NOTE: This blog post was initially created as a piece for the Emergence Patreon account over at The Exchange but our team felt it was an important message to be shared across the masses of the movement and skill acquisition community. Also, if you are not yet a member at The Exchange, we would implore you to check it out here to get access to exclusive content:

https://www.patreon.com/Emergentmvmt

Important Disclaimer: After re-reading my own journal article from 2023, (Re)conceptualizing movement behavior in sport as a problem-solving activity, I sat down to meditate upon what was said within it and how thoroughly I may, or may not, have conveyed my beliefs and understanding for the world to see and read. Even though it was over 6,000 words, including several original figures and images, attempting to lead readers down a winding road of pulling upon golden threads which make up my form of life, I still felt more needed to be said (or maybe I should’ve done a better job saying more while actually saying less). Thus, the following is meant to be a personal journal entry of sorts and a declaration as to how I currently see movement behavior in sport, as well as the entire skill acquisition community, as we collectively embark on 2024. This piece also emerged under self-imposed constraints (e.g., completely unedited, written at one sitting within a 2 hour time limit, and comprising less than 2,000 words). That being said, some out there may take what is written to be overly arrogant and that is perfectly fine with me. Though I hope it inspires some to authentic action items of their own, this was a beneficial thought experiment for me nonetheless, regardless of how the rest of the community receives it.

How do you view skilled movement performance (motor control or motor learning) in sport?

Furthermore, how does that understanding affect how you study, or how you coach, movement skill?

These are questions that I often begin personal interactions (presentations or even one-on-one) with. An individual’s answers begin to shed light on how they approach their craft and thus, should influence how they and I may effectively converse about skill execution and skill acquisition.

You see, these two simple questions bring answers which directly point to one’s personal paradigms around the emergence of skilled movement behavior in sport.

Here, I will briefly elucidate my personal stance on these questions for the skill acquisition world, while hoping to express myself as authentically as possible along the way.

I elected to call this a manifesto – maybe because it is my ‘I have a dream’ type of written statement highlighting both my views and my intentions. Or maybe the word “manifesto” called to me because my view on skilled movement behavior in sport still seems to be somewhat unconventional or contrarian…at least when I look out at what many coaches, theorists, researchers, and practitioners are proposing or doing across the globe.

However, I do believe we are in the midst of a shift – with much more to come, because we have much further to go!

So, even though a manifesto is typically supposed to be written in an attempt to inspire sweeping change (and maybe this might, but it also very well may not), this manifesto is meant to serve as a reminder (to both the world and to myself) as to what I really stand for as I outline my current beliefs for the community.

You see: I am on a mission to change the way that the world views movement behavior in sport.

And by signposting what I believe and how I personally see the world, I am optimistic that others may question what they think about when they see a mover navigating the peculiarities and challenges of their sport environment, and more importantly, have an impact on how they behave within their craft.

As Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

I believe that the movement behavior that emerges in sport can be (re)conceptualized as a problem-solving activity.

Here, the emerging movement solutions are integrated ones (the integrated movement solution as a behavioral unit), which are composed of and underpinned by the intertwined (also to be thought of as interwoven and interdependent) processes of perception, cognition, and action.

This movement problem-solving process becomes coupled to the problems of the world through relevant information sources in the environment, which specifies the individualized affordances (opportunities to act) for the athlete.

Essentially, as an athlete solves problems being presented to them in their world, they will continually aspire to become one with’ that unique, peculiar problem.

Simply, an athlete cannot coordinate a movement solution without first being presented with a problem.

Furthermore, there will be a constantly unfolding, mutual and reciprocal, relationship between them and their co-adaptive states of organization (signifying the contextual problem-solution dynamics).

Meaning, we never step in the same river twice, for we are not the same man and the river isn’t the same either (Heraclitus).

More specifically, no two movement problems in sport are ever the same, so no two movement solutions will be the same either.

After all, time and context changes all things.

So, to adequately study a movement solution one needs to simultaneously study the movement problem which it was organized (i.e., coordinated and controlled) in relation to.

