Problem-solving in sports requires players to detect information to coordinate an integrated movement solution (IMS; Myszka et al., 2023) that functionally fits the problem. The information they interact with is dynamic and specifies affordances based on their action capabilities; they are also frame-dependent, meaning that they rapidly emerge and decay. Further, athletes who are embedded in practice tasks representative of the game are capable of becoming attuned (i.e., having increased sensitivity; Jacobs & Michaels, 2007) to specifying information, which can lead to them actualizing more afforances that help them achieve their goal.
This is important for coaches who are entrusted with designing practice tasks to help athletes skillfully solve problems during competition. Ask yourself: Is the information available for pick up in the training environment representative of what players will interact with in the competitive arena? Or, more accurately, is it alive and brimming with opportunities for interaction (Yearby et al., 2022; Myszka et al., 2023)? In this blog post, my objective is to offer several examples of how coaches can amplify the aliveness in the practice activities they design, where players can actively explore ways of coordinating functional movement solutions to the problems they face in sports.
Bruce Lee once said, “It is easy to learn the mechanics of an attack, but to apply that attack in time with the opponent and at the correct distance takes a lot of practice. In attacking, you must never be half-hearted” (Lee, 1975). The quote continues to unpack more about the importance of timing, rhythm, and becoming one with the problem. Additionally, this means movement behavior is always dependent on the circumstances, and changes to a movement problem can lead to changes in the emerging movement solution.
Coaches should look for ways to manipulate constraints so that players are presented with alive problems that look, feel, and behave like the sport so they can become more sensitive to specifying information. It is worth acknowledging that activities can (and often should) be slices of the sport (e.g., shooting under pressure with a defender converging in basketball) and can be scaled in complexity to meet individual learner needs. The following list is by no means exhaustive, and every situation is unique because of the confluence of constraints; however, this should give you an idea of what could be modified to offer problems with more aliveness for athletes to face in practice.
- Present a movement problem to the ball carrier (QB, running back, or receiver) that requires them to work off of a block in front of them to navigate the defense
- Incorporate more bodies (teammates and/or opponents) into smaller workspaces
- Have defenders pursue ball carriers or defend receivers that vary in skill levels, where tempo changes, deceptiveness, etc., will differ from repetition to repetition
- During small-sided games when working on offensive or defensive principles of play, adjust the time remaining on the shot clock from repetition to repetition
- Incorporate contested shots at varying distances, potentially after they have received a pass, to test their attunement and adaptability across situations
- Have the offensive and defensive players face each other in fatigued states when testing the stability of their skills
- 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 has to be adjusted
- When working on the goalkeeper’s ability to pick up the ball in traffic, add several moving bodies in front of him/her, so he/she has to detect specifying information and organize an IMS
- Incorporate pitchers into batting practice so they can work on their location and velocity in situ, even if they’re only mixing in pitches they’re working on
- When fielding fly balls (in the outfield or infield), incorporate runners and out counts where emergent decisions are made in crucial situations
- During base running activities, change the pitcher, count, player at the plate, etc., so runners experience stealing across conditions
- Incorporate fighters of different heights into sparring activities (even from different weight classes), so they can harness brinkmanship, defined as being aware of and operating within one’s action boundaries, where performers purposely act in meta-stable regions on the brink of their capabilities (Krabben et al., 2019; Kimmel & Rogler, 2018)
- When fighters are sparring opponents who have great differences in abilities, ask the more skilled fighter to search for opportunities they aren’t generally intending to perceive
- When grappling with an opponent, fighters could be encouraged to “feel” for as many opportunities for a quick submission as possible
Lastly, and often forgotten, instructions and guidance are constraints, so the amount, timing, and what is said matters. Coaches can educate a player’s attention and intention (Jacobs & Michaels, 2007), which shapes how they interact with the world. Moreover, it is important to remember that athletes perceive invitations based on their action capabilities, so their insight into practice design can be very helpful. Including the athlete’s ideas in training is a simple shift towards a more athlete-centered approach. In conclusion, our belief here at Emergence is that practice activities should be alive and replete with opportunities for interaction.
Tyler Yearby, M.Ed., CSCS, PES
- Jacobs, D., & Michaels, C. (2007). Direct learning. Ecological Psychology, 19(4), 321–349.
- Kelso, J. S. (1995). Dynamic patterns, the self-organization of brain and behavior. Boston, MA: MIT Press
- Kimmel M., Rogler C.R. (2018). Affordances in interaction: the case of Aikido. Ecol Psychol. https://doi.org/10.1080/10407413.2017.1409589.
- Krabben, K., Orth, D., & van der Kamp, J. (2019). Combat as an Interpersonal Synergy: An Ecological Dynamics Approach to Combat Sports. Sports Medicine, 49, 1825-1836.
- Lee, Bruce. (1975). Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Black Belt Books.
- Myszka, S., Yearby, T., & Davids, K. (2023). Being Water: how key ideas from the practice of Bruce Lee align with contemporary theorizing in movement skill acquisition. Sport, Education and Society, DOI: 10.1080/13573322.2022.2160701
- Yearby, T., Myszka, S., Roberts, W. M., Woods, C. T., & Davids, K. (2022). Applying an ecological approach to practice design in American football: some case examples on best practice. Sports Coaching Review, DOI: 10.1080/21640629.2022.2057698
Tyler is the Co-Director of Education and Co-Founder of Emergence. He has held strength and conditioning positions at Northeastern State University and the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Over his career, he has delivered over 250 domestic & international continuing education courses, workshops, and conference presentations in 15 countries. Tyler is currently pursuing his doctorate in sport and exercise at the University of Gloucestershire (UK), exploring the perceived impact on the professional work of sports coaches and practitioners after interacting with online coaching education underpinned by an ecological dynamics rationale, with a particular focus on the theory-practice link and understanding the strengths and limitations they perceive in their craft after applying the ideas in practice.