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Nonlinear pedagogy in skill acquisition

Most sports take place in a complex and dynamic environment. A dynamic environment is like a storm system. A lot of different things are going on at one time to create the storm. We can’t pinpoint which things led to exactly which outcomes.

A simple environment is like a watch or a clock. There are many moving parts, but they are all traceable and reproducible. You can take a watch apart and put it back together to work in the exact same way it worked before. You cannot dissect a storm system.

In a simple/noncomplex system, there is a direct cause to each result. You can trace the step-by-step actions that created certain reactions. In a complex, dynamic system you cannot look back and trace all the steps that led to certain outcomes.

Teaching athletes within these complex and dynamic environments requires us to take a nonlinear approach. This means we cannot simply give our athletes step-by-step instructions that will work effectively within game situations.

Athletes themselves are also complex and dynamic systems. With many different moving parts within any athletic movement, the movement is not easily taken apart and reproduced down to every last detail.

The athlete, the game, and the team playing the game are all considered complex and dynamic systems.

The term “nonlinear pedagogy” refers to the teaching methods used to develop athletes within these complex and dynamic systems.

How do you teach a hitter (himself a complex and dynamic system) how to hit a pitch (thrown within a complex and dynamic system) coming from a pitcher (who himself is also a complex and dynamic system)? The answer to questions like that is the topic of the book Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition.

There are many right ways to hit and there are many efficient ways to move for different bodies with different constraints. That is a huge indicator of a complex and dynamic system. A sound nonlinear pedagogy (method for teaching) will allow you to teach athletes effectively by cutting through all their moving parts and all the moving parts they work within.

To understand nonlinear teaching methods, we have to understand a couple of things. First, we have to understand what a skill is. Second, we have to understand what dynamical systems theory is.

A skill is essentially a coupling of information and movement that accomplishes your goal. If your athlete can read the situation by taking in the information the environment provides and move correctly to accomplish the goal of the play/moment in the game, then he has acquired a skill. For more on this, refer to my blog on the book Dynamics of Skill Acquisition: A Constraints-Led Approach.

The second fundamental topic we have to understand is what motor control/learning literature calls the dynamical systems theory.

The dynamical systems theory says that the athlete, the task in front of them, and the environment interact to create and inform the movement of the athlete. This theory is also informed by the ecological approach to learning and ecological psychology.

The basic premise of these theories is that movement emerges from the athletes interactions with their environment. So the goal is to create the right environment to get the right movements and skills out of the athletes.

I am a huge proponent of the ecological approach to teaching athletes. It essentially says that we as coaches cannot develop players at all. Our job is to create an environment that facilitates and spurs on development.

Think of it in terms of principles and rules. A principle is a general values guideline that allows for a wide range of acceptable actions to accomplish desired goals. A rule is a more rigid guideline that does not allow for any variability of action.

An example of a principle is “Be an honest human being.” A rule would be “never lie.” The principle allows for what Huck Finn called a good lie—when a lie helps another person. When Huck Finn tells slave hunters that he has not seen slaves that he has seen, he is saving their lives but he is lying. The rule to “never lie” would lead to bad outcomes. The underlying principle to “be an honest human being” leaves room to get good outcomes while maintaining your integrity.

This is like the difference between trying to prescribe a certain movement or mechanic to a player (giving them a rule) and creating a climate that allows the athlete to solve movement problems (giving them a principle to act by).

We must provide principles that our athletes can fall back upon. If we give them linear rules, we are limiting their athleticism and innate decision-making. These principles program their in-game decisions.

An important aspect of nonlinear pedagogy is representative practice design. Representative practice design is just another way of saying game-like practice.

We have to create practices that give athletes the same decisions they are going to be faced with in game situations. These decisions are called affordances in motor learning lingo.

When complex and dynamic systems (athletes) are playing within complex and dynamic systems (a game), they are going to face thousands of movement problems they have to solve. The best way to help athletes practice solving these problems is by putting them in environments that place these problems in front of them the most often.


This is why scrimmages are so important. You are putting the players in situations where they have to solve the problems they are going to have to solve in a game. They are going to have to know where to be in certain situations. They are going to have to know how to make the right relay throw in a given situation (score, inning, outs, etc.). They are going to have to know which base to throw to given the situation. They are going to have to know which approaches to take in certain situations at the plate.

They cannot learn how to solve those complex motor problems by taking a lot of batting practice, a lot of ground balls, or making a lot of relay throws. They have to be placed in a practice that is representative of the game situations they will face.

One of my favorite examples to use is how an athlete deals with the boredom of a typical baseball game. Where does a player learn to deal with this boredom well if not at practice?

