Tyler Yearby, M.Ed., is Co-Founder and Co-Director of Education at Emergence, and the Director of Sport Movement Skill Enhancement at Inspire Movement in Minnesota. With more than 13 years of experience, Yearby has taught 200+ training courses in more than a dozen countries, spoken at Olympic training centers, and been featured on podcasts. He currently works with athletes ranging from youth to professional and is a former strength and conditioning coach for the University of Minnesota football program.
Freelap USA: What is ecological dynamics, and why should it matter to coaches?
Tyler Yearby: The ecological dynamics framework sustains a scientific approach to studying the behaviors of neurobiological systems, especially processes of action, perception, and cognition.1 It is a framework that appreciates the whole athlete and the environment where the interactions occur. There is a reciprocal relationship between the two.
The ecological dynamics framework acknowledges ideas from ecological psychology and dynamical or nonlinear systems. The dynamical system’s side addresses the emergence of coordination tendencies that exist between and within components and levels of complex neurobiological systems.1 Dynamical systems theory harnesses ideas of complexity and self-organization. The ecological psychology side can be thought of as the functional act of picking up information to use for regulating actions.2
Information is omnipresent, and there is a circular link between information and movement. Information specifies invitations or opportunities for action (affordances) that are available for pickup in a performance context. These invitations are athlete-specific, and they emerge and decay rapidly in sports. Think about a gap that opens for a running back in football but then closes just as quickly as it opened. It is unique to each athlete because of each individual’s action capabilities.
The performer-environment relationship is reciprocal, and the information that emerges between the two is viewed to guide movement activity. The confluence of the constraints shapes the movement solution that emerges. Constraints are classified as related to the task (rules, equipment, boundaries, etc.), the environment (light, humidity, temperature, social expectations, etc.), and the individual (height, weight, emotional and motivational levels, etc.). The landscape of constraints is undulating, so it is important to consider that a change in constraints may lead to changes in the movement solution that emerges.Proponents of an ecological dynamics framework view learning as occurring by continuously solving movement problems and not performing repetition by rote, explains @TylerYearby. Click To Tweet
Under an ecological dynamics framework, athletes and sports teams are considered complex adaptive systems. Additionally, proponents of an ecological dynamics framework view learning as occurring by continuously solving movement problems and not performing repetition by rote. This is crucial if coaches expect athletes to adapt their skills to different problems they encounter in sports. Finally, under an ecological dynamics framework, the athlete-environment relationship is viewed as the appropriate scale of analysis for studying emergent behavior. As a coach, we can design-in relevant invitations to the practice sessions if we study this relationship.
Freelap USA: From an ecological dynamics perspective, how can we use the warm-up as a departure point for athlete ownership and creativity?
Tyler Yearby: Bruce Lee once said, “Honestly expressing yourself…now, it is very difficult to do. I mean it is easy for me to put on a show and be cocky and be flooded with a cocky feeling and then feel pretty cool…or I can make all kinds of phony things, you know what I mean, blinded by it or I can show you some really fancy movement. But to express oneself honestly, not lying to oneself and to express myself honestly, now that, my friend is very hard to do.” Bruce Lee was a dexterous mover and a deep thinker. His thoughts are powerful and continuously shape my Form of Life.
All sessions begin with some form of a warm-up, and this is a wonderful opportunity for the athletes to have some ownership and honestly express themselves. The warm-up takes on several shapes and serves many purposes. I strongly feel it goes beyond just getting the body heated. To be frank, if that is all it is about, then we should just stand in a sauna for 10 minutes before we start the training session.
Let’s look at some of the more widely recognized reasons that an athlete needs to warm up. Some benefits are that it:
- Creates an environment for the athlete to psychologically prepare for the training session.
- Increases blood flow and temperature, which helps with the release of oxygen from hemoglobin.
- Increases joint movement and health by secreting more synovial fluid.
- Increases fascial elasticity.
- Increases sweat production, which aids in cooling the body.
