Change is hard. Sometimes it seems like a tremendous undertaking to shift your approach to coaching even when you know it is needed. A couple of the main questions I get about implementing an ecologically friendly approach to training are, “Where do I start?” or “How much needs to change?” The truth is, it doesn’t need to be earth-shattering to get the ball rolling. Quite frankly, it might even be better to start slowly, because it allows you to keep the variables low at the beginning, which will likely give you a better idea of what is working. One thing we have to remember is decision-making is an emergent behavior (Araújo et al., 2006). As the individual moves with respect to his/her surroundings, there are opportunities for action (affordances, Gibson, 79’) that emerge and decay, even though the surroundings remain the same. Changes in action can give rise to multiple opportunities for subsequent action as information is exchanged between the athlete-environment interactions.

So what does this mean? 

It means that movement behavior is always dependent on the circumstances, and a small change to a movement problem can lead to big changes to the movement solution.

At Emergence, you often hear us say, try changing one thing in the practice design. The following list is by no means exhaustive, and every situation is unique because of the confluence of the constraints, but hopefully, this gives you an idea of what could be done.

American football:

  • Have the offensive or defensive player enter from a different place or at a different speed
  • Incorporate more bodies in the workspace (1v2, 2v3, 2v4, etc.)
  • Change the size of the workspace with the same number of players
  • Reduce the rest time between plays
  • Have the quarterback throw a slightly different ball from time to time


  • When running a small-sided game in practice (maybe a 2v3 or a 3v3), change the time remaining on the shot clock from repetition to repetition, and watch how it changes the intentions
  • When working on a jump shot, have the shooter receive the ball from a teammate and potentially have a defender in their face while shooting
  • When working on a particular play, interleave in different plays to introduce task variability

Soccer (Football): 

  • When receiving a pass, add a defender converging at different angles, distances, and speeds to influence how the ball is handled (dribbled, passed again, etc.)
  • When passing the ball downfield, have the offensive and defensive players move at different speeds and with different spacing, so the pass is adjusted
  • When the task emphasizes the goalkeeper’s ability to pick up the ball, add several moving bodies in front of him/her, so he/she has to scan the information space to make a play


  • Cut the amount of tee and pitching machine work in half by replacing it with a live pitch
  • When working on hitting a curveball, make sure to occasionally mix in at least one other pitch like a fastball, so the hitter doesn’t just sit on one pitch
  • When fielding, add a runner(s) on base, so it influences the intentions of the fielder


  • Practice serving in sets other than love-love
  • When working on the backhand, have the opponent change their position on the court from repetition to repetition
  • Have the athlete practice serving in situations other than when they are fresh (E.g., after a long rally)


  • When spiking the ball, constrain the space to half the court in the defensive zone, so the hitter must adapt their solution
  • During passing activities, have teammates move, so the athlete must adjust the bump or set pass
  • Limit the number of touches before the ball is returned

Another key takeaway that is often forgotten is that instructions and guidance are constraints. So the amount, timing, and what is said are impactful. Words can be used to educate their attention and intention, which undoubtedly shapes how they interact with the world. It’s important to remember that the athletes perceive invitations based on their own action capabilities, so their insight for practice design is very helpful. Including the athlete’s ideas in training is a simple shift towards a more athlete-centered approach.

In conclusion, movement practice can essentially be viewed as a ‘search process’ where the athlete will interact with the contextual problems found in their environment and aim to explore, discover, and ultimately exploit, various ways to organize perceptions, intentions, & actions to solve them.

Tyler Yearby

Co-Director of Education

For more reading:

  1. Araujo, D., Davids, K., & Hristovski, R. The ecological dynamics of decision making in sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 2006.
  2. Gibson, J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 1979.
  3. Underpinnings: Concepts that live and breathe within an ecological dynamics framework. Emergence, 2019.