Ultimately, the process of becoming one with, can only unfold through an athlete becoming more attuned, intentional, and adaptable, as they attempt to coordinate a functional, behavioral fit (through an integrated movement problem-solving process) to contextual, performance problems which contain different opportunities and challenges every single time the athlete faces them.

To become one with is to relate to the problem and its disposition in a highly adaptable and authentic fashion.

It is here that we see how and why the movement problem-solving process can be conceptualized as a constantly unfolding process, where the human movement system’s holistic degrees of freedom are continuously (re)organized, and tight circular causality is displayed throughout the interactions and relations between the system’s component processes (of perception-cognition-action).

It is also here where we see how and why movement behavior goes far beyond action(s) or the motor system degrees of freedom.

Instead, the processes of action perpetually feed into cognition and perception (and vice versa) to become one and to truly form what it is.

There are degrees of freedom within each of those elements (i.e. action, perception, cognition), but there are also degrees of freedom between these as this integrated movement problem-solving process becomes organized to fit in with (and to relate to!) the movement problem.

 

Meaning, these component parts and processes (of perception, cognition, and action) should not be separated from one another – in either studying movement skill, or in training it.

 

During my session at the 2023 Sport Movement Skill Conference, I used a rainbow aura quartz to analogously illustrate how the processes of perception-cognition-action may come together to form this one process I am speaking of here…and the emerging of a holistic, integrated movement solution.

The rainbow aura quartz is a man-made crystal bonded by various metals leading to the blending of numerous vibrant colors forming its own unique, inseparable color.

When looking at the crystal’s surface, one doesn’t know where one color ends and the other begins as the shades of purples, blues, pinks, greens, oranges, and yellows flow into one other as someone turns the rock in their hand and light bounces off of it – essentially, we can see the degrees of freedom within and between.

So, yes, we may be able to define the role of each of the separate processes of the human movement system as the athlete solves problems in sport:

Perception – how the athlete is connecting to the problem, the information they are picking up and sensitive to through a variety of sensory subsystems

Cognition – their intentional aims to act in a given way, the movement strategies they employ, the thoughts they think, and the decisions they make

Action – the ways they coordinate and control their body parts such as limb segments, joints, and muscles

But, because each of these perpetually feed into one another in a highly nonlinear way (i.e., it doesn’t go in a step-by-step process where an athlete perceives, then decides, and then acts), they interdependently interact and influence each other with tight, circular causality to be one.

The processes are each guided by one another and become an expression of one another.

Taken collectively, these aforementioned ideas begin to pull back the curtains on what I would refer to as the movement problem-solving form of life.

Quite simply, when your way of being, seeing, believing, and acting (comprising one’s form of life) shifts in this way, it leads any practitioner from an entirely new starting point, equipped with a vantage point which zooms in and out, exposing a deepened perspective and attitude respecting the systems at play.

Whether you’re a coach, skill acquisition specialist, researcher, or athlete, adopting the movement problem-solving form of life, where you will begin to see the movement behavior in sport as a problem-solving activity, will lead to significant changes to how you approach your craft. Though the answers and explanations there may not always be as easy to find, I can almost promise you will never be able to go back to your old ways.

For me personally, this has equated to:

When wearing my researcher or performance analysis hat, I’ve realized that in situ and contextual work is what must take center-stage. Here, I aim to unpack the movement problem-solving activities and processes of the mover themselves, but this is done to determine, understand, and explain how skillful movers are able to solve such a wide variety of complex movement problems authentically and adaptively. Thus, I must closely study the disposition of the problem(s) as deeply as I do the mover and their solutions.

When I am behaving as a coach or skill acquisition specialist, when most of my peers or counterparts are reducing and isolating component parts or informing each athlete as to exactly how they should move, I’ve realized that my role is that of a problem-setter (or designer if you prefer) and a facilitator (of the problem-solving process). It is here, by presenting problems for athletes to solve, frequently manipulating constraints to vary the situations and conditions present within those problems, where I aim to assist an athlete in their journey in chasing the expression of dexterity (i.e., the ability to solve any emerging movement problem; Bernstein, 1996), while nudging them to search and explore both the environment (for information specifying opportunities to act) and their movement toolbox.