The above does not need to occur in a rigid, boring, and often linear fashion. In addition, the warm-up should respect the performer-environment relationship. Under an ecological dynamics framework, athletes are considered complex adaptive systems. In complex adaptive systems, the multitude of parts continually form coordinated patterns (synergies) that are shaped by surrounding informational constraints.3
So how else can the warm-up be used? In my opinion, the time should be spent connecting to information in the environment and exploring movement. Essentially, interacting with a rich landscape of opportunities. When designing the warm-up, I suggest that you include activities that promote exploration and potentially encourage the athlete’s behaviors to emerge in a similar way to the body of the practice or training session. In the Emergence course, “Approaching the Weight Room from an Ecological Dynamics Perspective,” we discuss the need for athletes to open up their degrees of freedom (motor, perceptual, and cognitive) in order to potentially harness them when the training becomes more specific.When designing the warm-up, I suggest that you include activities that promote exploration of the environment and movement, says @TylerYearby. Click To Tweet
We place a premium on holistic movement, specifically in the warm-up, where the athlete can use their intentions and attention to guide their movement. Maintaining control of the body in space is a collective effort from the perceptual systems as the athlete connects to the information available to them at that time. No two movements ever occur in the same way, so we approach our warm-up through what Nikolai Bernstein called “repetition without repetition.”4Experiencing movement in different ways helps with adaptability. It’s our job as coaches, or “environment architects” to give the athlete a chance to gain ownership of their movement. The warm-up is a great place to start.
Here is an example of repetition without repetition using crawls, jumps, and traditional movements, and more!
Video 1. “Repetition without repetition” using crawls, jumps, and other traditional movements.
Freelap USA: What are some of the key ideas from ecological dynamics that are generally missed in traditional coaching models?
Tyler Yearby: Traditional models of coaching have adopted a one-size-fits-all philosophy, whereas ecological dynamics appreciates that each athlete has unique constraints that shape the movement solution that emerges. Essentially, ecological dynamics takes a learner-centered approach to skill adaptation versus a coach-centered approach. As mentioned above, an ecological dynamics framework views the athlete-environment relationship as the appropriate scale of analysis for studying emergent behavior.Traditional coaching models have a one-size-fits-all philosophy, whereas ecological dynamics appreciates that each athlete has unique constraints that shape the movement solution that emerges. Click To Tweet
In addition, ecological dynamics adopts ideas from ecological psychology, where the continuous regulation of human behavior is predicated on the role of information that emerges from the individual-environment system to guide activity.1 In an information-based approach, information specifies invitations for action (affordances), where each learner’s action capabilities and the information they pick up serve to guide what they can and cannot do. Athletes perceive affordances based on their own action capabilities, and this is where the learner-centered approach begins to take shape. Traditional models have placed too much emphasis on the athlete and have neglected the task and environment that help shape the movement strategy.
The constraints-led approach (CLA), which is underpinned by nonlinear pedagogy and ecological dynamics, was first proposed by Karl Newell in 19865. As mentioned above, constraints can be viewed as related to the task (rules, equipment, boundaries, etc.), environment (light, humidity, temperature, social expectations, etc.), and individual (height, weight, emotional and motivational levels, etc.). The landscape of constraints is undulating, and it is the confluence of the constraints at any given moment that gives rise to the emergent movement solution.
Adaptive behavior is important because conditions like the environment, task requirements, and our motivations can change every time we perform a motor skill.6 Adaptability is crucial for any athlete. In this way, coaches shift to becoming “environment architects” or “problem designers”.3 Skill adaptation is an ongoing process rather than one with an endpoint. This approach places great emphasis on problem-solving, where the search process allows learners to solve problems in creative and authentic ways.
Freelap USA: How do athletes solve problems in their sport, and how can coaches help guide the process?
Tyler Yearby: Athletes often impress with flashes of dexterity and seamlessly solve problems in their sport. How do they solve these problems, and how can we help? If we view skill adaptation as “the establishment of a reciprocal, functional relationship between an individual and the environment,”7 then among other things, we need to discuss information, representative task design, and attunement. Jacobs and Michaels described attunement as being perceptually sensitive to the most specific informational variables for achieving a task goal.8
With this in mind, and as I mentioned earlier, in an information-based approach, information specifies invitations for action (affordances), where each learner’s action capabilities and the information they pick up serves to guide what they can and cannot do. It is also important to remember that athletes perceive affordances based on their own action capabilities, and these affordances emerge and decay rapidly in sports.
In 1955/56, psychologist Egon Brunswik acknowledged that in our inherently complex, dynamic, and uncertain world, humans would need to detect and use perceptual information for emergent decision-making and the organization of their movement solutions.9 Brunswik determined that whether it was an experimental design looking to assess the capabilities of the environment’s movers or a training setting with the aim of improving upon the ability of the mover, the conditions should be set up to represent the behavioral settings to which the results were intended to carry over.9
Representative learning design (RLD) or representative task design (RTD) helps with functionality where information is like the performance environment and action fidelity, which is the degree to which an athlete’s movement behavior during practice replicates movement performance during competition. Coaches can harness Brunswik’s (1955/56) ideas of representative design by including information from the performance environment in the practice setting.
