A number of weeks ago, Tyler Yearby (fellow Co-Director of Education) and I were graciously invited to join our friend Rob Gray (of Perception-Action Podcast fame and an interviewee for the ‘Expert Interview’ series within ‘UNDERPINNINGS’) along with a number of movement heavy hitters from across the community (Stuart Armstrong, Ben Franks, and James Vaughan) to discuss a topic that is certainly near and dear to all of our hearts: cognition and decision-making from an ecological perspective. This was a conversation Tyler and I both highly enjoyed taking part in and we can’t thank Rob enough for having us involved to share in the enlightening dialogue.

You can check out that discussion between the six of us here:
To help us unpack many ideas related to this all-important topic, we used a recent journal article entitled “Ecological cognition: Expert decision-making behavior in sport,” written in 2019 by a number of thought leaders in the space, to initiate our points of discussion. I would strongly encourage that if you haven’t checked out this piece, you give it a deep read now and allow yourself some time to do some brainstorming around it, as well. As you will probably see, if you allow it to, it can change your viewpoint on decision-making in the sports domain as well as immediately impact how you practically design your learning environments to facilitate more functional problem solvers within the sport.

You can check out the journal article here:
On that note, I wanted to share the top five points that I personally took from the article as I worked my way through it. Because this article was a power-packed one, I will say it certainly made it difficult to limit myself to those which would fit on the fingers of one of my hands. However, I meant for this to be a thought experiment as a means of placing emphasis on the most important points which can practically change your learning environment and practice task design.

  1. There isn’t one correct or best decision

This means that there isn’t “some who decide well versus some who will decide poorly” as is often insinuated. Instead, it’s about allowing the athlete to make a functional (i.e. purposeful and goal-directed) decision matched to meet the needs of the dynamic and complex problem at-hand while taking into account the action capabilities of the performer him or herself.

  1. The phenomenon of interest is not brain activity

Those within Ecological Dynamics often hear that outside of EcoD barking accusations of us undervaluing the role of the brain and associated cognitive processes in the organization of movement behaviors in sport. As we have talked about before though, this just isn’t true. The brain and those cognitive processes, like intentions, motivation, and knowledge, most definitely should be considered. However, it’s just that these processes, and any associated activity within the brain that comes with them, is not necessarily where our focus should be. Instead, it should be on the totality of the performer-environment relationship knowing that significant explanatory factors exist across both of them in relation to one another. In this way, “decision making is really at the heart of the reciprocal nature of that relationship.” Additionally, the authors also bring some very poignant reminders oriented around the idea that there are many more sub-systems (of the human movement system) besides the CNS/brain that are involved in the emergence and composition of movement behaviors.

  1. A ‘tight’ performer-environment relationship is the main objective in skill acquisition

Obviously, like Rob Gray also states, our approach dictates that we must always attempt to “keep them coupled” where they could refer to perception and action…and also the problem and the solution…as well as the performer and the environment. If movement behavior (and decision making) emerges from this performer environment system, as the authors state, “the environment is not just a passive backdrop.” This is a vital distinction that we cannot just skip over. If we want movement behavior to potentially transfer more positively to the sport, the learning environment must present problems which are alive to the performer…where he/she must be connected and sensitive to the information which will specify opportunities, to actively make decisions in accepting these presented opportunities, and to organize adaptable movement behaviors in response to it.

  1. Consciousness may matter more than we sometimes give it credit to

Though the authors certainly pointed out some of the questions of how experience arises is related to consciousness, I felt that they also did a stellar job of highlighting the potential importance of a performer’s consciousness when approaching the solving of a movement problem (and the decisions which consist as part of this). In fact, they raise a number of fantastic points that I personally spent some time brainstorming around. Particularly, how consciousness could:

  • Facilitate the perceptual pick-up of information
  • Improve the integration and specification of information
  • Make movement control more coordinated over a wider range of problems
  1. A learning environment should offer a performer the chance to interact with a ‘field of affordances’

In the authors’ minds, it could be said that in an ecological approach to decision-making, “perception is of affordances.” Though I would like to clarify that I technically feel as though perception is of ‘information’ which will then specify those respective individuals and frame-dependent affordances. To quote the authors, “behaviors can be sustained by successive and simultaneous affordances.” It is these affordances (i.e. opportunities for action) that will tie together the contextual problem with the solver’s perception, cognition, and action processes. If this is so, offering an environment where the performer can gain experience in acting in a particular context, having ample chance to connect (i.e. perceive) to the information and select from those opportunities which are presented, is vital to driving the movement skill attunement and adaptation process. Whenever possible, a range of problems, which contain a varied, deep, and rich field of affordances (as ‘nested’ in a landscape) to perceive and make decisions off of, should be designed into the learning environment through constraint manipulation of the coach. This is a fancy way of saying: don’t set up an environment where the activity dictates that the decision(s) is already made for the athlete. Instead, let each athlete make decisions for themselves based on what they perceive and how they can act.

Overall, as I insinuated in the title of this blog post, if I were to summarize the whats, whys, and hows of decision-making behavior (and problem-solving of movement skill) in sport from an ecological perspective, I would say as the authors also did, “The world is its best model.” Simply put, we must focus on how contexts within the environment, and the problems it presents to the performer, will drive the content of the movement behavior which emerges.

Obviously, this mutual respect of the environment along with the performer is at the forefront of not only an Ecological Dynamics approach but was a point of emphasis within each of our courses that our group at EMERGENCE has developed thus far. In particular, during the creation of our flagship course, ‘UNDERPINNINGS,’ highlighting the performer-environment relationship as our scale of analysis was definitely a major initiative and drove many of the learning objectives throughout.

Shawn Myszka
Co-Director of Education