Fluid dynamics, weather systems and skill acquisition

Do we need to understand learning and coaching theories?

As a coach, how much do you think about theories of becoming skilful when you are making your coaching decisions?


Learning a new language

I remember being introduced to dynamical systems theory and ecological psychology in my undergraduate motor control lectures in the early ’90s and thinking that someone had just switched a light on for the first time. The concepts made so much sense; they were fascinating, exciting, intuitively simple, and reflected everything I saw in the natural world around me.

However, as I started trying to conduct my research in motor learning I found myself entangled in a hugely complex theoretical and mathematical web and having to learn what felt like a whole new language. The emergence of ecological dynamics (ED) as a coherent framework for understanding skill acquisition, and the constraints-led approach to guide practice design, has made the concepts much easier to embrace and use in research, coaching practice and designing learning contexts.


Do we need theories?

Unfortunately, we still can’t just open up a human while they are developing skills and have a good look inside! So, we have to guess. And then rigorously test our guesses to see how accurate and useful they are. The theories we then choose to use will inform our expectations, our judgements and decision making as coaches, and our coaching behaviours.

Traditionally coaching practice has used information processing (sometimes called motor programming) theories to describe and understand how we learn to be skilful. The basic concepts and the language used are more established in our coaching literature and behaviour, and in our education systems. Because of this familiarity, many coaches will be more comfortable with the information processing approach and find it easier to understand.

In this article, we are going to delve a little deeper into the ecological dynamics approach.


Understanding skill development

All of you who coach or participate in sports will be familiar with aspects of an ecological dynamics approach already. You will also intuitively recognise it from everyday life, even if you have not used it to understand movement and learning.

Now, I need to be honest here and let you know that I am firmly in the ED camp. My views stem from over 30 years of practice and research into skill acquisition. I am also very aware of the great contributions that have been made by information processing research. And I will explore the information processing theories in another blog article.


Where do fluid dynamics and weather systems come into all of this?

‘Dynamical systems’ is a mathematical theory of complex systems (like people, not computer programmes or mechanical clocks). It emerged in the 1970s from the work of brilliant scientists like Edward Lorenz researching in the fields of long-term weather forecasting, and from researchers looking at the pesky problem of turbulence in fluid dynamics. Weather and our waters do not behave like computer programmes or mechanical clocks; there are complexity and disorder in the atmosphere, in the turbulent seas and raging rivers. Knowing the relationship between two components in isolation doesn’t necessarily predict how they will behave in the system as a whole.

Tiny differences in initial conditions could dramatically change the behaviour of a whole system over time. This is where the term ‘the butterfly effect’ came from and the concept of ‘chaos’. Complex systems are not sequential or linear. And they don’t require ‘programmes’. But there is order in the disorder, and there are patterns and predictability in the chaos and we can use these to help us understand movement, coaching and learning.


Properties of complex systems

Two of the key properties of a complex system are that they are non-linear and self-organising. To understand these basic concepts, let’s look at how water behaves. When it rains heavily and your favourite river or mountain stream (or garden water feature) starts to rise, it does not just become a proportionally faster and bigger version of what it was in low water. Features appear, fluctuate, mutate, and disappear again.

There is no programme to specify when and how the features change, when a riffle becomes an eddy, or a wave, or a hole; they ‘self-organise’ within the constraints of the environment. Features form and emerge spontaneously due to the properties of the water molecules, the shape of the river bed, obstacles, water volume, atmospheric pressure, and any other contributing factor or constraint. A feature that is stable, even if only briefly, is known as an ‘attractor state’. As the constraints change, for example, water volume; the attractor states will become unstable before settling into new attractor states, or becoming chaotic.

River features are generally quite unstable attractor states. However, when water changes temperature, it also follows non-linear dynamics. At a definable temperature, it will evaporate and become steam, and a mountain stream will freeze and become climbable when cold enough. Most experienced mountaineers understand the constraints that are needed to make the conditions right for ice climbing. Ice is a more stable attractor state than a river eddy, but will still become unstable as it goes through a ‘phase change’ and melts to become water again. Precipitation will fall as snow instead of rain under different temperature constraints.


