If you’re a coach who utilizes an ecological dynamics framework and pedagogical principles which underpin it (i.e., constraints-led approach, nonlinear pedagogy, athlete-centered, systems thinking, etc), you likely have been accused of being “too hands off” in your approach by someone more traditionally-minded (aka those who adopt theories more related to information-processing, linear processes/stages of motor learning, coach-centered, part-whole, etc).
Truly, one of the biggest misconceptions of the use of an ecological approach is that, within it, there’s no room for direct or explicit instruction and feedback.
This actually couldn’t be further from the truth. However, we do use guidance methods, in the form of direct or explicit instruction and feedback, in completely different ways and for alternative purposes than most within a more traditional approach may.
Below are just a number of ways in which we, within an ecological approach, may utilize instructions and feedback differently than many others. NOTE: these are all generalizations, and certainly there will be plenty of exceptions found on either side.
The execution of a movement solution
Directing the athletes attention to a specific technical aspect (positions and/or patterns) of the motor action. This could usually be done through explicit instructions or feedback particularly about the motor execution (often requiring an internal focus of attention for the athlete) – essentially aiming for ways to get an athlete to move in an exact fashion (potentially due to a supposed technical model for that given movement skill). Here, the traditionally-minded practitioner is likely chasing biomechnical efficiency through the solidification of a highly stable movement pattern.
Encouraging the athlete to try out various ways of executing both similar (i.e., adjusting the control parameters of the movement solution such as carrying out an outside foot power cut across various widths, depths, speeds, and angles) and completely different (i.e., coordinating a crossover cut or spin move instead of a power cut) fashions. Here, the ecological practitioner is likely attempting to widen the solution manifold (i.e., the movement toolbox) in hopes of gaining an abundance of movement solutions which could potentially be utilized.
Interactions between the athlete and the information in the environment
Directly pointing an athlete’s attention to a specific ‘cue’ or ‘stimulus’ within the environment, as a means to make a decision from and/or to enable carrying out one’s actions in a certain manner (in an ‘if this, then that’ type of fashion). Here, the traditionally-minded practitioner believes that not only is there one best way to execute a specific motor action, but they also feel as though it’s an ambiguous/impoverished stimulus in the world which then must be recognized and then interpreted (through processing in the brain), which will then trigger the specific motor action to be employed.
Guiding the athlete of where they could look (to potentially pick-up specifying informational sources), but not necessarily telling them what to see there, while simultaneously encouraging the athlete to make decisions for themselves based on what they are perceiving and how they authentically have the capabilities of acting. With this, practitioners within an ecological approach may also be more likely to use open-ended questions for discovery learning as opposed to explicit instructions (though, I will admit, I do often say things like “look for space/search the space” or “try to look at X place to see what you can find”). Here, the ecological practitioner is allowing for the emergent movement problem-solving process to be a more authentic one for the athlete while giving the room for self-regulation of the behaviors.
Over the last six months of interacting with the committed and passionate movement professionals who are participating in The Movement Academy (TMA), myself and the team at Emergence have gotten the unique opportunity to hear how several individuals, spread across various niche pockets in the performance community, utilize instructions and feedback to channel the movement behaviors and motor learning for athletes of all levels. It’s been a truly fascinating thought experiment not only week-by-week as we chat with these innovative coaches, but also as we watch them interact with the athletes they work with, and attempt to work together in ways to package communication which can further facilitate the enhancement of movement skill.
Through this, a number of things have become quite clear:
1. Everyone’s environment (and the athletes within it) is truly unique – though there will still be tendencies between peculiar learning environments where certain dots could be connected, the coalescing of interacting constraints specific to the context of that individual (the movement professional), will call for a unique approach when it comes to the way(s) that instruction and feedback is approached to optimally guide the athlete.
2. Instructions and feedback may need to be utilized differently based on the timescales of learning and the level of skill of the athlete, as well as the nature of the problems that the athlete faces in their respective sport.
3. Each movement professional should adopt an approach to guidance and communication that feels right for them based on what their predominant thoughts, ideas, and beliefs are (aka their Form of Life).
Though I certainly went into 2021 and the start of TMA with each of those aforementioned realities of the learning environments in sport firmly in mind, TMA has only served to solidify them as I have been blessed to interact with the participants of the Academy – and, indirectly, with the athletes those participants work with.
Thus, I think I speak for all at Emergence when I say that The Movement Academy has truly been an experience which has challenged and pushed all of us to grow and evolve – students and mentors alike. If you are interested in joining us for the second cohort of TMA, please check out more information about it HERE. If you have any questions whatsoever about TMA, please don’t hesitate to reach out to any of us here to assist you in determining if the experience would be right for you!
Learn more about The Movement Academy.
Shawn is the Co-Director of Education & Co-Founder of Emergence. He developed content for the educational brand, Movement Mastery, from 2014 till the formation of Emergence, with the sole purpose of helping to enable a deeper understanding of the processes involved in the acquisition of more masterful movement for athletes in sport. Shawn has served primarily as a Personal Performance Advisor & Movement Skill Acquisition Coach for National Football League (NFL) players since 2008, working with approximately 12 players each year.