The learning curve is ugly: the importance of play and exploration.

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)

Ugly Curve - cartoons version 22.09
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 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 KGB-1644
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, using up all the ‘play and exploration’ space and 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 the ugly zone and become comfortable with instability and making mistakes. However, it is vital to be aware of 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 - rev 2


Want to learn more? Look out for the next part by visiting our website or our blogs at

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.

Developing Skill Part 3. They say you can’t learn feel..!

A fresh look at the information we need to become skilful; the role of instructions, demonstrations and feedback.

Lizzie Canoe 1

Photo by Lizzy Canoe

Movement variability and an external focus of attention

Recently I observed an interesting paddlesports coaching session*. It was on sheltered water, but at the limit of the remit due to the wind. The coach had two clients whom they had just met. After a detailed conversation about ability and goals for the day, they agreed to concentrate on forward paddling in kayaks for the first session. Both clients were experienced and were already coaches at a lower level, however, there was a big difference in their self-evaluated ability and confidence.


The coach moved to the most sheltered spot available, which was still a little windy, and set the two paddlers the task of paddling around three buoys in a triangle. This triangle gave a great view of the learners from all angles and the coach proceeded to individually give them very specific technical information about their forward paddling each time they completed the triangle. Lots of different explanation examples were used. Information was given verbally and visually and there was a good use of flags and markers, however, it was also all very prescriptive, detailed, and form based. The instructions, based on the position of body parts and the blade, internalized the focus of attention to create an idealized forward paddling technique. I watched and I listened.


Two things jumped out at me. The first was that if I closed my eyes it sounded like the session could have been run in a gym and on an ergo. There was no mention of the environment or attempting to adapt to it. There was no inclusion of outcome measures, learner decision making, or any motivational or psychological elements of performance. The second was that the less experienced paddler was becoming progressively less competent if you measured the outcome. Sure, the forward paddling looked technically more correct, but it did not fit with the wider picture. The focus on a ‘perfect’ technique was at odds with the environment. It ignored the side wind and achieving success around the triangle; it completely ignored the lack of steering, accurate timing, turning on the move, balance, motivation, and stability. The paddle was going in and coming out of the water where the coach had prescribed, but there was less fluidity, tighter and smaller movements. It became more robotic looking, less connected to what the water and wind were doing. As I watched it appeared that ‘imposing’ the technique onto the environment and increasing power transfer was simply confounding and increasing the lack of steering, timing and balance. It was preventing the development of ‘feel’ and adaptability.


The coach was very pleased with the session and saw it as an excellent example of what they had been trained to deliver. Whilst I appreciate that this is an extreme example (those are the ones that stand out), it is very typical of a technique based coaching session. And, if you believe that you can learn a movement pattern in isolation of the environment in which it is being performed, it was a very good session. After a short chat, the coach agreed that for the next session they would focus more on adapting to the environmental conditions. This was likely to include developing balance and coordination, a focus on autonomy and motivation, an external focus of attention and exploring movement solutions. This time, the level of success as a measure of change in ability was huge. So were the grins on the faces of the clients after achieving, in their words, ‘more than they ever expected’.

Lizzie canoe 12

Developing shared perception-action coupling. Photo by Lizzie Canoe


Developing opportunities for movement

So, what does this mean to us?  If we are trying to develop ourselves, or help those we coach to become more skilful, what information do we need? To answer this question it may be useful to have an understanding of how we learn movement skills. In the article about the stages of learning, this is explored in more detail. For this article, let’s explore what a skilful performance is. Adventure sports are outcome orientated (you make the line on your skies, trail or river; or reach the hold in balance when climbing) and not about form, like gymnastics (although the outcome is still very important). Adventure sports require a mixture of balance & coordination and the ability to ‘read’ the environment. This resonates with the way that my son Sam practised on the Tryweryn in part 2, the second coaching session in our example above, and the experiences of the elite performers that we shared 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!


If we use Newell’s (1986) model of how we learn, 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 options for movement that seem possible from the perceptual information (affordances) that is being picked up from the environment. Or, in other words, the development of perception-action coupling. The elusive ‘feel’! Instead of our focus being on guessing what might be happening internally (to motor neurons or muscle fibres), we focus on the person-task-environment interaction.


Learning to run requires an understanding of how to adapt to different surfaces and terrains. Through experience we learn that it is generally a good idea to run around obstacles and we change our gait, stride length and balance on slippery surfaces and steep, unstable slopes. If we were blindfolded on unknown and uneven ground, what would happen to our running gait? It would become pretty rubbish. Why? We have not lost the ability to run, just the perception-action coupling that we have developed using visual information. Being able to run on a treadmill, a perfectly flat, grippy and obstacle-free surface, does not mean that we can run with skill everywhere.


