Trust the Learning Dynamics

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What is Learning?

It’s important to admit if we’ve made strong assumptions of what learning is, that have then strongly influenced us as coaches and impacted the environments we are creating for our players. And yes, we are certainly holding our hands up!

Classroom. Expert. Knowledge. Feedback. These are common terms associated with learning. They can seep into sporting environments where the coach takes a default position of feeling that their role is to give constant direction, instruction and feedback for players to ‘learn’.

But what does Science say?


‘We must be able to help learners to become more independent in engaging with specific performance environments in regulating their own learning experiences.Excerpt From: Jia Yi Chow. “Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition: An Introduction.”

Independent. Engaging. Self-Regulating. This is where our Underpinning Theory anchors us when everywhere else we look in the sporting landscape,

“We mistakenly see anything that doesn’t fit our linear mechanistic worldview as in need of fixing”  as Mark Upton eloquently explains and we strongly recommend reading more on Learning Dynamics from his blog my fastest mile.

This ‘mechanistic worldview’ can deceive us from our natural order as humans, mammals and complex systems. 

“…Better reserved for the machinelike behaviours of robots in a steady state environment that rarely changes, such as a process production line in a factory. 

Rather, learners must be helped to acquire skill sets that allow them to thrive in dynamic performance environments (such as sport), which are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

…The complexities that are present in any learning context must account for the dynamic interactions that emerge between each learner, the task and the environment, considered together as a complex, highly integrated, nonlinear system”[(Chow et al., 2009; Davids et al., 2014; Hristovski et al., 2011) Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition]

So if players need to self-organise and regulate, explore uncertainty, make decisions and become the driver of their own experience, what part do we play?



Yes! We really can stand back and observe the dynamic interactions that emerge between each learner, the task and the environment. 

Sound easy? It’s meant to be. But try closing the mouth and you may find initially it’s uncomfortable. It can feel like we’re not helping, we’re not doing anything. But that’s the thing. THEY are doing the learning. It’s not about us; it’s about them!

We’ve already done the hard work in designing the games and facilitating a playful environment.  Let’s remember our genius friend,

‘I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.’Albert Einstein

Once we’ve provided the Learning Conditions, we observe.

It not only helps the players engage and tune into the game without our constant verbal interruption, but for us to really watch each individual, there’s a lot going on!

If you think about it, how quickly and how many interactions are players experiencing in a game of football for example?

By the time we’ve analysed, interpreted and commented on one, we’ve missed another.

Rather, by observing, you’re more open to getting to know every individual, their capabilities and their interpretation of the game. Then there’s watching their collective behaviours. Complex!

The biggest tension will become when you attune to a game as coach, you can see possible solutions to help your players. But are we really helping them by giving them our solutions or do we want them to come up with their own?

How powerful is the learning experience to work something out for yourself, even if it takes longer than someone telling you?

How else does creativity emerge but to find novel solutions apart from a coach? Let’s not interfere with the Independence, Engagement and Self-Regulating of Learning Dynamics.

This is where Performance and Learning environments currently differ. If a coach is under pressure to get results or is going for performance aims, they tend to try and provide short-term solutions that will create an immediate impact on performance rather than see the problem as a learning opportunity for the individual and team to work through in their own time.

If you want to develop players:

  • Skill Acquisition/Adaptation
  • Game Sense
  • Problem Solving Capabilities and
  • Start exploring the realms of long term Potential

you will be quietly trusting the Learning Dynamics. Doesn’t developing players lead to better, sustainable performances anyway?

So does that mean we become the silent coach? By no means!

It’s when we spend most of our time observing, we value and respect the Learning Dynamics so much, that every now and then we step into the process, “but we’d better add value”. (Mark O’Sullivan)

  • We can sense the time to change the game or ask the players if they think it needs changing?
  • Ask a question to see if players can articulate the dynamics? For e.g “What’s been successful for your team in this game?”
  • Facilitate any stoppages that may be used to connect the experience. E.g discussion during drink breaks or at the end.

So a big challenge awaits. Can we move over? Let the players drive their own journey? Yes, it’ll be difficult to let go of the wheel and not be in control. Yes, you can still Facilitate. You can still be the guide of the rules and draw attention to potential problems, but you can also trust the power of the learning dynamics in the experience. Even if they crash, it’s not life or death, because isn’t kids sport more like Dodgem cars than real cars? The bumps are the most fun, after all 😉

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