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.
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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.

Learning in the ugly zone: the importance of play and exploration.

The Ugly Zone

Finding the zone of optimal learning

While watching and listening to skilled performers I have noticed that they all seem to be happy, even passionate, about operating at a level where they are at the edge of their ability. They make mistakes, explore options, try new things and then push a little harder to see what happens. I’ve watched gymnasts, climbers, skaters, and paddlers spend hours, days and even months fervidly working certain moves and problems.


Skilled performers seem to delight in engaging at the edges of their ability; trying, failing, trying again, failing again. Like children playing, they are exploring while they are practising: intently focussed, moving and perceiving, making decisions and problem-solving. All the time they are building on what is necessary for skill development in the context in which they are operating. Their internal dialogue is more “I wonder what will happen if…?” rather than “I must try and do it like this.”


In this article, I develop concepts for understanding what is going on when performers develop their skills through play and exploration. When what they have done in the past starts to break down and they find new solutions beginning to emerge. I look at how grasping the value of performance instability and making mistakes allows us to get beyond traditional ideas of linear progression. This then leads to a way of talking about what happens to skill when we increase the challenge – and to a tool to help us plan and structure our practice.


Embracing the ugly!

We know skill development takes place in doing (in the perception-action workspace) and is not a reflection of what performance may look like at the end of a practice session. Sessions that involve lots of effort and look ugly usually lead to good retention of the learning and transfer to other contexts. Sessions, where performance looks great and effortless at the end, will often result in poor retention and transfer. This is well known and well researched in theories of learning (i.e. the contextual interference-effect). However, this concept is still a challenge to both performers and coaches who have been conditioned to value sessions where the coach gives all the answers and the performance looks much improved at the end.


I have spent a lot of time thinking about what a non-linear learning curve might look like. Humans are complex systems and there are so many variables and so many interactions that it can be hard to identify and make sense of the patterns in the complexity. By incorporating all of the nuanced complexity into one dimension of ‘overall challenge‘ we end up with a pattern (a learning curve) that can help us to design learning environments.


Overall challenge contains all of the constraints that are present and influential to a particular performance situation (individual, task and environmental). Some of these constraints we can influence and change, and some we can’t. Challenge is not just about task complexity and skill level. The overall challenge includes things such as physiological and psychological arousal, perceived support, confidence, resilience, fatigue, speed, power output, consequence, environment and risk.


Dynamics Learning (ugly) Curve (Davies and Davies, 2019)

The dynamics challenge-performance learning curve, adapted from Davies and Davies (2019) is an ecological dynamics model of optimal challenge for learning. It is based on the self-organising properties of movement dynamics (e.g. Kelso, 1984) the ‘cusp catastrophe model’ (Thom, 1923; Hardy & Fazey, 1987) the ‘challenge point framework’ (Guadagnoli & Lee, 2004) and Dave Alred’s (2015) concept of the ‘ugly zone’..


In our model, ‘overall challenge’ is represented by the x-axis. The y-axis represents ‘performance outcome’ and the curve represents the performance solution (for example; a movement or decision-making pattern).


Entering the ugly zone

Now we have a model and curve that reflects our understanding of what we see and which fits with how skill development is understood by everyone from skilled athletes to researchers working within the ecological dynamics theoretical framework. Most importantly, it starts with the idea that when we increase the challenge by changing things we can control, performance starts to become unstable (ugly). This is where learning and performance development gains are made.


To destabilise movement coordination patterns we can adjust things like the required level of balance and agility (for example faster water or a less stable craft for a kayaker or surfer; or a smaller, higher beam for a gymnast to balance on). Other ways we can introduce instability include the increase of speed, power output, movement complexity, consequence or fatigue (for pretty much any sports).  A more unusual example would be setting speed or power levels that sit at a movement transition point (for example trotting a horse slowly enough that a walk or piaffe gait [jigging on the spot, to the uninitiated] compete as possible movement patterns for the horse).


If improved decision making and adaptability is the goal of your session, you could set practice tasks where there is more than one possible option for the performer. This would include such things like setting distances that lend themselves to a variety of throwing or kicking solutions, or changing rules, consequences, space and boundaries.


What is important is that changes in patterns of movement, decision-making, perceiving and thinking come from practising at a level where current patterns become destabilised (the ‘metastable state’) developing perception-action coupling in context. Here, all of the necessary elements for performance will eventually be developed (including things like strength, postural tone, perceptual acuity, etc.), allowing new patterns to self-organise and emerge.


What happens when we put the emergence, stabilisation, destabilisation and switching of patterns into a challenge-performance curve? It looks ugly! We get the Dynamics Learning Curve (Davies & Davies, 2019). In this learning curve, Davies and Davies have named the metastable state ‘the ugly zone’. This term was coined by Dr Dave Alred to describe the area just beyond your current ability, where you will try and fail, but try again with support, encouragement, reward, self-esteem and energy. As Dave Alred, beautifully describes in his book, The Pressure Principle,

Children throw themselves into their ugly zone while they are practically drowning in excitement (to play) and have no fear of failure“.