Rivers change with the water levels, forming and reforming stable features, or attractor states, amongst the chaos. Dan Butler using the river features with finesse and nailing a boof on the Soana River, Val Aosta. Photo by Richard Watson


How can we compare the behaviour of water and rivers to human movement?

A simple example that illustrates non-linear dynamics in movement is how our gait changes when we move at different speeds. When a child walks faster a point is reached when the walking gait becomes less efficient and unstable and the child will spontaneously start to run. A horse with no rider to influence it will not simply walk faster and faster as it increases speed. A point will be reached within each gait when it becomes unstable and inefficient and the horse will ‘break’ into a different gait.

Just like the river, there is a non-linear relationship between speed and movement pattern that is the result of the constraints of the system. Even movement gaits will follow the ‘Ugly Curve’. The constraints of a movement system are the properties of things like the bones, joints, tendons, muscles, intentions and goals, motivation, skill level, and the supporting biological and neural systems. An increase in effort is required to override the spontaneous self-organisation of the gaits.

Another good example you will all be familiar with is the coupling of our limbs. They are ‘coupled’ or ‘constrained’ by neural and biomechanical properties to reduce the degrees-of-freedom available in our movement repertoire. This is evident when you try to uncouple them – like uncoupling your arms to pat your head and rub circles on your tummy at the same time. Or doing jumping jacks, and then changing the sequence of legs and arms to take them ‘out of phase’.

Uncoupling or using your limbs out of phase is more effortful and requires conscious focus and practice. If you speed up your ‘out of phase’ movements enough (unless well learnt) they will start to become unstable and then spontaneously go back ‘in phase’. In phase and out of phase are not different motor programmes but the result of self-organisation of our movement system. Becoming skilful involves releasing our movement degrees-of-freedom.


The problem with humans; perception, intention and motivation!

The concept of direct perception was proposed by James Gibson in the 1970s. He suggested that it didn’t make sense for us to have a ‘programme’ to translate perceptual stimuli like that received by the optic nerves in our eyes. Instead, he proposed that we have evolved over time to directly perceive the meaningful information in our environment.

We have evolved to detect the information that matters to our survival whether that is finding food, avoiding danger, finding shelter, comfort, or a mate. This is why we don’t see the same information in the environment as a bat or a shark. We don’t hear the same range of sounds as a mouse or an elephant. We are, as a species, attuned to the information in the environment that is meaningful to us, that supports us to develop affordances for movement and survival. We have evolved to move.


Well-honed perception-action coupling. Sam Davies skilfuly reading the rock on KGB, Willyabrup, WA. Photo by Siu On

This concept of direct perception and developing affordances means that our perception and action are tightly coupled. This perception-action coupling is strengthened through learning and becoming more attuned to information available to us that is relevant for movement. A complete beginner looking at a section of a river will be looking at the same piece of water as an experienced paddler, but the experienced paddler will be seeing patterns and affordances in the water features that mean something to them in terms of movement choices that they can make. The beginner will probably be seeing a seething mass of random ‘noise’ that is complex, meaningless and even frightening.

The same principle applies to an experienced climber, football player, or any other skilled performer. An experienced performer will see patterns and affordances not even perceived, or that are meaningless to a beginner. These affordances also change with movement. This suggests that skills that will be executed within a specific environment and linked to perceptual information should be learnt and practised in that environment. This is the idea behind using representative learning design (RLD).


Rolling clouds over a snow-capped Craig Megaidth. Moving skillfully and making decisions on a Winter ML Assessment. Photo by Olly Sanders

As humans, our behaviour is obviously not just shaped by our environment and our genetic evolution. We have free will, we think, we choose to do things. We have past experiences and preconceptions, motivation, inspiration, or lack of interest. We are complex adaptive systems.

Psychological and cognitive factors, whilst creating more complexity for coaches to think about, form some of the individual (organismic) constraints in skill acquisition. The key ones that influence the quality and quantity of energy that an individual puts into learning and performance are; intention, focus-of-attention, arousal and motivation. This is why motivation and self-determination are so important in coaching from an ED perspective. Motivation matters, intentionality matters, relationships matter.

