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Viewing Sport through an Ecological Dynamics lens

I recently shared the above image on LinkedIn and Twitter and described it as “key skill acquisition terminology that may be useful for coaches and practitioners”. It formed part of our recent publication titled: Merging Athletic Development with Skill Acquisition: Developing Agility Using an Ecological Dynamics Approach (read here).

One piece of feedback I received was that the language was too complex and that I could consider adding a simplified definition and then examples to go along with it. As a support staff member, working together with, rather than in competition against, other key stakeholders, I feel it is of utmost importance to be able to build positive working relationships with all key stakeholders, especially coaches (the real MVPs). A key principle: meet people where they are at. That isn’t supposed to ever be condescending to the people I am dealing with, but a key principle to facilitate a shared understanding, which works both ways. Another key piece of feedback that I received on LinkedIn was that the table was that the terms within it were not skill acquisition terms, but rather terms used within ecological dynamics – a conceptual theory used to explain skill acquisition. So originally, I had titled this post “Viewing Sport through a Skill Acquisition lens”, but I have now changed it to “Viewing Sport through an Ecological Dynamics lens”.

These interactions highlight the value of social media and allows for positive learning experiences provided everyone is open to alternative viewpoints and conducts themselves in a respectful manner. I am grateful to Philip Kerr and Job Fransen for sharing their thoughts. In response to the feedback, this post will describe the terms listed in the table, but I will do it through a descriptive story of a soccer team.

Game Day – Team/Individual Performance

A soccer game. Two teams (two separate complex adaptive systems) line up. 11 players in each team (each player is a complex adaptive system). A complex adaptive system is simply something, or someone, with many parts, that is always changing, and has a goal/aim. A team has 11 parts (players), all acting interdependently. A player (or specifically their body) contains many parts, guided by their intentionality at any given moement - what are they trying to achieve?

When one team is in possession (they are attacking) their aim is generally to score, while the defending team is generally trying to prevent that by winning the ball back. Information that will guide a player’s or a team’s actions is omnipresent, and such information is perceived. For example, when the centre-half has the ball, she might perceive that there is a short pass available to the centre-midfielder (specifying information), and her identifying this information (perception) guides her actions (she passes the ball). But as she passes, the information changes – the opposition close the centre-midfielder down – this guides the centre-half to make herself available for the return pass (perception-action loop).

Over time in a game, the centre-half might begin to realise that the opposition are vacating the wide channel to press the centre-midfielder when they receive the ball. After picking up this key piece of (specifying) information, the centre-half skillfully hides her intentions by shaping up to pass to the centre-midfielder, inviting the press from the opposition, and playing the ball to the wide player who is in space. This is skilled intentionality (for more on this, read here). She has skillfully attuned to the key sources of information present in her environment (the game), and skillfully adapted her actions to the information she became attuned to (for more on skill adaptability, read here). This is an example of how behaviour emerges from the interaction of the athlete (specifically their abilities/action capabilities), and the environment (specifically the information in it; for more on emergent behaviour, click here).

The opportunities (or affordances) that a player or a team (shared affordances) identifies on the field are influenced by their general qualities (action capabilities; a player's action capabilities are always changing, see here). If a left-footed striker is 1v1 with the keeper on the left-hand side of the goal, they will have a narrow target to aim at. A right-footed striker in the same situation may have a bigger target as they can open up their body to shoot. The affordances, or the affordance landscape (the range of possible actions at any given moment) that a player sees are dependent on what they can do (their action capabilities). A player in possession who is considerably faster than their opponents may see space and dribble into the space. A midfielder who is less physically developed may direct a teammate to the space and pass them the ball.

Training – Team/Individual Preparation

Viewing players and teams as complex adaptive systems is the foundation of ecological dynamics (ED; something I have written about for Agility, Conditioning, Acceleration and Physical Education), which can guide coaches in how to design practice tasks. ED can be operationalised by the Constraints-Led Approach (CLA; read here). A constraint is something that will influence a player’s behaviour. For example, a soccer player will not pick up the ball with their hands and run with it, simply because of the rules of the game (a set of constraints). Players will try and keep the ball in between the line markings (another set of constraints).

The CLA simply means that coaches can try to influence their players' behaviour by manipulating the constraints acting on them. For example, a coach wants to encourage their team to play through the midfield with short passes as they lose possession too often when they play long. To do this, the coach could manipulate the pitch size so that long play is no longer an option, and they must play shorter. Once they have been encouraged to look for short passes, through this game, the coach can manipulate the constraints again to make the pitch bigger. The pitch now affords (presents the opportunity for) long passing. To continue to guide players actions, the coach can implement a rule to encourage players to continue to look for short passes through midfield, like a goal is worth double if the ball is worked through the midfield area. This encourages short passing without removing the option for long passing. For other examples of how coaches can manipulate constraints, see the modified STEP model and utilising Environmental Design Principles.

There are two key considerations for coaches when designing training. One is the optimal challenge point. This can be described as the Goldilocks principle of practice design. Simply, coaches do not want training to be too hard, or too easy, but just right. A simple way to measure this is to tally the number of errors (for more on errors, read here). Through an understanding of how their players respond to errors, coaches can use the error count to guide the level of difficulty of a task. For example, one player is successful once from five attempts (low success rate) but doesn’t lose enthusiasm and effort does not deteriorate throughout. Another player my succeed three times out of 5 attempts (higher success rate) but respond negatively to the two attempts they failed. This player may need their task to be adapted slightly, or they may need more support and encouragement (eradicating errors completely from a task is not advised).

A second key consideration for coaches is representativeness or representative learning design. This can provide coaches an insight as to how much a training environment represents a competition environment, and how likely that training will transfer to competition. To break this down, a training environment that is highly representative will contain plenty of specifying sources of information (information that is present in competition – the training environment is therefore high in fuctionality; functional = the movement solutions work) and this will encourage specificity of transfer or action fidelity (where the actions are common in training and competition). For example:

  • a soccer task that is high in action fidelity will require an attacker to adapt his movements due to the presence of defenders to create a scoring opportunity. Such information sources are the presence and movement of opponents (see example above), and the scoreboard pressure that players are subject to. The behaviours a player makes in training tasks that are highly representative are more likely to transfer to a game.

There might be situations where generality of transfer (development of general capacities) is desired, and coaches use non-specifying information sources that are not present in a game. These might include a whistle or a clap to initiate a sprint, or colours to change direction to. These information sources may be suitable when enjoyment, physical development are priorities and skill learning is not. Coaches can move along the capacity-skill continuum depending on the needs of their players.

Lastly, coaches should understand that a team or a player is a nonlinear system (as mentioned - complex), and the development of a team, or individual players is nonlinear. Development is difficult, if not impossible to predict. Putting two players through the same program may provide similar results, but it also may provide vastly different results. Coaches should avoid a one size fits all approach to player development and instead embrace the complexity and chaos that comes with the development process.

Concluding remarks

As mentioned at the start, ecological dynamics is a theory to explain skill acquisition. It is just one way. There are others. One criticism of ecological dynamics is the complexity of the language used makes it difficult for coaches and practitioners to comprehend, and that is the reason for this post today. This point alone, combined some other recent interactions have stimulated a lot of thought around the value of ecological dynamics, and skill acquisition as a whole. Key point: surround yourself who will challenge your way of thinking. Avoid an echo-chamber. Celebrate those who critique your work with the aim of making it better.


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