If you were to ask a coach where they start when they begin coaching their young athletes, I’m positive the word ‘fundamentals’ would pop up somewhere in their answer. As most of us understand, fundamentals are thought to be the foundation in skill development and are represented by the basics we must “master” if we ever want to be more than a novice.
Is this the truth though? Is teaching specific fundamental movements really necessary? Is promoting one basic set of movement patterns really the key to unlocking potential?
In a recent paper titled “Conceptualizing Physical Literacy within an Ecological Dynamics Framework,” Rudd et al. (2020) present this idea of ‘functional over fundamental’ as it pertains to movement solutions early in the learning process. This idea is pointed at challenging the notion that movement skills are an entity that can be learned and subsequently acquired, and that there is one set of fundamental movements that underpin masterful skill. Instead, they look to promote the idea that movement skill should be reflected in the dynamic, emergent behaviors of each athlete-environment system, continuously subjected to the influence of changing personal and environmental constraints (Rudd et al., 2020).
As I mentioned earlier, in a traditional approach young athletes must learn ‘fundamental’ movements before moving on to more complex movements in a given sport or task. These basics are generally taught by assigning specific movement behaviors in de-contextualized situations. This is where you would typically see the part/part/whole method used as coaches look to reduce the complexity in a task so it’s easier to learn. This type of reductionism is done by breaking down a movement or skill into its component parts, ‘mastering’ them separately, and putting them back together into a full movement once all parts are learned. Throwing a ball, swinging a bat or club…I think we can all remember a time where a coach utilized this particular method as they introduced us to a new skill. In fact, I fully admit that I have used this method as a coach at different points in my career. However, that was before I understood how harmful this can actually be for the athlete, especially early on in the learning process (for additional reading on this topic, check out Shawn’s blog here).
Rudd et al. (2020) warn us that this reductionist approach takes focus away from the learning process and can be detrimental because it’s through that process where learners understand how to enrich self-organization in movement contexts.
So, why is that important?
Well, self-organization is, “the means by which appropriate levels of functionality are achieved in different contexts requiring an individual to use perception, action and cognition to interact with a performance environment (including its social, emotional and physical dimensions) during a goal-oriented behavior” (Rudd et al., 2020, p.7-8). Through this process, young athletes learn how to interact with their environment by trial. They learn how to attend to the most useful bits of information being presented. They learn how to accept (or reject) affordances for action based on their action capabilities. They learn how to problem solve their way through novel landscapes without someone telling them exactly what to do and exactly how to do it. And maybe most importantly, they fail… a lot, and failure is where the learning takes place.
Reductionism doesn’t offer that opportunity. The information-poor environments being presented as a result of reductionism are not providing the young learners any relevant information to interact with. Said another way, the information that young learners use to couple their movements to in the de-contextualized ‘drills’ (e.g., hitting off a tee in baseball, using ladders to train their ‘footwork,’ etc.) isn’t available for pick up in contextual situations, thus, not helpful for learning.
With all that said, as I have been thinking about this concept more and more over the last few years there has been a question I’ve struggled to answer: Then what actually is fundamental movement?
If I haven’t made it clear already, the lens in which I view movement behavior is deeply rooted in ecological science. With that, I believe that movement solutions emerge based on the interactions between the athlete and the environment (and the information in it). So, I have been struggling to understand how fundamental movements can be learned or assigned (void of context), if that missing context is the very thing that shapes movement behavior? Additionally, tasks, environments and athletes are always changing so how can we expect one baseline movement solution to be able to be applied to every single unique problem?
This is where the concept of functional movement began to make a lot more sense to me.
Rudd et al. (2020) deemed the term functional, as it pertains to ecological dynamics, as “supportive, adaptive, and relevant behaviors with respect to achieving intended task goals during performance” (p. 7). Essentially, was the movement solution used, practical, purposeful, useful, relevant, and directly related to the problem at hand? In my opinion, THAT should be the scale of analysis for movement early in the learning process.
Notice there is no mention of perfect, ideal or correct movement. Coaches, teachers, and parents need to stop forcing this idea of fundamental movement and start promoting functional movement. In all honesty, who cares if a movement is “fundamental” as long as it is functionally fit to the given situation? Did the particular movement solution solve the particular problem?
Why does it have to be any more than that?
If we as coaches/teachers/parents can begin to provide a variety of information rich environments for young learners and promote the idea of functional movement solutions, this will facilitate a much deeper relationship between the athlete and their environment (Renshaw & Chow, 2018). Through this process, young athletes will be presented with opportunities to be more creative, abundant and adaptable with their movement, not harnessed or instructed to act in any certain way.
Now you might be thinking, if we can’t break down movements to make them easier for athletes to digest, do we just toss them right into the sport and hope that functionally fit solutions just appear from thin air?