More stable individual constraints include things that are easier to measure, like fitness, height, weight, body size and shape, right or left-handedness, injuries, and abilities.


What does all this mean to us as coaches?

Does all of this really matter? Our approach will have a dramatic influence on our coaching philosophies, our coaching practices, judgement and decision making. An information processing approach focuses on the reduction of errors and variability, internal representations, ideal technical templates, isolated practice of movement patterns that can then be transferred into different contexts.

ED focuses on interactions and relationships, emergent movement patterns and decision making, increasing movement variability (repetition of outcome, without repetition of movement pattern), releasing movement degrees-of-freedom, engaging and motivating, it recognises the uniqueness of every individual. It also gives a way of understanding the sometimes unintended consequences of what we do, of socio-cultural influences and other wider considerations.


Marianne on one of her horses ‘River Tiger’ exploring the horse-human complex system.

Copyright remains with the author

1. Brymer, E. & Renshaw, I. (2010). An introduction to the constraints-led approach to learning in outdoor education, Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 14(2), pp 33-41.
2. Davids, Button & Bennett (2008). Dynamics of Skill Acquisition; A Constraints-led Approach, Kinetics.
3. Hardy, L and Fazey, J. (1987). The inverted-u hypothesis: a catastrophe for sport psychology and a statement of a new hypothesis. In Jones, G. and Hardy, L (1990), Stress and performance in sport, Wiley and Sons Ltd.
4. Gibson, J. J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillside, HJ: Erlbaum.
5. Gleick, J. (1988), Chaos: The amazing science of the unpredictable, Minerva.
6. Renshaw, I., Davids, K., and Savelsbergh, G. J. P, (Eds.) (2011) Motor learning in practice; A constrains-led approach. Routledge.
7. Schmidt, R. A., (1988). Motor control and Learning; A behavioural emphasis (2nd Ed). Human Kinetics.
8. Chow, J. Davids, K. Button, C. & Renshaw, I. (2016). Nonlinear pedagogy in skill acquisition: an introduction. Routledge, Oxon.
9. Renshaw, I. Davids, K. Newcome, D. & Roberts, W. (2019). The constraints-led approach: Principles for Sports Coaching and Practice Design. Routledge, Oxon.
10. Davies, M. & Davies, S. (2019). Developing adaptive expertise in exploration decision- making. SGA Conference Paper.

Snow, Rabbits and Pooh Sticks: motivation, arousal and focus of attention in the ugly zone.

Exploring my ugly zone

Memories of my early white-water kayaking experiences consist of an overwhelming sense of not being in control. As a passionate mountaineer, I was learning to paddle because I needed a basic instructor ticket to work in the outdoor pursuits industry in North Wales.

I passed my 3 Star (a personal proficiency award) after just a few hours of practice. In those days, the 3 Star, an introduction to moving water, was trained and assessed on flat water. I learnt to ‘break-in’ to the current by paddling forwards on a lake, putting in a huge sweep stroke to turn my boat, then doing what I called an ‘air brace’ – a support stroke that was about as useful as a chocolate teapot! We practised these sequences and shapes every time I worked with a group on the lake.

My fellow instructors were all male and all experienced paddlers. The pressure to succeed as the only female shaped my perceptions and my determination to keep up with them. I felt that I had to be as good as, if not better than them, to survive in my work domain. I had to not make mistakes. And most of all had to be brave and show that, as a woman, I was capable of working in this industry. For their part, they thought that being generally confident and competent, I’d get along fine if they looked after me and I just kept trying.


Pooh sticking down the Afon Tryweryn in my little micro-bat and full face canoe polo helmet.


A few early trips to the River (Afon) Tryweryn in Bala were memorable for all the wrong reasons. I would be put in at the top of a section, told to follow the person in front of me and if in doubt, to ‘paddle like ***k’. On tricky sections, one of them would shout instructions to me as I paddled past them. The instructions were very technique focused. What to do. When. Never why? I was acutely aware of the fact that getting to the bottom, the right way up, had nothing to do with my ability. I was always too overwhelmed to be able to recognise or use any of the ‘affordances’ that the river features offered.