Building ugly zones

Sometimes we need to build an ugly zone to start with, especially if we are novices or have lost confidence or learnt to fear failure. This can be thought of as a resilience zone. Motivation, supportive relationships and learning environments are recognised as very influential and important. The same applies when we are learning to become a skilful coach. In order to understand how the individual, task and environmental constraints can be adjusted to create an optimal learning experience for different individuals, we coaches need to be able to explore and play in our own ugly zones of coaching practice.


A skilled coach will be able to adjust relevant constraints and move people around in their ugly zone. The old adage of ‘change one thing at a time’ does not hold in a non-linear system. Sometimes many elements will need to be adjusted to allow the successful scaling of one control parameter in a way that gives reliable outcomes for the learner at an appropriate level of challenge. For example, you may need to reduce things like consequence, speed and anxiety in order to increase task complexity. Like a big complicated, non-linear graphic equaliser.


Sam Davies embracing his ugly zone and skilfully reading the rock on KGB at Willyabrup in Western Australia. Photo by Siu On.


Making ugly zones work – search space and high validity learning 

Obviously, there is more to designing great practise than just randomly increasing and decreasing the challenge level. By identifying what is actually limiting our performance, practice sessions can be designed to be more effective. This may entail developing more adaptive movement patterns and decision making, or it could include anything from muscular strength, postural and tonus control, balance, coordination, perceptual acuity or confidence and motivation.


We will look at the concept of ‘search spaces’ and high validity learning environments in the next article: “Snow, Rabbits and Pooh Sticks.” As a coach, defining a search space for someone is a way of setting a challenge instead of giving them the answer you think they may need. Ideally, the challenge is at a level where it is like a good detective story, compelling them to dive into their ugly zone to solve the problem. This fits with Olly Logan’s concept of ‘providing handrails not handcuffs‘. A search space is created and adapted by setting appropriate practice tasks and providing information (for example, giving instructions, demonstrations, and feedback).


The following useful concepts will be explored in more detail:

Snow – when the search space includes incidental information that is easy to perceive and could be mistaken as relevant information (that contains affordances) for perception-action coupling (like mistaking a correlation for causation). This is more likely to happen when practice environments do not offer comparable perceptual cues to performance environments or when there is low practice variability.
Rabbits – when the ugly zone is filled up with things like unnecessary anxiety, stress, fatigue, social pressure and non-supportive environments. These can use up all the ‘play and exploration’ space leaving none for learning.
Pooh Sticking – when we manage to do something, but we don’t know what actually worked. Or we were not in control. This often happens when trying something too far outside of current ability and not being able to pick out the relevant affordances from the rest of the perceptual information. This is also likely to happen where there is a lack of effort, concentration or commitment.
Handrails – information that helps to highlight an aspect of the search space and provide an anchor for the skill we are trying to develop.
Handcuffs – information (usually technical templates) that constrains our learning, disrupts movement exploration and will get in the way of us developing long term adaptive expertise.


Understanding the ugly curve

So, in summary, if we want to change a movement pattern, a way of problem-solving, making decisions or perceiving we need to embrace ugly zones and become comfortable with instability and making mistakes. However, we also need to recognise when confidence and increased performance stability are needed. The ugly curve gives us a way of talking about what happens to skill when we increase the challenge. It highlights the range of the optimal levels of challenge to help us plan and structure our practice.

The ugly zone is the transition to new possibilities.  Learning happens when we play and explore in it with focus, effort and passion.


The Ugly Zone


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Please email for the list of references and recommended reading:

Marianne Davies, Sam Davies and Greg Spencer

About the Authors 

Marianne Davies; Marianne has been involved in coaching for over 25 years. She has worked mostly with adventure sports, as a coach, coach educator, QA/IV officer, and national trainer. Marianne was the Coaching Manager for Canoe Wales (Paddlesports NGB) for nearly eight years. She has an undergraduate degree in Sport Health & Physical Education, an MRes (distinction) in motivation and learning and is currently doing a PhD with Keith Davids developing models of skill acquisition in equestrian sports coaching. Marianne also runs Dynamics Coaching with her son, Sam.

Sam Davies; After Sam completed an undergraduate degree in geology and geophysics, he studied a Masters’ degree (MSc) in applied sports psychology, under the supervision of Professor Lew Hardy. He is now completing a PhD in human behaviour, creativity and the development of expertise in mineral exploration decision-making.

Greg Spencer has been involved in adventure sport and sports coaching since the 1980s and is Chair of British Canoeing’s Regional Development Team in Yorkshire and Humberside. He has a postgraduate research focus on human development in education and sports coaching and a background spanning from history and anthropology to critical theory and hermeneutics.

Copyright remains with the authors.