Representative Learning Design

In dynamic environments, no two performance movements are likely to be identical. This repetition (of outcome) without repetition (of movements) is achieved by practising in a way that encourages movement variability. Extensive practice by experimenting with lots of movement solutions in real environments increases the development of perception-action coupling. This is the ability to ‘read’ the environment and respond. Practising ‘trying to do perfect technique’ will not develop perception-action coupling. What constitutes adaptive technique, will look different at each stage of learning; for example, a child learning a new skill cannot, and should not, mimic the movement pattern of an elite adult.

We, therefore, need to focus on two key aspects:

  1. to develop the adaptive coordination patterns that we need for our particular sport;
  2. to develop the ability to identify and use the relevant information in the environment.


So, this is the important bit. The two parts of skilled performance need to be learnt together – perception and action! We have evolved to learn to move in harmony with the environment in which we are moving; not to learn a movement pattern first, then try to impose it onto the environment after.


In summary; we learn to move skillfully by developing coordination patterns that are linked to perceptual information in the environment. This perception-action coupling requires a focus on all of the relevant information (e.g. visual, auditory, haptic [touch and pressure], and kinesthetic.. etc.) that can inform movement options. Each person has and develops their own unique movement options that are a mixture of what they perceive, what they think they can do, and what they want to achieve (affordances). To learn adaptive skills like adventure sports, we need to be able to explore lots of movement solutions in an environment that is real (authentic in the perceptual information available). To develop full body coordination, we need to be able to do that in a way that preserves full body movement.



Preparing to practice on sheltered water. Is this representative of a moving water environment?


If we accept that our goal is to facilitate accurately identifying and using movement relevant information from our environment to achieve effective and efficient outcomes; then how we practice, and the information we use should support this. This is referred to as a ‘representative learning design’ or RLD. In part 4 we will explore how to make sure that we are becoming attuned to the information that is actually relevant for us, and not accidentally tuning in to incidental or ‘background’ information.


* The coaching session was one that I was observing in my role as an IV officer (Internal Verification) for the National Governing Body. It was to sign off the assessor, not the coach. I don’t make a habit of randomly spying on other people’s coaching sessions, honestly! 🙂


James Granite Apurimac32 (1)Lot’s of complexity here requiring skilfull reading of the environment. Dan Wilkinson using the river features with finesse in the Granite Canyon of the Rio Apurimac, Peru. Photo by James Bruton

Motivation Part 2. Motivation and Learning

Creating an optimal learning environment: Part 2a


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’.


Optimal learning environments

In part one (click here to read) 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!


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.


A quick recap of motivation and participation

In the first half of this article, we learnt that the satisfaction of our psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness will determine our motivation and enjoyment. This will either increase or decrease our self-determination. In other words, it will determine whether we are likely to carry on doing something. The exciting (and scary) part for us as coaches is that our needs-supportive coaching behaviours directly influence whether those we coach will think that their needs are being satisfied. This will then have an impact on their level of motivation and self-determined behaviour.


How can we make sure that we are not accidentally de-motivating others instead of being the inspirational coach or leader that we aspire to be?

Anglesey trip 1

A group making decisions about the next stage of their learning expedition around Ynys Mon. Photo by Sam Davies.


We concluded (in part 1) that a needs-supportive coach will provide choices where possible, well-structured sessions, give a rationale for the activities, and acknowledge the feelings and perspectives of their learners. They will provide opportunities for initiative taking, give non-controlling competence feedback, and communicate using non-controlling language. They will also avoid using controlling behaviours, rewards or promoting ego orientated involvement. This means that a needs-supportive coach is doing a lot!

To keep the language simple I am going to refer to the coaching behaviours as needs-supportive, and the environment that this creates as an optimal learning environment.


Can motivational factors also affect learning?

Intuitively, this seems like a really silly question to ask, because, it would seem to be an obvious “yes”. Even without any short term learning advantages from an optimal learning environment, practice conditions that increase self-motivation (self-determined behaviour) will also increase the likelihood of continued engagement.  And we know that becoming skilful requires a considerable amount of continued engagement!3 It requires many years of deep practice.  So, even without any short term learning benefits, creating optimal learning environments is really powerful and important.


There is a substantial amount of recent evidence that suggests that providing needs-supportive coaching, particularly autonomy support, can also result in significantly better learning9. This article will explore this exciting concept using the example of how it would work in the structuring practice schedules. We will look at how and why giving your learners ‘choices’ could not only increase their motivation and commitment, but also improve their learning.


Who is making the decisions?

Within more traditional sports, as well as adventure activities, deliberate practice has typically consisted of coach-led sessions. In a coach-led session, the coach makes all the decisions. The coach defines the learning environment and provides the technical and tactical content considered necessary for developing skilful performance3. The research that guided this practice paid little attention to how coaches could support the needs of those they coached11.  In fact, motor learning research did not consider motivation at all until recently. There appears to have been an assumption that in sports settings people are already self-motivated. Motivation was, therefore, something that was only important if someone did not have any at all. (And then, only to get people active who needed to be for health reasons.)


Thankfully, there has been a recent change in focus.  Both researchers and practitioners have moved away from considering movement learning as just being about how a coach can effectively impart information. This wider view has resulted in an approach that is more learner-focused.