My boat, a classic old ‘micro-bat’ was basically a cork. Round edges meant that it bobbed along and stayed upright whatever I went through, or over. My little boat might have kept me upright, but it was not giving me good feedback about my paddling ability. This lack of direct feedback and consequence is what we call a ‘low validity’ learning environment. Sure, it kept me safe in water that was too hard for me to paddle. The downside was that it further reduced my chances of becoming skilful.

Unsurprisingly; the more paddling that I did, the less confident I became. The less confident I became, the more worried I got, and the more I would focus on what strokes and techniques I had learnt on the lake in my 3 Star. The problem with this, as I realised many years later, was that everything I had learnt when ‘breaking in’ on the flat lake was irrelevant to moving water. The current would turn my boat before I had even finished my sweep stroke, my air brace provided no support and all. My careful rehearsal was connected to an internal focus and making correct movement shapes – not to the information in my environment.

I don’t know if it was because I was the only female, but I was over supported and operating outside of my ability (what I now know as ‘controlling support’). This was not for any malicious reasons. I think that the boys genuinely thought I would be fine if they ‘looked after me,’ unaware that, like sitting idly in a passenger seat, I was not able to develop perception-action coupling or decision-making skills by just following and hoping.


Finding ‘search spaces’ for learning

Despite all of my previous experience mountaineering and being an active member of the local (Ogwen Valley) mountain rescue team, at that time I had also lost my confidence climbing and for exactly the same reasons as my paddling! All this changed with one day of winter climbing with a friend from the neighbouring Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team (LLMRT).

Nikki was a super skilled mountaineer and climber, and the first competent women I ever went climbing with. She was a team leader with the (LLMRT), an experienced search dog handler with the Search And Rescue Dogs Association (SARDA) and a ranger on Snowdon. The first thing that struck me was how she involved me in all the decision-making. Where would I like to go? What route? Which pitches did I want to lead? It seems crazy now to acknowledge the impact that had on me. The sense of ownership, excitement, and autonomy.

We romped up a frozen Idwal Stream in the Ogwen Valley, a relatively easy ice climb, taking it in turns to lead. Despite this being the hardest climb I had ever led, by the end of the route we were mostly soloing the pitches and then belaying the other up with a simple ice-axe belay. I had such a heightened awareness of the properties of the ice, placing my axes and crampons, belay points, making safety decisions. My focus was quiet and absolute.


Unfortunately not the day out with Nikki as I don’t have any pictures of it. This is me ice-climbing in Scotland with the Mountain Rescue Team training a few years later. Photo: Olly Sanders (who was also running the training).


We moved quickly and confidently together. My heart soared with the sheer exhilaration of feeling so confident about my leading ability. The thrill of being completely focused, absorbed, at ease, feeling totally respected and supported. It was a real turning point for me. I was still buzzing weeks later.

I vowed never to climb again unless I was leading, or at least alternate leading. It was a good decision. My confidence and ability grew exponentially.

(And no, this is not the ‘snow’ bit!)


The ugly zone

Now, I’m hoping that you are thinking the same thing as me about reflecting on these experiences. Mostly, that being in our ugly zone is a little more nuanced than just being out of our comfort zone!

As introduced in the becoming skilful articles, the ugly zone represents the ‘search space’ in which we are able to become more skilful by developing affordances for action, through perception-action-coupling. Although leading ice climbing pitches had a higher level of risk and consequence than paddling the Tryweryn, I was engaging with a totally different level of motivation, autonomy, perceptual and decision making focus.


Let’s have another look at the Ugly Curve and the important elements of Snow, Rabbits and Pooh Sticks.

Rabbits and Pooh Sticks on the Ugly Curve.


Perception-action coupling to ‘non-specifying’ information

While we were co-writing an academic paper about developing adaptive expertise, Sam (my son) sent me a video clip about some early Artificial Intelligence (AI) experiments. This clip helped to outline why machines are not yet able to learn as effectively as humans. It was a TEDx talk by Peter Haas, sharing his experience of developing a Machine Learning algorithm designed to teach itself to differentiate between pictures of dogs and wolves. They presented the algorithm with training data by providing it with loads of pictures to analyse and also informing it as to which pictures were dogs and which were wolves. Then they started testing.