If you’re an athlete who partners with me, you will realize that I want you to have ownership over your movement system and the way its processes relate to the problems found within your sport. Thus, together, we will aim to chase and celebrate abundance and variability, as well as creativity and authenticity. Please note however, this will be a highly nonlinear journey.

Ultimately, I believe that if, and when, you begin to shift your own paradigm through adopting this movement problem-solving form of life, it will not only influence what you see (moving to a focus on interactions and relationships), but also what you attempt to facilitate (guiding and shaping) authentic problem-solving interactions.

These problem-solving interactions, of course, can be shaped over time as skill itself, if looked at through an ecological lens (i.e., skill adaptation instead of skill acquisition; Davids & Araujo, 2011), becomes something that is living and breathing itself in a more functional relationship with a contextual environment.

This brings us to the need for both alive movement problems and repetition without repetition (Bernstein, 1967) where, through the application of both of these important practical concepts, an athlete will repeat the process of solving the problem by changing and adapting the nuances of the movement problem-solving processes and how they fit together…

Meaning, it is here, that the athlete adjusts the processes of perception-cognition-action to each other, and in relation to the problem itself.

 

As an athlete is learning to learn to move (Adolph, 2008), what they are actually embarking on is a learning and skill adaptation process where they learn to learn to problem solve with, and through, the coordination of their movement.

 

Namely, by navigating through the solving of a diverse range of alive problems, athletes will learn how to coordinate their perception, cognition, and action by continuously (re)organizing the degrees of freedom of the human movement system – adjusting the relations between these integrated processes to fit together in various ways as the integrated movement solution becomes one with the problem.

So, to briefly conclude (and help manifest it further within the universe!):

I am on a path of changing the way that the world views movement behavior in sport.

I aim to (re)conceptualize this movement behavior as a problem-solving activity.

I am bringing a new depth of understanding on how athletes solve movement problems and how their movement problem-solving process unfolds.

Finally, I am carving out the role of a coach or skill acquisition specialist as a practitioner who aims to facilitate more skillful problem-solving for their athletes, no matter the sport or activity which is important to them.

One last comment before we go: I stand here firmly on the shoulders of the likes of Nikolai Bernstein, Bruce Lee, J.J. Gibson, Michael Turvey, Karl Newell, Keith Davids, Duarte Araujo, Rob Gray, and countless others who have shaped and inspired me from both inside kinesiology, as well as far outside of it. If anything within this manifesto intrigues you, I would recommend diving into the works of these individuals.

Also, here is the full paper from 2023.

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fspor.2023.1130131/full

References:

Araújo D, Davids K. What exactly is acquired during skill acquisition? J Conscious Stud. (2011) 18(3-4):7–23.

Bernstein N. The coordination and regulation of movements. London, UK: Pergamon Press (1967).

Bernstein N. On dexterity and its development. In: Latash ML, Turvey MT, editors. Dexterity and its development. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (1996). p. 9–244.

Button C, Seifert L, Chow JY, Araújo D, Davids K. Dynamics of skill acquisition: An ecological dynamics approach. 2nd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics (2020).

Fajen BR, Riley MA, Turvey MT. Information, affordances, and the control of action in sport. Int J Sports Psychol. (2009) 40(1):79–107.

Gray R. How we learn to move: A revolution in the way we coach & practice sports skills. Perception Action Consulting & Education LLC (2021).

Gibson JJ. The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin (1979).

Jacobs D, Michaels C. Direct learning. Ecol Psychol. (2007) 19(4):321–49.

Myszka S, Yearby T, Davids K. Being water: how key ideas from the practice of Bruce Lee align with contemporary theorizing in movement skill acquisition. Sport Educ Soc. (2023):1–17.

Newell K. Change in movement and skill: learning, retention, and transfer. In: Latash ML, Turvey MT, editors. Dexterity and its development. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associate (1996). p. 393–429.

Warren W. The dynamics of perception and action. Psychol Rev. (2006) 113 (2):358–89.

Yearby T, Myszka S, Roberts WM, Woods CT, Davids K. Applying an ecological approach to practice design in American football: some case examples on best practice. Sports Coach Rev. (2022):1–24.

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.