If we use RTD and scale the information, then the athlete can develop relevant information-movement couplings. In the Emergence courses “Underpinnings” and “Ecological Dynamics for Dummies,” information-movement couplings are described as being as much about the environment as about the organism. The transactions that take place between the athlete and the environment and the nuances of the problem serve to guide the movement solution organized. When athletes interact with slices of their sport, they become attuned to relevant information, which serves to guide the organization of their movement.
Essentially, an athlete’s perceptual systems become sensitive to informational variables that they need to control their actions without the need for extra processing. If we view ourselves as problem designers and not teachers of idealized models, practice for athletes becomes a search process, where they can organize adaptive and functional (useful or relevant) solutions to the unique and complex problems they face in sports.
Originally proposed by Karl Newell5, the constraints-led approach (CLA)—which is underpinned by nonlinear pedagogy and ecological dynamics—first addressed the development of infants and quickly became the methodological model used in sports to help guide athletes’ behavior by reducing or eliminating options.3 The CLA appreciates the performer, task, and environment relationship, where all three dynamic components shape the behavior that emerges. Below are a few examples from each category of constraints.
- Task: Number of opponents, space, boundaries, time, rules, equipment, surface, etc.
- Environmental: Light, temperature, humidity, friends or family present, etc.
- Individual: Height, weight, muscle-fat ratio, emotional and motivational levels, etc.
When athletes search an affordance landscape, certain invitations emerge based on their intentions and action capabilities. As a coach, we can help to channel their search by changing a rule, amplifying the space, directing their attention to a particular area, adding or taking away opponents, and so on. In conclusion, when athletes interact with slices of their sport in training, there is a greater likelihood of functional movement solutions emerging in the game.When athletes interact with slices of their sport in training, there is a greater likelihood of functional movement solutions emerging in the game, says @TylerYearby. Click To Tweet
Video 2. Skill is a search—constraint manipulation in American football.
Freelap USA: Can I use an ecological dynamics approach in the weight room?
Tyler Yearby: Variation in exercises is an important way to prevent long-lasting imbalances and asymmetries.10
The above delineates one of the many reasons why a “repetition without repetition” approach in the warm-up and weight room is such a valuable addition. While being far ahead of his time, the late Nikolai Bernstein coined the phrase “repetition without repetition,” which implies that repetitive attempts at the same task are accompanied by variable trajectories of elemental variables11.
The performer-task-environment relationship is dynamic. For this reason, Emergence introduced a repetition without repetition approach to the weight room. In our course “Approaching the Weight Room from an Ecological Dynamics Perspective,” we appropriately cover ideas that support a nonlinear approach to the weight room. Here, I will highlight a few points as well as offer some practical takeaways.
The weight room is a place where the focus has long been on muscular development and overall strength gains. This is all fine and dandy, but has our focus been too narrow? Is there a need to take a more holistic approach? I think so! I propose that the weight room is a component of a larger system. Essentially, it has value, but for most of us, maybe our focus has limited our opportunity.
First, let’s look at physical literacy. It is hard to land on a single definition for the term, but Will Roberts, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise from the University of Gloucestershire, said, “It’s more holistic than just the physical. It’s more about how people become confident, motivated, and have the knowledge to become more physically active.”12 At Emergence, we like to use the warm-up and what are traditionally viewed as weight room exercises to help guide the athlete in becoming more physically literate. Beyond the physical development, there is perceptual, cognitive, social, emotional, and so forth. It transcends sports, but certainly helps with athletic development as well!
So, before we discuss the obvious contributions, let’s briefly touch on social and emotional development. If we offer our athletes some guidance and allow them to explore their movement capabilities, you can imagine that most will leave the training sessions with more confidence and competence. In efforts to design an environment that offers multiple areas of development, try designing exercises that allow them to engage with a partner.To create an environment that offers athletes multiple areas of development, try designing exercises that allow them to engage with a partner, and also change partners from time to time. Click To Tweet
I also encourage changing partners from time to time. Not only do people move differently, but it provides the athlete with an opportunity to work with someone else, which continues to promote social growth. The movements or exercises selected can vary a bit depending on age, physical development, etc. but should include nontraditional choices.