All went well until they came to the picture of a Husky. The algorithm said ‘wolf’. Curious, the programmers then re-wrote the algorithm to determine what information it was using to make the decision. Imagining the algorithm would highlight aspects of the Husky’s features such as ear shape, eyes or muzzle, they were quite shocked when it highlighted the ‘snow’ in the background of the picture. It turned out that most of the training pictures containing wolves had snow in them.


Skye with Snow. My old search and rescue dog could have been mistaken for a wolf.


This error of association is very common for humans (and most other species). It is an associative learning bias. The important bit for us as coaches and performers is ensuring that we are learning movement solutions and decision-making based on ‘specifying’ information and not ‘snow’ that just happens to be in our training environment.*

How do we do this? Two key elements of the learning environment are important here.

1. Variability of the learning environments to reduce the likelihood of developing associations (perception-action coupling) to non-specifying perceptual information, just because it happens to be in one particular environment.

2. Ensuring that the learning environments contain the same specifying information as the performance environment.

In other words, you use ‘Representative Learning Design’ (RLD) and ‘variability’ in your practice.

My early kayaking practice on the lake, ‘pretending’ to be on moving water was a great example of ‘snow’. The environment was not variable and I had been encouraged to have an internal focus of attention on the shape I was making, not an external focus on specifying information in my environment (which did not exist on the lake anyway). My focus on non-specifying information in practise meant that I was biasing my focus of attention to irrelevant information when I was on a river. All of this was confounded by the pressure I put on myself, my lack of intrinsic motivation, and my anxiety about not being competent.

The motivational environment I was experiencing when I was paddling was not supportive of my basic needs (to have autonomy, relatedness and competence) so I was being thwarted in becoming more self-determined or skilful. My one day of ice climbing with Nikki was super-charged with self-determined motivation and learning, mostly due to it being a very needs supportive environment.


‘Worry’ taking up space in the ugly zone

A few years ago, I listened to a story online from a horse trainer called Warwick Schiller.

The basic gist of the story was about a client of Warwick’s who had a very worried horse that she couldn’t seem to get to settle. She described a trail ride (hack) when her horse had spooked at a rabbit, then settled down again. A little later, another rabbit ran past and the horse spooked again, then settled down again. This carried on until rabbit number 13 ran past… the horse flipped, spun round and bolted home!

“How can my horse suddenly think a rabbit is dangerous after 12 rabbits had run past and been perfectly safe?” Warwick explained that we have a finite amount of capacity for worry, he called it the ‘worry cup’. Once this is full, it is full. Whatever tips you (or a horse) over the edge is not relevant, just the fact that there is no more space.

The rabbits are the stresses that are unhelpful. Worrying about not feeling safe, making mistakes, being wrong, not being able to make decisions (especially about how much challenge you are happy with), not being supported, not belonging, not being competent; these are all ‘rabbits’. The rabbits collapse your ugly zone reducing the overall challenge levels that you can cope with or even if you enter it at all.

The Worry-Cup. How much worry can your horse handle? Image used with permission of Warwick Schiller Horsemanship.

I like this analogy, especially in the context that most of the worry is about not feeling competent, confident or in control. The elements of motivation that are so important to behavioural regulation and learning.

One of the most influential elements of learning is ‘intention’. Genuinely self-motivated engagement changes the way our neural systems behave. Stress shuts that down. A stressed brain cannot learn. It can’t concentrate, can’t remember and isn’t generating new connections and new brain cells. My early paddling experiences were definitely full of rabbits, creating high levels of stress and low levels of self-motivation. I put so much pressure on myself to perform in a learning environment that was motivationally thwarting. The rabbits kept stacking up, leaving less space in the ugly zone and adding to the already downward spiral of becoming less competent, confident and motivated, each time I went out paddling.

Motivationally supportive learning environments not only increase behavioural regulation (we become more self-motivated) they also keep the rabbits at bay. Learning environments that are not needs-supportive result in less engagement, less self-determined motivation, and are breeding grounds for rabbits!

I think it is important to mention here that we can also become sensitized to rabbits. If we have enough scary experiences with the same cues (snow [incidental] or specifying information) we can become more sensitised and develop a fear response to any of the cues in that environment (again snow or specifying).