Preparing for a coaching session. Will it be coach led or learner-centred? Photo by Marianne Davies


A learner-focus not only considers the task constraints of a sports skill (technical and tactical), but also the environment in which the skill is performed, and most importantly, all of the nuances (including motivational ones) of the individual who is performing it6.


This learner-centred focus has resulted in a growing number of studies that have examined the effects of individualising the learning environment. Interestingly, the most consistent finding is that individualisation is most effective when the learner is the one making the decisions. So, instead of the coach choosing how to individualise all aspects of the learning environment, for example, skill difficulty or progressions through practice schedules; the learners are supported to make their own choices within defined and structured frameworks.


Giving the learner choices  

Let’s go back to our list of needs-supportive coaching behaviours.

How can a coach provide choices? Give the rationale for activities? Provide opportunities for initiative taking, and promote a mastery orientated involvement? And how can they do all of this as well as individualising the sessions for those they are coaching?


One way is to allow those they coach to choose their own level of skill difficulty or practice schedule challenge. This is known as ‘self-pacing’. The coach has a responsibility to ensure that the range of tasks and levels are appropriate, well structured and have the opportunity for progression. They also need to ensure that the learners have the information they need, and the skill level necessary, to make their decisions9.


In part 2b, we will explore using self-pacing in more detail by going through an example.

 Find us at



A very big thank you to everyone who proofread this for me. To Rosie Cripps, Sam Davies, Sid Sinfield, and Greg Spencer.




2. Davids, K., Button, C., & Bennett, S. (2008). Strategies for Structuring Practice. In K. Davids, C. Button, & S. Bennett, Dynamics of Skill Acquisition: A Constraints-led Approach (pp. 164-167). Champaign, US: Human Kinetics.

3. Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.

4. Guadagnoli, M. A., & Lee, T. D. (2004). Challenge Point: A Framework for Conceptualizing the Effects of Various Practice Conditions in Motor Learning. Journal of Motor Behaviour, 36(2), 212-224.

5. Hooyman, A., Wulf, G., & Lewthwaite, R. (2014). Impacts of autonomy-supportive versus controlling instructional language on motor learning. Human Movement Science, 36, 190-198.

6. Jang, R., Reeve , J., & Halusic, M. (2016, January 26). A New Autonomy-Supportive Way of Teaching That Increases Conceptual Learning: Teaching in Students’ Preferred Ways. Journal of Experimental Education, 84(4), 686-701.

7. Keetch, K. M., & Lee, T. D. (2007). The effect of self-regulated and experimenter-imposed practice schedules on motor learning for tasks of varying difficulty. Research Quarterly for Excercise and Sport(78), 476-486.

8. Post, P. G., Fairbrother, J. T., & Barros, J. A. (2011). Self-Controlled Amount of Practice Benefits Learning of a Motor Skill. Research Quarterly in Excercise and Sport, 82(3), 474-481.

9. Sanli, E. A., Patterson, J. T., Bray, S. R., & Lee, T. D. (2013). Understanding self-controlled motor learning protocols through the self-determination theory. Frontiers in Psychology, 3(611), 1-17.

10. Smith, P. J., & Davies, M. J. (1995). Applying contextual interference to the Pawlata roll. Journal of Sports Sciences, 13, 455-462.

11. Wulf, G., & Lewthwaite, R. (2016). Optimizing Performance through Intrinsic Motivation and Attention for Learning: The OPTIMAL theory of motor learning. sychonomic Bulletin & Review, 23, 1382-1414.

12. Wulf, G., Clauss, A., Shea, C. H., & Whitacre, A. C. (2001). Benefits of Self-Control in Dyad Practice. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 72(3), 299-303.





Motivation Part 1. Motivation and Participation

Creating an optimal learning environment: Part 1

Canoe B&W

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.

Sam and polo team 2008

Bangor University Polo Club 2008

Then, ten years later, after a conversation with total strangers in the local canoe shop, he joined the Bangor University Canoe Polo club for practice. One session with them and he was hooked!

Ten years later he is still playing and paddling. I was curious… How could one experience put him off so completely, and another inspire so much. What if we (as coaches and leaders) could be more savvy about ensuring that all those who come to us have a positive motivational experience?

Motivation Theories

There are many theories about motivation, but the one we’ll look at here is particularly useful for sports coaches and leaders. It is called the Self Determination Theory2, or SDT for short. SDT is made up of a number of micro-theories one of which is called the Basic Psychological Needs Theory. According to the Basic Psychological Needs Theory, motivation to engage in an activity is influenced by the support, and subsequent satisfaction of, three innate basic needs. These are the need for:

  1. Autonomy (a sense of control over your own life and personal volition),
  2. Competence (the need to be effective and skilful),
  3. Relatedness (the desire to feel connected to, and cared for, by others).

