Ecological dynamics focuses on the establishment of a reciprocal, functional relationship between an individual and the environment, which is why Araujo and Davids [2] propose the idea of “skill adaptation or skill attunement.” The key here is the relationship between the athlete and the environment, which has implications for coaches who are involved in their learning journey. Sports practitioners are afforded the opportunity to help guide athletes in deepening their relationship with the environment so that functional and adaptable behavior emerges. This symmetrical approach is warranted because all athletes have a unique relationship with the environment driven by their action capabilities and their attunement levels to the relevant informational variables that specify affordances (invitations for action), which are athlete and frame-dependent.

So, how can questions support the athlete in finding solutions to the problems they face in sports?

Under an ecological dynamics framework, questions should accentuate vital information sources, which supports athletes in solving the problems they face in sports. Decision-making and problem-solving can be viewed as two sides of the same coin, where the effectiveness of the emergent decisions made are limited by the attunement levels of the athlete. After all, the perpetual relationship between movement and perception is how athletes stay in contact with the world around them, which enables the respective calibration of their actions. Ultimately, our goal is to help athletes “actively self-regulate” [8], so they can maintain a deep connection to the practice and performance landscape. “Active self-regulation” [8] is described as broadly emphasizing the emergent interactions between a performer and the environment.” More specifically, they are afforded the opportunity to navigate the rich landscape of affordances and explore what the workspace has to offer, which assists the athlete in accomplishing what Nikolai Bernstein [3] suggested when he said, “the process of solving the problem again and again by techniques which we changed and perfected from repetition to repetition.”

For skillful behavior to persist, athletes need to be highly adaptable, which means they need the ability to solve problems under varied task constraints. With that said, there are opportunities for coaches to invite athletes to search areas of the workspace without telling them what they need to find. In this way, athletes have ownership to direct their attention and intentions to areas of the performance workspace that aid in the development of relevant information-movement couplings. Anson et al. [1] define information-movement couplings as the development of successful functional relations between movement and information in a specific performance context. Said another way, information-movement coupling is where an individual is able to more effectively utilize the information present in a problem to support the movement solution organized [9].

Questioning helps athletes build upon the notion of the Gibsonian [4] “knowledge of” the environment. Woods et al. [7] remind us that questioning from an ecological dynamics perspective does not involve the player verbalizing their reasoning and structured response (capturing the notion of knowledge about the environment [4]). Here are several examples of how questions are used under an ecological approach.

1. Questions that draw the athlete’s attention to tactical strategies used. For example, when speaking to the offense in American football, questioning can draw their attention to defensive coverages, where athletes are encouraged to search and discover ways to solve problems in different ways, such as exploiting gaps that emerge in the defense.

      • How many ways do you think you can exploit the defense when you find the safeties are drifting toward the sideline?

2. Questions that help athletes run ‘the same’ route in different ways in American football based on the behavioral play of the defensive back. For example, defensive backs will often press, press then bail, shade the receiver to one side or the other or play a soft coverage. If a defensive back is often pressing and shading the wide receiver to the inside (side closest to the ball) at the line of scrimmage, then questioning can draw the athlete’s attention to different ways to run the routes (deceptive movements, tempo changes, etc.).

    • How many different ways can you create separation on the ‘post route’ when they are pressing you?

3. Questions that draw an athlete’s attention toward attempting to solve the problem of eluding a defender differently in team sports when in possession of the ball.

    • When the opposition is closing from the side quickly, how else can you elude them, break the tackle, or beat them to the line to gain?

Note: This can easily be promoted by manipulating task constraints in practice, such as the space available to work, the angle and speed of the defender entering, and the number of the defenders in the workspace. Orth et al. [5] explained, “We anticipate that in most cases when exposed to a variation in constraints, people are not looking for creative motor actions, but discover them while doing an effort to satisfy constraints.”

4. Questions that promote getting the ball to the boundary to open space to penetrate the defense.

      • What other ways can you stretch the defense if they are clustered near midfield?

5. Questions that draw the athlete’s attention to environmental conditions, so they are able to adapt their solutions to meet the environmental demands. For example, wet surfaces will likely lead to challenges with the athlete’s footing or challenges moving the ball on the ground. Other examples include high winds, the challenge of moving the ball through the air or cold conditions, and the need for athletes to keep moving.

    • How might a wet surface change the way you pass the ball or gain your footing?

All the examples above seek to capture the athlete’s knowledge of the performance environment, which promotes the continuous reorganization of system components to achieve a task. Through the ever-changing landscape, the athlete’s perceptions guide what actions are possible under the confluence of the constraints. Perception is a dynamic process involving the whole body of the athlete [6], and we want the athletes to own their relationship with the environment.

If the ideas in this blog post interest you, then I encourage you to look at all the educational opportunities we offer. The Sport Movement Skill Conference includes eighteen hours of material, which covers plenty of valuable topics related to the sports and rehab world. The SMSC is $200 off through the end of the day on Monday, November 30th with code ‘smscmovement‘.

For more reading:

Anson, G, Elliott, D, and Davids, K. Information Processing and Constraints-Based Views of Skill Acquisition: Divergent or Complementary? Motor Behavior, 2005

Araujo, D, and Davids, K. What Exactly is Acquired During Skill Acquisition? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2011.

Bernstein NA. The coordination and regulation of movement. New York: Pergamon Press; 1967.

Gibson JJ. The senses considered as perceptual systems. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin; 1966.

Orth, D., van der Kamp, J., Memmert, D., and Savelsbergh, G. Creative Motor Actions As Emerging From Movement Variability. Frontiers in Psychology, 2017.

Teques, P, Araujo, D, Seifert, L, del Campo, V, and Davids, K. The resonant system: linking brain-body-environment in sport performance. Progress in Brain Research, 201

Woods, C.T., McKeown, I, O’Sullivan, M, Robertson, S, and Davids, K. Theory to Practice: Performance Preparation Models in Contemporary High-Level Sport Guided by an Ecological Dynamics Framework. Sports Medicine, 2020.

Woods, C.T., Rudd, J., Robertson, S. et al. Wayfinding: How Ecological Perspectives of Navigating Dynamic Environments Can Enrich Our Understanding of the Learner and the Learning Process in Sport. Sports Med – Open 6, 51 (2020).

Underpinnings: Concepts that live and breathe within an ecological dynamics framework. Emergence, 2019.