This is quite a common phenomenon with capsize practice in paddlesports, with falling practice in climbing and with lots of equestrian situations (for both horses and humans). Instead of becoming desensitised, any associated information can become a cue for fear responses. Even without the presence of the initial fear cue or situation. Then, once we are overwhelmed and over-aroused, we start getting conditioned responses to the environmental cues.

Unfortunately, a lot of poor coaching and instructing is based on the idea of ‘getting used to’ something. Without understanding the need for autonomy support, control, competence, a sense of safe relatedness, appropriate challenge levels and some skills to manage the nerves, we are never going to ‘get used to it’, and can actually create a real problem that is hard to resolve.


Pooh Sticks
Being overwhelmed – too much information to develop attunement to affordances

On my early kayaking trips I was always following someone on the rivers without a clear goal or focus. Never getting the chance to do the same river section multiple times with purpose and explorative play (repetition without repetition), I became more and more aware of the feeling of ‘winging it.’ I called this Pooh Sticking after the game that Winnie the Pooh and his friends played. They would throw sticks into the water on one side of a bridge and see which stick would reappear on the other side of the bridge first. In my little micro-bat, I basically bobbed to the bottom of the river sections, sometimes even bouncing off rocks and the sides, like one of their sticks in the game. Completely at the mercy of the water and luck.

As with my early paddling experiences, when something is too hard, or there is too much information and we cannot attune to what is important (the specifying information); we are not in the ugly zone, we are Pooh Sticking! This is what I was doing for most of my early paddling and climbing. At best, we can end up as a frustrated novice, with a lack of mastery despite hours of practice. Perhaps even thinking that we are just not talented enough.

Abandoning someone in a full, complex performance environment is likely to result in them Pooh Sticking. The perceptual-motor search space is just too big! Too much information means that it is very hard to identify and attune to the relevant perceptual information. The lack of opportunity for repetition (of outcome) without repetition (of movement pattern) means that the number of opportunities for practice is reduced and the chances of being able to compare and develop adaptive skilfulness are lost.


We have looked at the first two ‘stages of learning’ in the ugly zone. Engagement and Motivation. The ugly curve combines the energetic constraints (what we might describe as mental skills) of motivation, focus of attention and arousal, with the levels of challenge of our practice environment. It helps us to understand and appreciate how important motivation and intention are for developing creative and adaptive expertise.

Snow, Rabbits and Pooh Sticks are more likely to be found in a learning environment that is not motivationally supportive. Or one that is not representative, or at an inappropriate level of challenge. Although, it is important to remember that we don’t need to have maximum challenge or representativeness at all times when we practise.

Finally, I hope that if you are reading this, nodding along in recognition of these experiences, you have already realised that you may not have been in a supportive learning environment. And that we can change our own learning environments when we recognise and understand this.


In the next part:

Defining search spaces
The next three stages of learning will be examined (Coordinate, Explore, Exploit), and how they relate to how we structure practice.

Structuring practice for skill development
What is the session goal? What movement problem are you/they trying to solve?

Representative Learning Design (RLD) – The five questions to ask..
1. Is there an opportunity to explore movement variability and solutions?
2. Are the coordination (movement) patterns representative?
3. Is the perceptual information representative (& specifying)?
4. Are the decisions being made representative?
5. Is it a high-validity learning environment?


NEW: Coming soon. Our exciting new e-learning coach development courses.
If you are interested in our upcoming courses or our exciting new e-learning coach development courses that we will be running from the beginning of March, please sign up for our newsletter and we’ll send you all of the course details in advance.


Thank you as always to all of those who help with proofreading and editing. Particular thanks for this one go to Sam Davies, Emma Hathaway, Emma Kitchen, Greg Spencer and to Dr Rebecca Ranstead for the support in the Rabbits section and accidental sensitising.

A big thank you to Warwick Schiller for the use of his Worry Cup image.

*It is worth noting that sometimes, especially with horses, we may deliberately use an association to shape a response, then we use classical conditioning to pair the response to a ‘cue’. As with everything in life. There are no absolutes, just principles.