Motivation to engage in something (anything) can be enhanced by the satisfaction of any, but optimised by the satisfaction of all three, basic psychological needs. There is evidence that the needs are of differing importance to people, but they still all need to be satisfied2. Interestingly, the satisfaction of these basic needs is not only very important for continued engagement in an activity, but also for overall health and well-being.

Research into the Basic Psychological Needs Theory has provided a considerable amount of supporting evidence from many different domains, including educational learning4, health and well-being7, motivation to engage in activities8 and adherence to prescribed exercise regimes6.


Olly Laddiman showing his competence at Hells Mouth. Photo by Matt Tuck

How does satisfying basic needs influence motivation?

Human beings are not just processors of neutral information. In any context, we are inherently driven towards being creative and curious. This means that we will actively seek opportunities to satisfy our needs; to be masters of our own destiny, to be effective and feel connected2. If we engage in a behaviour that leads to our needs being satisfied, the motivation to continue to engage in that behaviour becomes more self-determined.  This means that we will regulate our own behaviour, and become self-motivated.


The reason for engaging in any behaviour falls on a continuum of being more or less self-determined. At one end is non-self-determined behaviour, or ‘Amotivation’ (that just means no motivation). This is when we do not engage at all. We don’t go to the gym or go running. We don’t do any exercise, or eat well, get up early, do the washing up, or whatever the behaviour is. The proposed reasons for this include; because the outcome is either not valued (relatedness), not perceived as being in our control (autonomy), or not perceived as being attainable by us (competence). At the other end is self-determined behaviour. This is when we engage in an activity purely for its own sake with no discernable reward. Just the pure joy of doing it! If you are motivated in this way you are said to have intrinsic motivation, internal behavioural regulation and an internal locus of causality. If that all sounds like another language, don’t worry, this is what it means:


  1. Intrinsic motivation: the motivation to engage in behaviour comes from within you,
  2. Internal behavioural regulation: you regulate your own behaviour and are in control of whether you act on the motivation to engage or not,
  3. Internal locus of causality: you believe that you are the cause (and therefore, in control), of the outcomes of your behaviour.


So, how do our behaviours become more self-determined?

Before we have actually had a go at something, it is unusual to be motivated purely for the joy of doing it. To begin with, most of the things we do are non-self-determined. You might have started the sport you now coach because it was taught in school, or maybe your parents took you, or your friends invited you to have a go. I’m guessing it was a good experience if you still not only love it, but are coaching it now. Your motivation to continue your sport became self-determined over time because you were within a rewarding social context and your basic needs for relatedness, competence and autonomy were being satisfied.


Types of motivation and the degree of behavioural regulation (adapted from Deci & Ryan, 2008)

Type of Motivation

Degree of Behavioural Regulation


It’s not happening!
Not achievable/ in control
Very low
Externally controlled
Moderately low
Internally controlled (self-esteem)
Moderately high
Identifies with importance
Very high
Part of the sense of self
Intrinsic Motivation
Try stopping me!
For the inherent pleasure


However, the structure of coaching sessions (and most goal-directed behaviour in sport) is typically determined by the coach. Even beginners in supervised sessions have little control over what they do, and deliberate practice has been seen as something that is not enjoyable, but essential to do to become competent3. Participants have been expected to motivate themselves and take full responsibility for their motivation. But, if we accept that the learning environment has a huge impact on motivation, we can make adjustments to it that would support the three basic psychological needs of those we coach. This would lead to more of their needs being satisfied, practice behaviours becoming more self-determined, and to an increase in motivation, engagement and well-being. This is where we come in. As coaches, leaders and instructors we have a considerable amount of control over the learning environment that we create, and how it is experienced by those we coach.


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 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.


Autonomy-supportive coaching behaviours

According to Mageau and Vallerand (2003)5, the coach’s autonomy-supportive behaviours directly influence the athlete’s perceptions of competence, autonomy and relatedness.

So, how do we ensure that we are being autonomy supportive in our coaching? Mageau and Vallerand have come up with seven autonomy-supportive coaching behaviours.

  1. Provide choice within structure, specific rules and limits
  2. Provide rationale for tasks and limits
  3. Acknowledge negative feelings
  4. Provide opportunities to take initiatives and work independently
  5. Provide non-controlling competence feedback
  6. Use non-controlling language, avoid controlling behaviours, and use competition and rewards wisely
  7. Promote a mastery rather than ego involvement (promote achievement).

Daisy and Ted

Daisy Dewhurst motivated and loving her time Eventing with Ted her horse. Picture by Sarah Braithwaite


  1. Provide choice within specific rules and limits

Basically, try to give as much choice to your participants as reasonably possible. Obviously, this needs to be within the rules and limitations of the activities and the ability levels of those participating. Having structure is really important. The choices you give need to be well thought out and meaningful so that you do not end up with a learning environment that feels too woolly. You can involve those you work within decisions about types of activities, venues, and progressions. This is usually done for experienced participants having high-level coaching, but less so for beginners where motivational climates can have a greater impact on continued participation. For introductory sessions, look at what choice you can easily give (choice of games, the order of activities (if not progressions), when to progress, the colour of equipment, …). Interestingly, even giving small choices like picking the colour of something, will have a positive impact on motivation. Remember that even choices that are very small and seem insignificant can have a big impact on the perceived need support9.


