Over the course of my career I have both taken part in and observed a great deal of youth training sessions. As I reflect on that time spent, there is one prevalent theme that bubbles up. We (coaches/teachers/parents) don’t trust youth athletes enough with their ability to successfully and autonomously solve a lot of the novel movement problems (in sport and life) that they are exposed to early on in the learning process. I think we let the young age of these kids trick us into thinking that they don’t have the capacity to solve their own problems. It seems as though the default approach to coaching youth is to hold their hand while they navigate uncharted territory, give them a lot of explicit instruction on how they should behave, and provide them with solutions to emerging problems they face along the way. We want them to feel safe and comfortable and find success as they try new activities, I get that, but by taking this approach I feel we are getting in the way more than we are helping.
If we as coaches/teachers/parents want our athletes to thrive early on in the learning process, being too explicit and telling them exactly how they need to act may not be the best practice. We need to guide young athletes, yes, but we need to do so in a way that allows them the opportunity to express their creativity and perspective in each and every environment they are embedded in.
This is where I believe the concepts of wayfinding and activity co-design can provide us with the tools we need to do just that.
According to Woods et al. (2020), being overly prescriptive early on in the learning journey can disrupt the development of the performer-environment relationship. If we as coaches/teachers/parents choose to solve problems for our athletes, we continue to remove valuable opportunities for young learners to engage and interact with learning environments. In this paper, Carl Woods and colleagues promote the idea of ‘wayfinding’ and how it can be used to further enrich the process of learning. They define this concept as, “the process of embarking on a purposeful, intentional, and self-regulated journey that takes an individual from an intended region in one landscape to another. In this, individuals learn of their performance landscapes by experiencing them through interactions while detecting and exploiting an environment’s many features as they find their way” (Woods, et al., 2020, p.2).
It’s important to note that this process is supported by information-movement coupling, which requires a young learner’s interaction with specifying information in an environment. With this, coaches/ teachers/parents are promoting self-organization as they allow their athletes to creatively engage with environments by solving problems, seeking for and detecting information available to them, and organizing/reorganizing their goal-directed behaviors based on their intentions and the constraints at hand. This is where coaches/teachers/parents can be seen not as dictators or controllers of movement, but as wayshowers (Woods et al., 2020). If we want to truly enrich this learning process, we can’t act as our athlete’s personal GPS, dictating every move they make. Instead, it should be our job to guide and educate their attention by showing them where to look, but NOT what to see.
So what could this look like in practice?
From a more general standpoint, when the session intention was made to be more exploratory in nature and wasn’t geared towards any one particular sport, I liked to use a lot of obstacle courses as ways to present athletes with a landscape of affordances they could explore based on their action capabilities. As I would explain to the group of athletes what they were about to encounter, my instruction never included how I wanted them to act as they encountered each obstacle. I set some general “boundaries”, so to speak, but they were in full control of their own problem solving process.
If a portion of the course had them interacting with some sort of barrier, some felt more comfortable going over while some felt more comfortable going under. If a portion of the course had them throwing a ball at an object, some were more comfortable using their feel to move the ball, while some used different arm actions to move the ball. If there was a portion that required them to balance or move across an object, some used only their hands or feet to move across the object, while some used all four limbs. Hopefully you are starting to get my point.
Then, after a few repetitions I would look to challenge them in new ways or nudge behaviors by manipulating some constraints and using some analogies. For example, I would say something like, “this time as you move through the course, you have to move through this portion like a bear.” Or, “this time as you are bringing an object from one point to another, it can’t touch the ground.”
In doing this, I still wasn’t telling them how I wanted them to move, I was just nudging them to see the particular problem from a different perspective hoping it would present new and different affordances. Woods et al. (2020) states that, “these more general movement experiences provide opportunities for children to learn to move by engaging in continuous synergy (re)formation in order to utilize a rich range of affordances available in the diverse fields of the landscape.” I believe those experiences are paramount in “widening” an athlete’s movement bandwidth as much as possible while promoting abundance and creativity in the process.
Another concept deeply intertwined with wayfinding is activity co-design. As we have just spent time discussing, this is the athlete’s journey, not ours. If we are going to encourage them to find their own way through these learning landscapes as we help guide them through the process, then we certainly should be asking them what they are perceiving (i.e., seeing, feeling, hearing, etc.) along the way.