A player can learn how to field ground balls well by taking hundreds of ground balls every day. But that will never prepare that player to be able to field a ground ball in a big situation at the end of a game when they haven’t gotten a ground ball in three hours.

The only way to accomplish this is by scrimmaging enough that this situation occurs for the athlete multiple times. As a teacher, you can then emphasize the importance of taking reps between innings when the first baseman is throwing them to the infielders. Rather than going through the motions, the infielder should take those reps seriously so that the big moment doesn’t eat him alive later.

Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition also covers the constraints-led approach quite a bit. Only the right constraints will help the right movements emerge from the athlete.

Using our example above, how do we create a pressure situation so that athletes can solve motor problems in intense situations? How do you manipulate the environment to create development?

You can raise the stakes by putting something significant on the line. Research has shown that the best way to duplicate game-like pressure is by tying the individual’s results to the fate of his teammates. So you can make the losing team have to do some work on the field, you can lighten the conditioning of the winning team, you can reward the winning team with any number of things, etc.

As long as the stakes are tied to a player’s teammates he will be feeling the right kind of pressure (according to research). In other words, you will have put the right problem in front of the player—the problem he will have to solve in games.

In these situations, you can manipulate lineups and pitching rotations to create situations that force the players to solve the problems they will see in games. You can facilitate left-on-left matchups, you can see how a left-handed starter faces your best right-handed hitters or vice versa, you can see how certain middle infield combinations interact with each other, you can see how certain catchers work with certain pitchers, you name it.

Stand-ins for hitters against pitchers throwing bullpens are also hugely important. Machine-work for hitters is also very important. Force them to face high velocity and high-spin breaking balls.

The problem: the pitches are nasty.. Hitters: solve the problem.

This brings us to an interesting point for coaches: Frustration.

The most important aspect of a developmental culture is psychological safety. Players must be free to fail if they are going to be able to thrive. In our example of machine-work, the degree of difficulty will cause frustration for most players. In fact, if it doesn’t that player might not be competitive enough for the environment to matter. That said, the word “frustration” has come to mean “angry.” But have you ever heard the phrase “his plans were frustrated” or “his strategies were frustrated.”

The original meaning of the word “frustration” is the stopping of progress. So the only way that a player is going to stop his progress (or development) is if he gets frustrated too easily.

Creating a climate where the players is not afraid to fail long enough for him to be able to solve the problem we place in front of them is the most important role of any coach. If the player feels like he has to solve the problem quickly or there are going to be external punishments, then he will get frustrated much more easily and quickly.

Let your players know they are supposed to fail early and often. Tell them they are supposed to fail until they don’t. Give them the freedom to solve the problems you put in front of them. After all, if you are not putting problems in front of them that cause frustration, then you are probably not placing the right problems in front of them.

You simply cannot win with fear anymore. A culture where your athletes are afraid ate make mistakes is the quickest way to stunt development. If you want to call this soft, that’s fine. That’s your loss. Literally. You will lose games by cloaking your inability to control your moods with the incorrect definition of toughness.

The key to remember when trying to apply a nonlinear pedagogy is to prescribe the problem not the solution. This is the gist of the constraints-led approach: give them the right problem so that the solution will lead to the right movement patterns.

If you try to provide them with the right movement solutions, it will be less effective than the athlete’s natural self-organizing mechanisms. It will be more effective because it provides the athlete with more options to successfully accomplish the goal.

Rather than prescribing only one movement pattern to accomplish the goal, the coach ends up empowering the athlete by giving him many different movement patterns that will be options for him in a game setting.

Implementing the constraints-led approach has also shown to improve performance in clutch situations. This is likely because the athlete now has more ways to be successful. Rather than experiencing the pressure of having only one solution, the athlete now has many different routes to success.

In summary, being able to successfully thrive in complex and dynamic environments depends on your ability to implement nonlinear teaching principles.

The constraints-led approach has been found to improve performance in complex and dynamic environments. The ability of a teacher to stand back and effectively create problems for the learner to solve is a competitive advantage in today’s world.

You really need to take an in-depth look at the environment you are creating for your player’s development. Is there psychological safety there? Or are you jumping them with any mistake? Are you talking too much? Are you prescribing movements or tasks? Are you allowing for your athletes to be creative and adaptive?

Are your practices representative of game-like situations? Are you raising the stakes and competing? Are you scrimmaging as much as you can?

These are the key indicators of the right environment for learning and development. If you see them in your practices and culture, then you will see success within the complex and dynamic environments that your athletes face on the playing field.


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