  1. Provide rationale for tasks and limits

By giving simple explanations for why activities are being done you will help your participants to understand and endorse the reasons for doing them. This helps to make the tasks meaningful and they can then be valued and accepted. Think about how you can do this within your activity set up or briefings without them becoming too long and convoluted. Some limitations that may affect your coaching sessions can be overcome by changing your focus; for example, change from running a particular award syllabus to developing competence for their personal goals. Other common limiting factors include venues, environment, kit, and equipment.


  1. Acknowledge negative feelings

This can be as simple as you letting your participants know that you understand that they may find something boring, or hard to do. That you recognise that they are feeling tired, cold, wet, and a little miserable at that time. This is especially effective when combined with a provision of choice and explanations of the rationale for doing something. Acknowledging negative feelings and stating that there is no choice and you also think it is meaningless, is clearly likely to be less effective! Your ability to relate to your participants is an important part of fulfilling their needs for relatedness.


  1. Provide opportunities to take initiatives and work independently

This is a big one for me and responsible for much of my negative experiences as a female learner, especially in adventure sports. If you provide support that is not needed or restrict opportunities to take initiatives, be creative, and make decisions; even with the best intentions in mind you will reduce motivation and be perceived as controlling. This behaviour is known as ‘controlling-support’.

Working independently does not necessarily mean working alone. It is also a good way of supporting and promoting social interactions by facilitating group, peer and pair work. Remember that social interactions are an important part of enhancing the enjoyment of an activity.


  1. Provide non-controlling competence feedback

There is a strong possibility that up to now you have agreed with most of the autonomy-supportive coaching behaviours we have looked at and that they fit in with what you already do. However, I might be about to suggest some things that do not fit so readily with what you have been told, or you currently do. So please bear with me.

It is important to understand that the feedback you give does not only provide information about an individual’s performance on a specific task but also influences their future expectations and their motivational state. There is a growing body of research that is showing that giving feedback after good performances is much more effective for learning, than giving feedback after poor performances8. This means getting away from seeing feedback as ‘fault finding’ and instead use it to ensure that your participants are aware of when and how to do things well. If they are unable to perform a movement pattern at all, use your ability to change or adjust the constraints (task, environment, individual), rather than give them feedback. This could mean asking them to do something different, adjusting their equipment, changing the environment, or giving them additional information.

There is also growing evidence that the feedback you give can also influence the participant’s expectations of the learning process and how malleable they perceive their performance to be. If you say for example ‘you are a great white water paddler’, this implies a permanence of ability and can be demotivating if performance drops for any reason. If, however, you say ‘those last few break-ins were great’, the focus is on learning and improving, and not a fixed ability. These subtleties of language are particularly important when coaching young children.

A useful way to set up supportive objective feedback is to create opportunities for the participant to ‘self-check’. Setting up skills or tasks in such a way that you allow them to pick up their own objective feedback about their performance from the environment and results. This also helps to promote autonomy and encourages problem solving and exploration of movement patterns.

Finally, like support, feedback can also be perceived as controlling. Saying ‘those last few break-ins were great, as they should be’, is clearly a controlling statement. Again, these are often used with the best intentions, you might be thinking and wanting to convey ‘it should be because you are a great white water paddler’. But, the controlling element here can undermine intrinsic motivation.


  1. Use non-controlling language, avoid controlling behaviours, and use competition and rewards wisely

There is a lot in here, and like the other points, we are just going to skim through in this article.

Along with competence feedback and support, many behaviours and use of language used can be perceived as controlling. With your coaching language avoid using words and phrases like ‘should’, ‘must’, and ‘have to’, along with phrases like ‘as I would expect’ or ‘as you should have’. It is also very important not to use guilt-inducing criticisms or emotionally laden statements that could be perceived as threatening the relationship between you and your participants. Anything that could be perceived as a threat to withdraw approval, respect or love is particularly damaging.

Thankfully it is generally accepted that controlling language and guilt-inducing statements are unacceptable and undermine autonomy and intrinsic motivation. However, there is still much debate about the use of competition and rewards. Most of the literature in this area agree that whilst competition can increase the intrinsic motivation of those who win, it is detrimental to those who don’t. Also, if you give rewards for participation it can be perceived as implying that the activity is somehow not worth doing for its own sake. If you are coaching children it is worth noting that the detrimental effects of rewards in undermining autonomy and reducing intrinsic motivation are far greater in children than adults5.


  1. Promote mastery rather than ego involvement (promote achievement)

A mastery climate encourages participants to improve their own skills and judge success by the changes in their own performance. This is influenced hugely by expectations of learning and future competence. We all engage in activities when we have a sense that positive outcomes exist (we will improve), and that we have the agency to achieve them. Conversely, as a coach, if you promote ego involvement you will encourage participants to compare their performance to others. This peer comparison can lead to threats to self-esteem if an individual’s performance is not perceived as good enough2.

