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. Continue reading “Learning in the ugly zone: the importance of play and exploration.”

Developing Skill Part 2. The climbing version!

Information, autonomy and playing in the ‘ugly zone’. 

 

This article was written jointly by Marianne and Sam Davies.

Becoming Skillful

Like many parents, I owe so much of my learning to my son; Sam. The sheer intensity of my passion and love for him, and the resulting attention I paid to him and his experiences have taught me a lot. Watching him learning and exploring adventure sports was both terrifying and exhilarating. I tried to stop myself telling him to ‘be careful’ and I revelled in our shared experiences and his sheer joy and ability, despite him becoming more proficient than me at everything except horse riding, by the time he was just 18 years old. Continue reading “Developing Skill Part 2. The climbing version!”

Motivation Part 3. Why motivation changes how we learn.

Optimal learning environments

In parts one and two, we looked at how to create learning environments that lead to more self-motivated, happy, healthy, individuals!  These articles are written primarily to help coaches, coach educators and leaders in adventure and other sports. However, all of the concepts can be applied to you as a learner, participant or parent seeking to improve your skill and motivation, and to feed your passion!

Sian 2Needs-supportive coaching behaviours have an impact on motivation. Sian of ‘Psyched Paddleboarding’ coaching on the beautiful Llyn Padarn. Photo by ‘Two For Joy Photography’.

In these next two sections, we will explore whether motivationally supportive learning environments can also improve skill acquisition, or do we need to choose between them? Be happy and motivated, or be skilful? Most of you will be familiar with the term learner-centred coaching, but what does it mean, and why is it important? In this article, we will look at some of the most recent learner-focused research into coaching sports skills. Most of this research comes from attempts to understand what happens when the coach stops making all the decisions and starts to give the learner more autonomy as part of developing a motivationally supportive learning environment. When both motivation and skill are supported, we can have an optimal learning environment. Continue reading “Motivation Part 3. Why motivation changes how we learn.”

Motivation Part 2. Supportive coaching behaviours.

Creating an optimal learning environment

Okay, so we know that the satisfaction of basic needs has a positive impact on motivation and will influence whether someone continues to participate. That means we need to make sure that we are able to create an optimal learning environment; what is known as a ‘needs supportive learning environment’6. Autonomy is arguably the most important need and is essential for goal-directed behaviour to become self-determined2. It is unique among the basic psychological needs because a participant (particularly an athlete) could satisfy their need for competence with externally controlled (by a coach) deliberate practice, and they could satisfy the need for relatedness by being part of a team, but autonomy is not as easily satisfied in a traditional coaching environment. This is because the coach makes most of the decisions, and the rules and regulations of a sport can further limit the options that can be given to individual participants. Continue reading “Motivation Part 2. Supportive coaching behaviours.”

Motivation Part 1. How can we create optimal learning environments?

Canoe B&W

Photo by Lizzie Canoe

 

Motivating others

I think it is safe to assume that those of us who coach, lead or instruct other people would like them to leave each session they have with us feeling happy. Buzzing even. Keen to come back and do more with us. Motivated to go and practice what they have learnt, and enjoy it in their free time. I also think that we would all like to be able to influence our own motivation too. We would like to recognise elements that are supporting or thwarting our motivation and be able to change them or at least understand and accept them.

The statistics available on regular participation in sports make rather sobering reading, and numbers are consistently lower for women and girls, and minority groups. According to a Sport Wales statement from 2017, “Currently 576,000 women in Wales report not participating in any form of activity, while just over half (54%) of women say they’ve done at least one sporting activity in the last four weeks compared to 63% of men. Research shows a lack of confidence, fear of judgement, a perceived inability or no one to go along to something new with are common factors that prevent women and girls from getting more active”10. Can we, as practitioners, have any influence on the motivation and continued participation of those do come along to our sessions? Are we able to help increase the number of people who will get hooked on our sports and continue to participate long term, including ourselves?

My interest in motivation was particularly influenced by the way my son responded to the learning environments he experienced when he was young. At the age of eight, he asked if he could go to the local canoeing club with his best friend from school. I thought it was a great idea. He had played for years in boats with me and really enjoyed it, surely it would be so much more fun with his friends! I went to pick him up after the club session expecting a happy excited little boy. But he had hated it. When I asked him why, he told me that canoeing was boring; they were not allowed to play like he did with me, they didn’t let him do the things that he was good at, or be with his friend. Not only did he not go back to the club, but he also lost interest in coming to boat with me too. Continue reading “Motivation Part 1. How can we create optimal learning environments?”