If you would like some further reading, listening, references or other information. Please drop us an email or fill out the contact us form.

Why was it “Too hard for George Smith?”

The influence of individual differences. Affordances and developing perception-action coupling


Winters in Llanberis (North Wales) can feel a bit like living in Mordor. Steep mountains hide the weak winter sun and the scars left by the slate quarries add to a landscape of stark desolation. So, like many of the local climbers, my winter evenings were often spent at the Beacon Climbing Centre in the bright, vibrant and social space of their indoor walls.

One evening at the Beacon, I bumped into an old friend and university colleague. While we chatted, he asked what boulder problem I was working on. I happily showed him a very balancy, slightly crouched traverse, with small holds. My friend had a go and was very disheartened when he could not pull onto the first move. He laughed. Then said that it was so frustrating that despite being able to climb multiple grades harder than I could on any rock or ice outside, there was no chance that he would ever be able to do this particular boulder problem. He was a mountain guide and very proficient rock climber, but for him, this was a rare visit to the wall and he was there to lead climb with an old friend. He concluded that he was too tall to squish into the space and not flexible enough to make the moves.

Then he told me a great story. He asked if I remembered Crooky (Martin Crook) from our time at university. Of course, who forgets Crooky? Well, Crooky climbed a lot with his friend Big George (Smith). Although both brilliant climbers, Crooky would often spend ages working routes, then George would have a go and cruise them. Because George was so tall, he could reach extra holds and often miss out crux moves. Then, in 1994, Crooky put up a short route with sketchy gear (now a popular high-ball boulder problem). The route, on Craig Fawr in North Wales, is described as simply ‘a striking finger crack,’ but is in fact, a very thin, striking finger crack. So thin, that when Big George first tried it, he couldn’t fit his fingers in it. As a jest, a mutual friend of theirs called Jim Perrin then persuaded a gleeful Crooky to name the climb ‘Too hard for George Smith!’

My friend said the story highlighted how much climbing was influenced by the movement opportunities made possible (afforded) by different physical attributes, like height, strength and flexibility. Routes, he told me, present different opportunities (affordances) to different people. He couldn’t do my boulder problem because he was not flexible enough, and too tall. However, I was not entirely convinced. It was a good story, but not the whole story. Of course, our physical attributes are very influential, but how often are they as absolute as the case of George’s big fingers? A lifetime of guiding and climbing risky routes with high consequences develops very different awareness to affordances (perception-action coupling) than working boulder problems in a warm, bright and safe indoor wall. And my friend did not boulder, he never had.

In part 2, we described working a boulder problem as practice that necessitates spending a lot of time in the ‘ugly zone’ of developing movement patterns. Trying, failing, exploring, failing again, until the rock becomes intimately known. Adam Ondra, commenting on his training schedule (in July 2018), said: “Training for climbing should most of all consist of climbing itself… In bouldering, it is the freest as it is simply about figuring out the craziest moves, learning new movement patterns, sometimes with a training partner as well.”

In traditional climbing, this is not the case. The affordances are very different, leading to a different style of practice. Serious consequences and high levels of risk mean that the development of perception-action coupling is more about the wider perceptual field and decision making, rather than pulling ‘crazy moves.’ Reading subtle nuances in the weather, rock and ice features, environmental stability, gear placements, and analysing cumulative risk. Each move is only made once, not explored, pushed to fail, or repeated.


Sea cliff part 2 BS climbing
Nathaniel Fuller controlling the fear on the the lead at West Cape Howe, Western Australia. © Dane Ehm Photography


Practice in this environment leads to the development of different perception-action coupling, hence my inability to climb as skilfully on trad routes. Outside, I was not as experienced or skilful as him. When leading I was very happy, comfortable being in control, confident in my attunement to the wider environment and making decisions in complex situations. But seconding was another matter altogether. After some early bad experiences, I could get stuck trying to make simple moves on relatively easy grades, due to an irrational lack of confidence in someone else’s leading. This changed my ability to perceive and utilise the affordances normally available to me. I decided that just as I could become more skilled at trad climbing by practising in higher anxiety contexts, it would have been possible for my friend to climb my boulder problem. He just needed to spend some time loosening up his knees, being out-of-balance, slightly crouched and trying crazy moves. And Big George? Well, apparently, he still hasn’t climbed ‘Too hard for George Smith.’ So I guess some individual constraints just can‘t be overcome…


Opportunities for exploring solutions

 What does this mean to us as instructors and coaches? Adventure sports are outcome orientated (you try to ski, bike, paddle or climb your line successfully), rather than form, like gymnastics or figure skating (although the outcome is still very important).