Goal setting is a great way to support mastery and achievement orientation. As a coach, it is worth you learning to promote and support the use of effective goal setting.  If used skilfully, goal setting can also provide a sense of self-satisfaction, support competence and autonomy, and increase intrinsic motivation. Experience of using and exploring autonomy-supportive coaching activities like ‘self-check’ tasks (see point 5) will also help your participants to goal set and use objective measures adeptly to achieve their goals.



After a coaching session or any period of practice, any increase in motivation due to the satisfaction of needs support would be advantageous in the long term. Highly skilled movement performance is associated with extended periods of deliberate practice1. Practice conditions that support the motivational transition from less to more, self-determined behaviour, should have positive long term effects and are likely to result in a continued engagement in the activity whether for recreation or for performance achievement. This is especially important for groups and individuals who do not feel that they can participate and are not currently regularly engaged in being active.

As a coach, our autonomy-supportive behaviours directly influence participant’s perceptions of competence, autonomy and relatedness. This, in turn, influences their level of intrinsic motivation and self-determined behaviour. An autonomy supportive coach will provide choices where possible, give a rationale for activities and acknowledge the feelings and perspectives of their participants. They will provide opportunities for initiative taking, give non-controlling competence feedback, and communicate using non-controlling language. They will avoid controlling behaviours in the form of physical and psychological control, rewards or promoting ego orientated involvement.


Improved Performance

There is a lot of recent research exploring the effects of needs support and needs satisfaction on performance. The results so far suggest that some of the autonomy-supportive coaching behaviours are associated not only with increased motivation and improved mental health but also with better performance2. That is definitely worth considering for any coach and will be explored in the next article; ‘Motivation part 2: Motivation and Learning’.


Marianne Davies

MRes. (Distinction) Sport and Exercise Science

BSc (Hons), Sport, Health and Physical Education

 Marianne has been a coach and coach educator for over 20 years as well as conducting research in motivation and learning. Her main interests are equestrian activities climbing and paddlesports.              Copyright remains with the author




1 Arkenford. (2014). Watersports Participation Survey 2014 Full Report. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from

2 Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (2000). The “What” and “Why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behaviour. Psychological Enquiry, 227-268.

3 Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.

4 Jang, R., Reeve, J., & Halusic, M. (2016, January 26). A New Autonomy-Supportive Way of Teaching That Increases Conceptual Learning: Teaching in Students’ Preferred Ways. Journal of Experimental Education, 84(4), 686-701.

5 Mageau, G. A., & Vallerand, R. J. (2003). The coach-athlete relationship: A motivational model. Journal of Sports Sciences, 21(11), 883-904.

6 Markland, D., & Tobin, V. J. (2010). Need support and behavioural regulations for exercise referral scheme clients: The mediating role of psychological need satisfaction. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 11, 91-99.

7 Ryan, R. M., Huta, V., & Deci, E. L. (2008). Living Well: A self-determined theory perspective on eudaimonia. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9, 139-170.

8 Wulf, G., & Lewthwaite, R. (2016). Optimizing performance through intrinsic motivation and attention for learning: The OPTIMAL theory of motor learning. Psychological Bulletin Review.

9 Wulf, G., Freitas, H. E., & Tandy, R. D. (2014). Choosing to exercise more: Small choices can increase exercise engagement. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 15, 268-271.

10 Website article downloaded on 06.09.17,–events/news–events/our-news/latest-news/sport-wales-calls-for-welsh-women-and-girls-to-join-%E2%80%98our-squad%E2%80%99.aspx


Thank you to Dean (Sid) Sinfield, Sam Davies and Paul Marshall for their excellent proofreading, comments and suggestions.


Developing Skill Part 2. Information, autonomy and playing in the ‘ugly zone’.

A fresh look at the information we need to become skilful; the role of instructions, demonstrations and feedback.

Dan Soana

Dan Wilkinson nailing a boof on the Soana River, Val Aosta. Photo by Richard Watson

Becoming Skilful

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. Adventure sports are a precious experience that we still share, and I am fortunate to be writing this article at the end of an awesome skiing holiday with him.


Watching, questioning and learning

If you have read the article about motivation you will know that my son quit paddlesports at the age of eight after going to just one organized club session. He started again after a fortuitous conversation with some of the Bangor University canoe club members, ten years later. He was instantly hooked and within a matter of months was paddling harder than I ever could, and not just at canoe polo. During this time he was super keen to be out as much as possible and I tried to find places that I could go with him. On one of these early trips, I took him to the Canolfan Tryweryn (CT) during their annual Piranha Festival. The great thing about CT was that I could walk along the bank and watch, without him having to look after, rescue or wait for me.