No, that’s not what I am saying either.
The question becomes, how do we promote functionality and avoid reductionism?
We should aim to reduce the complexity of movement problems and meet learners where they are to help them develop relevant information-movement couplings leading to them finding functional fits in contextual situations. We all understand the need to reduce complexity to make things more digestible for young learners. The problem is, as we have been discussing, this reduction in complexity usually results in context being sucked from the activity.
This is where information and equipment scaling comes into play.
In 2016, Buszard and colleagues conducted a systematic review investigating the idea of information and equipment scaling and the influence it can have on learning and skill adaptation (paper cited in references). While there still is some research to be done in this area, they were able to conclude that properly scaled tasks and environments led to:
-Greater engagement with and enjoyment of the task
-Expedited skill improvements
-Improved match performance
-Development of more desirable movement solutions
-Increased likelihood of learning and performing implicitly
So what could this look like in a specific sport? There has been a fair amount of research done in tennis and how it can be scaled to meet young learners where they are at. Time was spent modifying equipment and playing spaces to assess the influence it would have on skill adaptation in young learners. Researchers chose to scale equipment and information in 4 areas: racquet size, net size, court size and ball compression (Buszard et al., 2014; Buszard et al., 2016; Gimenez-Egido et al., 2020; Kachel, Buszard, & Reid, 2015; Limpens et al., 2018; Timmerman et al., 2015).
It’s imperative to note that information-movement couplings were still intact throughout this process. Instead of reducing tennis to its component parts and making tasks easier by removing all sources of relevant information, the magnitudes, speeds, and spaces athletes were asked to interact with were scaled back to meet them where they were currently at in their learning journey all while promoting self-organization. Manipulating equipment in this way made the game more digestible for young learners but DID NOT violate contextual principles.
So how does this relate back to functionality?
Well, they are still learning the “basics” of the game while still having to interact with similar information that they will experience in the full version of the sport. As coaches/teachers/parents, we can now evaluate if the solutions that are emerging are functional (as defined earlier) and at the same time we are allowing them freedom, creativity, autonomy and ownership over their movement as well.
Using these methods, young learners aren’t being forced to act a certain way or learn a checklist of pre-determined, prescribed movements. They are being put in environments that are scaled to them and present the opportunity to interact with environments and work through the process of self-organization. Through this process they are encouraged to find solutions that are functionally fit to the environments that have been presented.
For me, it was a lot easier to understand this concept than it was to actually apply it. Which is why my colleague Michael Zweifel and I developed a course called Origins, aimed at guiding parents, teachers and coaches through the process of youth development. We spend time going over the theory that underpins our methods and then spend a great deal of time showing you how these methods can be applied in a variety of situations. In total, there are 6 chapters of content, 4 interviews with youth coaches from around the world, a video library of example activities, and a 30 minute call with either Michael or myself. We strongly encourage you to check it out!
Buszard, T., Farrow, D., Reid, M., & Masters, R. (2014). Modifying equipment in early skill development: A tennis perspective. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 85(2), 218-225. DOI: 10.1080/02701367.2014.893054
Buszard, T., Reid, M., Masters, R., & Farrow, D. (2016) Scaling the equipment and play area in children’s sport to improve motor skill acquisition: A systematic review. Journal of Sports Medicine, 46, 829-843.
Gimenez-Egido, J.M., Ortega-Toro, E., Palao, J., & Torres-Luque, G. (2020). Effect of scaling equipment on U-10 players tennis serve during match-play: A nonlinear pedagogical approach. Chaos, Solitons & Fractals, 139. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chaos.2020.110011.
Kachel, K., Buszard, T., & Reid, M. (2015). The effect of ball compression on the match-play characteristics of elite junior tennis players. Journal of Sports Sciences, 33(3), 320-326. DOI: 10.1080/02640414.2014.942683
Limpens, V., Buszard, T., Shoemaker, E., Savelsbergh, G., & Reid, M. (2018). Scaling constraints in junior tennis: The influence of net height on skilled players’ match-play performance. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 89(1), 1-10. DOI: 10.1080/02701367.2017.1413230
Rudd, J., Rothwell, M., Woods, C., & Davids, K. (2020). Conceptualizing Physical Literacy within an Ecological Dynamics Framework. Quest. DOI: 10.1080/00336297.2020.1799828
Timmerman, E., De Water, J., Kachel, K., Reid, M., Farrow, D., & Savelsbergh,G. (2015) The effect of equipment scaling on children’s sport performance: The case for tennis. Journal of Sports Sciences, 33(10), 1093-1100. DOI: 10.1080/02640414.2014.986498
Rich is the Innovations Manager at Emergence. He has held various positions over the course of his career gaining experience working with youth all the way up to professionals.