Adventure sports require a mixture of balance and coordination, with an ability to ‘read’ the environment. This resonates with the way that Sam practised his climbing in part 2, Adam Ondra’s training descriptions, and the experiences of the elite performers in part 1. Both Aled and JD described the opportunities for movement (or affordances) that their respective environments were offering them. Affordances that, to me, were totally alien and did not exist!

Using Newell’s (1986) model, we can describe learning as developing the ability to organize various body parts (i.e. neurons, muscles and joints), in coordination with each other (known as co-coordinative structures, or coordination patterns), and in response to opportunities for movement (affordances), that seem possible from perceptual information picked up from the environment. In other words, this describes the development of perception-action coupling. That elusive ‘feel!’ Instead of assuming an internal focus of attention, we focus on the person-task-environment interaction and allow our movement system to self-organise. Improving this interaction requires developing a keen attunement to affordances, through lots of exploration. There is no single ‘correct’ way to solve perception-action problems. We bring our own set of individual opportunities and constraints to each situation, and these continue to evolve through time (e.g. as new information becomes available, as we move, become increasingly tired, or nervous).


Girls can do powerful moves BS climbing
Karina White showing that girls can climb powerful routes on F*ck the Law (25), Kalbarri, Western Australia. © Dane Ehm Photography


In dynamic environments, no two performance movements or decisions are likely to be identical. This repetition (of outcome) without repetition (of movements), is achieved by practising in a way that encourages problem-solving and movement variability. Extensive practice, by experimenting with lots of movement solutions in realistic environments, increases the development of perception-action coupling. Some of which may be completely implicit and sub-conscious. This is the ability to ‘read’ the environment and respond appropriately. As a result, practising ‘trying to repeat perfect technique’ will not develop perception-action coupling!

For improving perception-action coupling, we need to focus on two key aspects:

  1. Developing the self-organising adaptive coordination patterns needed for our particular sport;
  2. Developing an ability to identify and use relevant perceptual information in the performance environment.


Representative Learning Design

So, this is the important bit. The two parts of skilled performance need to be learnt together – perception and action! As humans, we have evolved to learn (and adapt) movement patterns within an environment; not to learn a movement pattern first, then try to impose it onto the environment after.

In summary, we learn to move skilfully by developing coordination patterns that are linked to perceptual information in the environment. This perception-action coupling requires a focus on all relevant information (e.g. visual, auditory, haptic [touch and pressure], kinaesthetic) that can inform movement options. We each have, and continue to develop our own unique movement options. These are constrained by a mixture of our physical attributes, what we perceive, what we think we can do, and what we want to achieve. When we focus on achieving a goal, and the relevant perceptual information, our movement patterns ‘self-organise’ within the real-time constraints presented at that moment.

To learn adaptive skills, like those required in adventure sports, we need to explore lots of movement solutions, in an environment that is real (i.e. authentic with regards to the perceptual information available). This includes ‘affective’ or emotional states and stresses that are likely to be experienced during a performance. To develop full-body coordination, we need to practice in a way that preserves full-body movement. This is referred to as a ‘Representative Learning Design’ or RLD. In part 4, we’re going to pull the first 3 parts of this series together, exploring how we become attuned to information that is relevant to us, and how to structure practice in a way that defines appropriately sized (and representative) ‘search spaces’ for exploring movement solutions and decision making.


This article was written by Marianne and Sam Davies.

Acknowledgements: There are so many people we spend time talking to and discussing ideas, both within academia and practitioners in the field. The conversations, the research, edits, re-edits and proofreads are all such an important part of the process. We would especially like to say thank you to Martin Crook for taking the time to talk through and corroborate my friend’s story, and to Greg Spencer for his proofreading and suggestions.