After some time at the easy upper sections, I wandered down to the café to wait for him. Sitting outside, latte in hand, I watched the constant stream of paddlers stop and play on the ‘café wave’. I watched them nonchalantly. They were like small groups of ants, seething over the edge and into the eddies, most of them following the same patterns on the ‘cafe wave’ each time as they dropped over it, or stopped and played, before disappearing down river. I recognised the distinct pattern of Sam’s paddle movements and was instantly focused. Sam flew over the lip of the wave and skidded into the eddy on the café side. With a big grin, he said a quick ‘hi mum’ and got into the queue for playing on the wave.

Sam on an early river trip, Glaslyn

Sam in his rickety old playboat about to get on the river

Sam had never paddled the Tryweryn before and was still very green, but he had already developed a solid white water roll, even in his secondhand rickety old playboat. When it was his turn to have a play on the wave he paddled hard into it, got spat off the edge and flipped over. After what seemed like too many attempts, he rolled up on the edge of the next drop. From where he rolled up he was unable to cross the river again and had to wait his turn from the eddy on the other side of the cafe wave. The other paddlers did the same thing as the groups before them. Dropped in at the same place, followed the same patterns on the wave (mostly) and dropped off again. Sam’s next turn produced the same result as his first.


He looked up at me enquiringly, I signalled to him to watch and pointed towards the place at the top of the wave that the other paddlers were using to get onto it. He moved further back in the eddy and found a good place to observe from. After watching more of the other paddlers, with different abilities and different boats, all using similar parts of the wave, he asked one of them to confirm his observations and tried again. This time he got onto the wave but dropped off again pretty quickly. After more watching and more experimenting he started getting a reasonable amount of success. His paddling become smoother and his grin got bigger, and he joined in the banter of the group that was there. I finished my latte and mused about how quickly he was learning and how confident he was. I thought about how much he was able to experiment because he trusted his white water roll so much. And how in contrast, on white water, I always concentrated on staying in my comfort zone and doing the same thing. Carefully. Because I didn’t trust mine.

We agreed to meet next at the little footbridge at the bottom of the car park for the CT centre. When I got there, there was a small group being coached. We said ‘hi’ and I stood in the middle of the bridge to wait for Sam to come down. It was not long before I saw him, following one of the better paddlers he had been exchanging banter with on the café wave earlier. As the paddler in front of him got closer to the drop, he changed his angle, then powered up and aimed at a semi-submerged rock just above the lip of the drop. He flew gracefully over the edge and landed in the pool at the bottom. I then watched in abject horror as Sam aimed for the same rock and paddled as hard as he could. He hit the rock, rotated ungracefully over the edge, and landed upside down in the middle of a group being coached. He rolled up and grinned sheepishly at everyone.


What information was Sam using?

After berating Sam soundly for risking going over the edge of an unknown drop upside down and out of control, we settled on our usual musings over the day’s adventures. The main focus of these reflections was the difference between the information he needed to paddle the river compared to playing canoe polo. In polo, he was focused on the other players, their speed, direction, reading their intentions, the group interactions, and the position of the ball and goals. He had very little experience of reading moving water.


The first thing he pointed out was that he was paying attention to the lines that the other paddlers took and trying to see what water features they were using to move around the river. This was particularly evident on the ‘café wave’, when, after failing to get on it, he then made extensive use of the visual information that he was exposed to from the other paddlers. These visual demonstrations were helping to reduce the complexity of the information available to him by refining his visual ‘search space’. It was also providing him with information about speed and timing, as well as the ability to link perceptual and tactical information to movement outcomes. Asking for cues from me and questioning the other paddlers had allowed Sam to further reduce the overwhelming amount of information available to him at that time. He was learning to recognize the wave features and affordances. Some of these affordances were shared between different abilities and boat types, others were not. Watching all of the other paddlers with their different boats and levels of success had given Sam the opportunity to experience a hugely rich variety of tactics and their effectiveness.


So, what do we mean by the term affordances? This is a concept from general psychology to explain how we individually make sense of the world around us. Particularly in terms of what movement and actions we are offered (afforded) by the environment that we are in. For each of us, these are unique, but many basic ones are shared because we share many experiences. We are also, as a species, attuned to pick up the same perceptual information (more or less). The features that most of the paddlers were using were the same; the easiest and most obvious lines down the river and the most efficient ways get on and off the features they were playing on.


Using the semi-submerged rock to boof over the last drop was an affordance that Sam would never have picked up without seeing someone else do it. However, just because he could see the other paddler adeptly utilize it, did not mean that he could too! He did not have the skill or perception-action coupling to be able to capably mimic what he had seen. Here, the use of a visual demonstration was generating new opportunities. It was offering creative solutions that he had never even thought of, firing his imagination, inspiring, and offering new possibilities. It is worth mentioning, however, that seeing only one way to do something can constrain creativity and lead to attempts to mimic a single reductionist solution or technique. Highly skilled performers have affordances that they have developed through practice. Both Aled and JD described worlds that they were tightly attuned to. In an interview about other elite paddlers, Nouria Newmann said of another elite paddler, Ariol Serrasolses. “I would like to be in his brain for a river to see what he sees. I think he just perceives things differently.”


