Traditional models of coaching have adopted a one-size-fits-all philosophy, whereas ecological dynamics appreciates that each athlete has unique constraints that shape the movement solution that emerges. Essentially, ecological dynamics takes a learner-centered approach to skill adaptation vs. a coach-centered approach. An ecological dynamics framework views the athlete-environment relationship as the appropriate scale of analysis for studying emergent behavior. In addition, ecological dynamics adopts ideas from ecological psychology, where the continuous regulation of human behavior is predicated on the role of information that emerges from the individual–environment system to guide activity (Seifert & Davids, 2015). In an information-based approach, information specifies invitations for action (affordances), where each learner’s action capabilities and the information they pick-up, serve to guide what they can and cannot do. Athletes perceive affordances based on their own action capabilities and it is here where the learner-centered approach begins to take shape. Traditional models have placed too much emphasis on the athlete, and have neglected the task and environment that help shape the movement strategy. 

The constraints-led approach (CLA), which is underpinned by nonlinear pedagogy and ecological dynamics, was first proposed by Karl Newell in 1986.  Constraints are related to the task (rules, equipment, boundaries, etc.), environment (light, humidity, temperature, social expectations, etc.), and individual (height, weight, emotional and motivational levels, etc.). The landscape of constraints is undulating, and it is the confluence of the constraints at any given moment that gives rise to the emergent movement solution. 

Adaptive behavior is important because conditions like the environment, task requirements, and our motivations can change every time we perform a motor skill (Davids, Bennett, & Newell, 2006). Adaptability is crucial for any athlete. In this way, coaches shift to becoming ‘environment architects’ or ‘problem designers’ (Renshaw et al., 2019). Skill adaptation is an ongoing process rather than one that has an endpoint. This approach places great emphasis on problem-solving, where the search process allows learners to solve problems in creative and authentic ways.

The following are examples of the key differences between the two approaches. 

Coach-Centered Approach: 

  • The coach has identified the ‘correct’ model of movement, and they intend to teach it to everyone
  • The coach has the entire session scripted and doesn’t plan on adjusting anything
  • Errors are bad
  • Very repetitive (think rote repetition)
  • Variability in movement is negative
  • Highly explicit with frequent feedback

Learner/Athlete-Centered Approach: 

  • The athlete’s perceptions are the driver of their movements 
  • The coach designs problems for the athletes to solve (the coach is a guide)
  • The coach has a plan for the session and will likely manipulate constraints driven by interactions with the athletes
  • Errors occur in the skill adaptation process
  • The practice is variable with high use of constraints (think repetition without repetition)
  • Variability in movement is exploited 
  • There are very few explicit rules 

To illustrate the difference, we are going to look at two examples from American football. 

1) A bubble route 

2) A ball carrier trying to elude defenders near the sideline

Coach-Centered Approach: 

  • Prior to the route occurring the athlete would have gone through a track & field approach to teaching speed where the coach would teach them every movement with copious amounts of instruction and feedback 
  • The receiver is taught exactly how to run the route (body orientation, speed, etc.)
  • The receiver is taught exactly where and how to cut (gaps to hit, position in the cut, how to hold the ball, etc.)
  • There is feedback during and after every repetition 
  • The same play is performed again and again and likely with no defender, no changes made to the location on the field, etc. 
  • Any variability in the movement would immediately be deemed wrong
  • The play is executed until it is correct

Learner/Athlete-Centered Approach: 

  • Constraints such as the number offensive and defensive players, location on the field, spacing, speed, direction of defenders entering, amount of feedback (guidance), etc. all will be purposely manipulated to allow the athlete to search and connect to information that will give rise to the movement solution organized (the video below highlights these constraints) 
  • The session will likely be adjusted to fit the needs of the athlete and their ability on any given day
  • The feedback (guidance) is faded 
  • The coach may help to educate the athlete’s intention (how the athlete might aim to interact with the problem) and their attention (potentially an area on the field or body of the defender that can be explored)
  • The task and the environment help shape the movement solution that emerges 

The video below is just one example of how constraints are manipulated to help guide the athlete’s search. Learning is a two-way street. Fall in love with the idea, and your athletes will be better off.

If this blog post sparked your interest, then I suggest you check out ‘Underpinnings’, where we discuss these ideas in greater depth!

Tyler Yearby

Co-Director of Education

For more reading:

  1. Davids, K., Bennett, S., & Newell, K. M. Movement system variability. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2006.
  2. Renshaw, I, Davids, K, Newcombe, D, and Roberts, W. The Constraints-Led Approach, 2019
  3. Seifert, L, and Davids, K. Ecological Dynamics: A theoretical framework for understanding sport performance, physical education and physical activity. CS-DC ’15 World e-conference, 2015
  4. Underpinnings: Concepts that live and breathe within an ecological dynamics framework. Emergence (2019)