Anytime I get a chance to work with a group of youth athletes, I like to give them the first 10 minutes of the session and allow them to use it as “guided- free play”. I say “guided” because I will give them the space and the equipment they have to work with and will then encourage them to create activities using what I have provided. Quite honestly, the amount of creativity I have witnessed in some of these 10 minute periods has been extremely impressive. What’s more, the level of engagement and excitement around these activities is usually very high because THEY have ownership over it. There has been more than one occasion where after the 10 minutes was up the quality of the activity they had created was so good that I wanted to allow them to keep interacting with it. So, I would quickly step in to adjust a constraint or two…hoping to nudge them towards different behaviors, then step back and continue to watch them play for a bit.
Sometimes the entire session ended up stemming from games the athletes created. More importantly, I would also ask them frequently if there were any changes THEY thought we should make as well. Simple things like did they want to add or subtract equipment, add or subtract a rule, make the playing space bigger or smaller, etc. Additionally, if I start to notice trends in behavior across the group (positive or negative), I begin to ask individuals about what it is that they are perceiving that is leading them to behave in that peculiar way. Understanding this allows me to guide their intentions and attention in a more direct way and also informs how we go about manipulating constraints when we decide it’s time to do so.
Facilitators and athletes now both have a hand in the activity design process.
So, why is it important to involve athletes like this?
Woods et al. (2020) state that co-designed activities ensure that self-organization and the search for functional movement solutions remain at the forefront of each activity. There is no prescription of optimal or correct solutions given to the athlete by a coach/teacher/parent. Additionally, they also found that involving athletes in this design process has: unlocked experiential knowledge, increased the ownership of their learning environment, and deepened their ‘knowledge of’ the competitive environment. Woods et al. (2020). (Learn more about the importance of co-design in my colleague Tyler’s 2021 SMSC presentation)
As I have been able to put these concepts into practice over the last couple years, I have found the learning to be much deeper. When you invite them to stand alongside you instead of choosing to hover over them pulling on your puppet strings, you build a mutual respect that I don’t think can be built any other way. The terms “culture” and “buy-in” get tossed around far too much, but the more I started involving athletes in the process like I have discussed today, the more engagement, excitement, and “buy-in” I got.
As I bring this to a close, there are two important things that I want you to keep in mind as you work your way through this process with your athletes.
First, you need to embrace the idea of non-linearity and understand that learning is messy. As you change learning landscapes and manipulate constraints, skill regression may occur. This doesn’t mean an athlete has “lost” the ability to perform that skill. It just means they are self-organizing and searching for functional solutions to the changing environment that you have co-created. Remember, skills aren’t entities that we possess, they are constantly shaped by and adapted to our ever changing environments.
Second, it’s imperative to understand that it is acceptable for different athletes to display different movement solutions to the same task. Each individual will inevitably have their own unique path to the same destination as their peers. That’s not only ok, that should be encouraged. You are there to make sure they don’t drive off the cliff, but you need to allow them to steer the wheel. As long as movement solutions are functional (as we discussed in last week’s blog) and those solutions fulfill the task goal, then those particular movement solutions need to be seen as acceptable when promoting wayfinding during the learning process.
Interested in learning more about how wayfinding and activity co-design play a role in youth development? Then we strongly suggest you check out our course Origins, aimed at guiding parents, teachers and coaches through the process of youth development. Michael and I spend time going over the theory that underpins our methods and then dedicate a great deal of time showing you how these methods can be applied in a variety of situations. In total, there are 6 chapters of content, 4 interviews with youth coaches from around the world, a video library of example activities, and a 30 minute call with either Michael or myself. We strongly encourage you to check it out!
Woods, C. T., Rudd, J., Robertson, S., & Davids, K. (2020). Wayfinding: How ecological perspectives of navigating dynamic environments can enrich our understanding of the learner and the learning process in sport. Sports Medicine – Open, 6(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-020-00280-9
Rich is the Innovations Manager at Emergence. He has held various positions over the course of his career gaining experience working with youth all the way up to professionals.