As we attempt to unpack the questions posed in the March 12th, 2020 blog, I encourage everyone to adopt a Bruce Lee mentality. Bruce, stated, “Absorb what is useful. Discard what is not. Add what is uniquely your own.” 

  • Is there a place for decontextualized drills/activities?

First, I think we need to address the elephant in the room. There isn’t a single idealized movement pattern that ‘fits’ every human on the planet. In addition, removing large amounts of information in hopes that an athlete ‘patterns’ a particular movement is a gigantic waste of time. Instead, we’re going to discuss how to help athletes find their own unique solution to the peculiar problems they face. Following that, we’ll cover a few practical examples to serve as a platform to help grow your ability as an effective problem designer. In 2015, Seifert and Davids stated, “the on-going control and regulation of movement is predicated on the role of information that emerges from the individual-environment system.” Therefore, information is powerful, and it’s all around us. Information in the ecological approach “refers to specificity between the structured energy distributions available to a perceptual system and the environment and movement properties causally responsible for that structure (Turvey, 1990). 

Because of this, we must ask ourselves, why did we choose the drill/activity? What information are we hoping they will interact with? Is the information they’re interacting with similar to their sport? From the above it should be clear that information is dynamic. So, if we choose to have an athlete hit off a tee, then we need to ask ourselves, why? Perception and action perpetually feed one another (Turvey). Separating the two is much the same as tearing a $100 bill. Neither side serves the purpose as the whole once did. 

In short, we propose that decontextualized ‘drills’ can be viewed on a ‘representative level of sport scale.’ Hitting off a tee is likely to score 1-2 on a scale from 1-10. If we look at the drill of hitting off a tee, it should be apparent that there is specifying information unavailable to the hitter. The pitcher’s body orientation, the arm slot, the spin of the ball, the anxiety and the pressure of the pitch are just a few of the informing variables that are missing in the situation (same goes for hitting off a pitching machine). 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).

In our course ‘Underpinnings’ we discuss how self-organization will emerge from how the mover connects to the information in the world around them. If we hope for the athletes to develop relevant information-movement couplings, then we should evaluate how the athlete experiences the training time. As problem designers, we need to explore what information is available for pick-up by the athlete to better understand how they organized their movement. This is required if we’re going to step into the learning space.

As we take a dive into the next question, I feel we should visit this point made by experimental psychologist, Michael Turvey in a 2013 presentation when he stated, “perception-action is a continuously related dual aspect of the same event.” Similar to the other quote of his above, this elucidates how important it is to design relevant activities. 

  • How do you suggest that I modify my practice activities, so they contain information that is similar to what the athletes will perceive in the game?

First, we need to address nonlinear pedagogy (NLP), which is a learner-centered approach to skill acquisition. An umbrella term for teaching and coaching that uses task and environment design to develop skill acquisition, where each learner will have individual periods and rates of learning (Chow et al., 2016). A few principles that underpin NLP are representative learning design (RLD), information-movement couplings, manipulation of constraints, and functional variability. 


In 1956, Egon Brunswik acknowledged that in the inherently complex, dynamic, and uncertain world we live in, humans would need to detect and use perceptual information to both make decisions from as well as organize their movement actions in connection with. RLD helps with functionality (information is similar to the performance environment) & action fidelity (behaviors are game-like). 

Information-movement coupling –

I-M coupling is as much about the environment as it is the organism. It’s in the transactions which take place based on the nuances of the problem which serve to guide movement (Myszka, 2019). 

Manipulation of constraints or constraints-led approach (CLA)

Originally proposed by Karl Newell (1986), the CLA first addressed the development of infants and quickly became the methodological model used in sports to help guide athletes’ behavior by reducing or eliminating options. The CLA appreciates the performer, task, and environment relationship where all three dynamic components shape the behavior that emerges. 

Functional variability – 

Movement variability is functional if it ensures that action goals can be met by the individual, such that performance is maintained as constraints are changed (Newell, K. M., 1986). Essentially noise or environmental changes can help athletes search for functional solutions to the problems they face. 

So once again, we visit information. Does the information need to be similar to that which is available in a competitive performance environment? Of course it must, if the information is going to be useful in regulating an athlete’s performance behavior and actions (Renshaw et al., 2019). 

If we look at hitting a baseball off a tee, then you may be asking yourself, how can I make it more representative? Tee work definitely falls lower on a representative level of sport scale, so we should look to spend more of the time using flips, throwing overhand from varying distances, and pitching from a mound. The way a pitcher organizes their body to throw provides invaluable information to the hitter. It is worth noting how important consequences are to the interaction that occurs between the pitcher, hitter, as well as the additional context (note: consequences influence all behaviors). Something as simple as adding an umpire, a runner on base, an awareness of the count, an awareness of the inning, etc. all serve to shape the behavior that unfolds. Lastly, alternative options for younger individuals struggling to even wield a bat, are using a lighter bat and ball or even bouncing the ball, which scales the information to match the learner’s challenge point.

While we won’t address every position, I’ll provide a few examples of how constraints can be manipulated to help guide skill adaptation for pitchers.

  • Throw different implements (weight, size, texture, etc.)
  • Step back throws from different distances/heights and w/ different balls
  • Pitch off different mounds
  • Pitch to a hitter in the batter’s box
  • Pitch to a catcher with an ‘umpire’ standing behind calling balls & strikes
  • Pitch in different conditions (cool, damp, windy, sunny, etc.)
  • Pitch at different distances
  • Pitch in different lighting conditions 
  • Pitch in different counts with consequences present
  • Pitch to different backgrounds
  • Pitch at varying levels of fatigue
  • Pitch with runners on (pitcher has to come off the mound to field a ball)
  • Create distractions (crowd noise, heckling, pauses in play, etc.)
  • Vary between wind-up & stretch
  • Vary where you stand on the mound
  • Vary the number of pitches per set

The demand for dexterity is not in the movements themselves but in adapting to changes within the surrounding environment (Bernstein, N.A., 67’). All in all, if we investigate the complexity of the sport, then we’ll be better equipped at creating slices of the game to place our athletes in situations to adapt their skills.

Throughout our courses ‘Underpinnings’ and ‘Ecological Dynamics for Dummies’ we discuss the importance of context, so I’ll leave you with this gem by Paul Bate. “Nothing exists, and therefore can be understood, in isolation from its context, for it is context that gives meaning to what we think and do.”

Tyler Yearby 

Co-Director of Education

For more reading:

  1. Araujo, D, and Davids, K. What Exactly is Acquired During Skill Acquisition? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2011
  2. Brunswik, E. (1956). Perception and the representative design of psychological experiments. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 
  3. Bernstein, N. The Co-ordination and Regulation of Movements, 1967
  4. Chow, J., Davids, K., Button, C., and Renshaw, I. Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition, 2016
  5. Davids, K., Bennett, S., & Newell, K. M. (2006) Movement system variability. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  6. Newell, K. Constraints on the development of coordination. In M. Wade and H. Whiting (Eds). Motor development in children: Aspects of coordination and control, 1986.
  7. Renshaw, I, Davids, K, Newcombe, D, and Roberts, W. The Constraints-Led Approach, 2019
  8. 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
  9. Turvey, M. T. (1990). Coordination. American Psychologist, 45(8), 938.
  10. Underpinnings: Concepts that live and breathe within an ecological dynamics framework. Emergence (2019)