I view strength training sessions as a time to help guide the athlete in opening their degrees of freedom on all levels (motor, perceptual, and cognitive). This approach helps the athlete explore different positions and shapes, as well as experience varying loads. In addition to being able to express strength and power in many ways, we should also design exercises or movement situations where the athlete searches for the appropriate coordination strategy/movement solution.
Coordination can be viewed as the function that constrains the potentially free variables (degrees of freedom, or DoF) of a system into a behavioral unit/movement solution.5 The idea is that an athlete has experienced a range of movements in the hopes of harnessing the free variables as the training becomes more specific. Co-Director of Education at Emergence, Shawn Myszka, talks about using the early off-season to increase effectivities (capabilities or physical capacities of a person) and determined rate limiters.
Rather than sticking with the same approach for everyone (which is often too bilaterally focused), I suggest adding variety, which will help with the determined rate limiters of each individual athlete. This approach can certainly be used throughout the season as well. Every athlete and every team is different, so the timing and length will vary.
Let’s face it, we need to trade the traditional way of coaching for a different approach if we hope to bridge the gap between the weight room and the sport. This does not mean we can’t challenge our athletes. It is how and why they are challenged that should change.
Traditional strength and conditioning coaches (and personal trainers) are very technically driven and often assume that every athlete moves the same way. This is generally accompanied by copious amounts of instruction before and during the movement. Let’s be frank—assuming there is only one way to move is ludicrous. The video below is just one example of how some of the total body lifts can be adjusted to fit a “repetition without repetition” approach.
Video 3. Repetition without repetition in the weight room
This approach provides the athlete with autonomy while allowing them to move weight from a variety of positions, at different tempos, with different stances, etc. Note that we’re not suggesting the athlete do whatever they want. Some explicit guidance is still used, which allows the athlete to problem-solve in a safe way. It is just the amount that should decrease.
In “Approaching the Weight Room from an Ecological Dynamics Perspective,” we discuss how and when to appropriately use variability. Our athletes often find themselves in unique, unfavorable, and disadvantaged positions. If we can push the needle even a bit in the way we approach the warm-up and the weight room, then our athletes will be in a better place to succeed. Remember, successful skill acquisition results in the emergence of behavior that is adaptable to a range of varying performance contexts.13
Accept – learning is nonlinear, a “repetition without repetition” approach, explicit guidance is still needed (just not drowning them with instruction), and athlete autonomy.
Avoid – coaching every repetition, trying to progress everything in a linear manner, inundating them with information, and assuming there is one biomechanical truth.
Just like the session design for the field, court, pitch, and so on, we hope to guide the athlete in chasing dexterity.Dexterity is not confined within the movements or actions themselves but is revealed in how these movements behave in their interaction with the environment, with its unexpectedness and surprises.4
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1. Seifert, L. and Davids, K. “Ecological Dynamics: A theoretical framework for understanding sport performance, physical education, and physical activity.” CS-DC ’15 World e-conference, 2015.
2. Chow, J., Davids, K., Button, C., and Renshaw, I. Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition. (Routledge, 2016).
3. Renshaw, I., Davids, K., Newcombe, D., and Roberts, W. The Constraints-Led Approach. (Routledge, 2019).
4. Bernstein, N. The Co-ordination and Regulation of Movements. 1967.
5. Newell, K. “Constraints on the development of coordination.” In M. Wade and H. Whiting (Eds). Motor development in children: Aspects of coordination and control. 1986.
6. Davids, K., Bennett, S., and Newell, K. M. Movement System Variability. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2006.
7. Araujo, D., Davids, K., Bennett, S., et al. “Emergence of sport skills under constraints.” In Williams, A.M. Hodges, N.J. (eds) Skill Acquisition in Sport: Research, Theory and Practice (London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis, 2004), pp. 409-433.
8. Jacobs, D, and Michaels, C. “Direct Learning.” Ecological Psychology. 2007;19(4):321-349.
9. Brunswik, E. Perception and the representative design of psychological experiments. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1956.
10. Wormhoudt, R, Savelsbergh, G, Teunissen, J, and Davids, K. The Athletic Skills Model. Routledge, 2017.
11. Latash, M. “Movements that are Both Variable and Optimal.” Journal of Human Kinetics. 2012;34:5-13.
12. Roberts, W. (June 26, 2019) Talent Equation Podcast, “Coaching is a merry go round…the challenge is knowing when to jump on.”
13. Araújo, D. and Davids, K. “What Exactly is Acquired During Skill Acquisition?” Journal of Consciousness Studies. 2011;18(3-4):7-23.