach to skill acquisition support will ensure that the scientist will take necessary steps to understand the context they are supporting. It also makes a case for embedding a skill acquisition scientist within the training program, versus having a skill acquisition scientist who sporadically attends training, so that the scientist has the best chance of understanding the context.


Final thoughts

I used a sensationalist title for this article, which doesn’t fully align with my current thoughts and feelings. I am confused at the best of times. but I feel I am in the midst of a learning process more so than an existential crisis. Theories are used to describe and explain phenomenon. People who subscribe to one theory are going to disagree with people who subscribe to a different one, on one hand because the language is different (representative vs specificity; constraints-led approach vs guided discovery approach). But when viewing things from a pragmatist's perspective - does it really matter? Find what explanations work within your setting and run with that. For example, I recently heard of a group of coaches who hate the contraints-led approach and do not engage when it is mentioned. How would a pragmatic skill acquisition scientist work with this group?


I would particularly love if anyone reading can correct, challenge or clarify some of the things I have written about or could point me in a direction where I can further explore. This is a key post for me – it indicates my current thought process. If nothing else, it will be something I can look back on in future to help identify how my thought-process has evolved, and writing it has been a great learning process in itself. Always open to connect and discuss alternative perspectives with others.


References

  1. Ranganathan R, Driska A. Is premature theorizing hurting skill acquisition research? Frontiers in Sports and Active Living. 2023;5.

  2. Taylor RD, Taylor J, Ashford M, Collins R. Contemporary pedagogy? The use of theory in practice: An evidence-informed perspective. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living. 2023;5.

  3. Giacobbi PR, Poczwardowski A, Hager PF. A Pragmatic Research Philosophy for Applied Sport Psychology. Sport Psychologist. 2005;19:18-31.

  4. McCalman W, Goddard SG, Fransen J, Crowley-McHattan ZJ, Bennett KJM. Experienced academy soccer coaches’ perspectives on players’ skilfulness. Science and Medicine in Football. 2023:1-11.

  5. Williams AM, Hodges NJ. Effective practice and instruction: A skill acquisition framework for excellence. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2023:1-17.

  6. Button C, Seifert L, Chow JY, Araujo D, Davids K. Dynamics of Skill Acquisition: An Ecological Dynamics Approach 2021.

  7. Jamil M, Woolston L, Manthorpe S, Mehta S, Memmert D, McRobert A. Adopting a Constraints-Led Approach to Enhance Skill Acquisition for Fast Bowlers in Grassroots Cricket. Journal of Coaching and Sports Science. 2023;2:78-86.

  8. Ashford M, Abraham A, Poolton J. Understanding a Player’s Decision-Making Process in Team Sports: A Systematic Review of Empirical Evidence. Sports. 2021;9(5):65.

  9. Chow JY, Davids K, Button C, Renshaw I. Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition. 2nd Edition ed. New York: Routledge; 2021. 254 p.

  10. Gottwald V, Davies M, Owen R. Every story has two sides: evaluating information processing and ecological dynamics perspectives of focus of attention in skill acquisition. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living. 2023;5.

  11. McKay B, Corson A, Seedu J, Faveri C, Hasan H, Arnold K, et al. Reporting bias, not external focus: A robust Bayesian meta-analysis of the attentional focus literature2023.

  12. Kinnerk P, Harvey S, MacDonncha C, Lyons M. A Review of the Game-Based Approaches to Coaching Literature in Competitive Team Sport Settings. Quest. 2018;70:1-18.

  13. Taylor J, Ashford M, Jefferson M. High performance coach cognition in the wild: using applied cognitive task analysis for practical insights–cognitive challenges and curriculum knowledge. Frontiers in Psychology. 2023;14.

  14. Taylor S, Renshaw I, Pinder R, Polman R, Russell S. Coaches’ Use of Remote Coaching: Experiences From Paralympic Sport. International Sport Coaching Journal. 2023:1-12.


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