It was Nikolai Bernstein who first proposed that practice is, “the process toward the achievement of new motor habits is in the gradual success of a search for optimal motor solutions to the appropriate problems” (Bernstein, 1967).

With this context, it can be beneficial for coaches to view skill acquisition as a search process; the search through the perceptual-motor workspace for specifying information, perceiving affordances (opportunities for action), and organizing movement solutions (Newell et al. 1989).

Jacobs and Michaels stated that searching is the process of learning to attend to informational variables of a task and modifying actions to these informational variables (Jacobs & Michaels, 2007).

Just as the sporting environment that athletes live and perform in are ever-changing and dynamic, so is skill acquisition. Athletes don’t actually acquire or permanently own a skill; it’s always adapting and organizing/re-organizing around the dynamic nature of the task, environment, and the athletes own varying dynamics.

This is why many coaches who view sport and skilled movement through an ecological lens talk about the importance of attunement and calibration. The coaches’ goal is to organize practice to allow athletes to adapt and pick-up specifying information (becoming more attuned), and then organize and scale movement solutions to this specifying information (calibration).

So the role of the coach can be seen as guiding and enriching this search process for each athlete. Coaches can facilitate a more robust search process through the manipulation of various task constraints that encourage systematic search behaviors to emerge and athletes learn to attend to more useful information (attunement).

Changing space, time, rules and opponents will alter the search behavior and guide athletes to attune to specifying information. Coaches can also facilitate this search process through the education of intention. Guiding the intention of an athlete will direct their attention and prime the perceptual system to be more sensitive to certain information in the environment.

For practice, when preparing your next training session, try planning activities and practice scenarios that facilitate your athletes search process. Organize practice that allows athletes to search and interact with a dynamic, information rich environment. Think about the tools and constraints you use, are they providing a rich search process or eliminating it?

Viewing skill as a search process has altered my coaching lens and how I think about sport and preparing athletes for it. I hope this simple statement may impact you as well.

If this is a topic that invigorates or excites you (or even confuses you), then you’re in luck! The team at Emergence goes much deeper into all aspects of representative task design in our course, ‘UNDERPINNINGS.’

Michael Zweifel

Educational Lead

For more reading:

  1. Bernstein, N. A. (1967). The Co-Ordination and Regulation of Movements. New York, NY: Pergamon.
  2. Jacobs, D. M., and Michaels, C. F. (2007). Direct learning. Ecol. Psychol., 19, 321–349. doi: 10.1080/10407410701432337
  3. Newell, K. M., Kugler, P. N., van Emmerik, R. E. A., and McDonald, P. V. (1989). “Search strategies and the acquisition of coordination,” in Perspectives on the Coordination of Movement, ed. S. A. Wallace (North Holland: Elsevier), 85–122. doi: 10.1016/s0166-4115(08)60019-9
  4. Pacheco, M., Lafe, C. W., & Newell, K. M. (2019). Search Strategies in the Perceptual-Motor Workspace and the Acquisition of Coordination, Control and Skill. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 1874.