That day at CT, the other main focus of our conversations was the wider context in which all of his activity had happened. The way he had been able to play and experiment with confidence due to his reliable roll. But it was not just the roll. Sam had also taken his playfulness and his deeply curious, gregarious, and self-motivated attitude from the way he street-skated with his friends, skied and went bouldering. He was being highly autonomous. And he was happy to spend a lot of time in his ‘ugly zone’. These were things that we discussed less at the time because for him, it was normal. Sam thought little about the way in which he practised because it was what he always did. That day, he wanted to talk about the information that he needed to become attuned to on the river. What I found fascinating was that this reflected the descriptions of the information and experiences that elite performers like Aled and JD had described to me (in part 1). Sam was becoming skilful through developing his ability to perceive the river and understand how he could use and interact with the features he was becoming attuned to.

Darren Joy paddling with great skill in the Grand Canyon. Photo by Glyn Brackenbury.
DarrenJoy picWW


I would like to thank all of the people who helped in the writing of this article. There are so many people I 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. I would particularly like to thank Greg Spencer and Sam Davies for their input and encouragement in writing this series.

Developing Skill Part 1. Listening to the elite

A fresh look at the information we need to become skilful; the role of instructions, demonstrations and feedback in coaching.

Sam Davies KGB-1644Sam Davies skilfully reading the rock on KGB at Willyabrup in Western Australia. Photo by Siu On.

During my undergraduate years in the mid-1990s, I had two fascinating conversations that left a very big and lasting impression on me. One was with a paddler called Aled Lloyd Williams, then a member and coach of the UK rodeo team (now known as freestyle); the other was with a climber called Johnny Dawes who was arguably the most revolutionary climber of that era.


The first of these conversations was with Aled. I had just had a rather disastrous first time at Stanley Embankment. Stanley is a single standing wave, formed when the entire Irish Sea tries to flood through a small tunnel under the road (& now railway) to Holyhead, and into the Inland Sea. Aled had persuaded me to go with a group of friends from Anglesey and must have watched with great mirth as my little micro-bat and I just ricocheted between the tunnel walls, back and forth across the wave like a ping pong ball, before being unceremoniously spat off. I landed upside down in the boily eddylines, failed to roll up more times that I could count, and went for a long swim. Everything happened so fast. I had no control and no idea what was happening. I then watched in awe as Aled dropped onto the wave, carved and spun gracefully and with purpose for what seemed like ages, twiddled his paddles above his head and then dismounted like a gymnast. He executed a full summersault before landing in the eddy next to me; the right way up, facing the wave and with a huge grin!


Back at the bar at the ‘Valley of the Rocks’ I asked Aled how he got off the wave with a summersault. Then I listened as he described a completely alien world to me. My memories are of him chatting rapidly about the wave features and the surrounding environment as a four-dimensional movie of movement opportunities. Flitting from fish eye to bird’s eye view, describing balance points and where he was at every moment in the rapidly changing space and time of the experience. It was like listening to someone describe an acid trip or a sci-fi movie.


A short time later, still thinking about the conversation with Aled, I took the opportunity to ask Johnny Dawes (JD) about his dyno-ing (jumping for climbing holds). JD’s description of his climbing experiences was even more alien to me than Aled’s paddling ones. My memory is of him not only having an exquisite understanding and awareness of the dimensions of time and space, pressure and feel, but also talking about the musicality of the movements, acceleration and inertia, slowing down to ‘land’ on the holds. He even hummed some of the dynos to me… Like Aled, he was not describing movement form, he was describing an environment of movement possibilities and opportunities that I could not comprehend or share. There was something utterly fascinating about the way they were both experiencing their relative sporting worlds.


When I wrote this introduction, I asked Aled and JD for their thoughts (twenty-five years later) about my memories of these conversations. I understand human memory well enough to be mindful of how much mine could be distorted over that much time. Both were very happy with my account. This was JD’s reply. “I agree with you totally. The ecology of the situation must choose the response. That is down to live-ness, precision information and listening to when to move. I know this. So there you are. It’s a dance, not a defined task. Even with something solidesque like rock. The relationship is not so solid. You move…it moves.”


You may be wondering why I am telling you this story at the beginning of an article about conveying information in coaching. Well, when I think about what information an athlete or learner needs, I always end up thinking about those conversations again and the many I have had since. And, more importantly, feeling just a little uncomfortable about the difference between the information that Aled and JD talked about using, and the information that I have been encouraged to convey to those I coach.

Canoe B&W

What information are we trying to convey to those we coach? Photo by Lizzy Canoe.

What do we use information for?

How do we use instructions, demonstrations and feedback to develop the skill of those we coach? For simplicity, we will set aside the conversations about agreeing on goals and framing expectations for now and focus on the information that we can give during practice.


Many of the coaches I work with have the understanding that they utilize instructions, demonstrations and feedback to convey information to their learners about correct ‘technical movement form’. This typically narrows the learner’s focus of attention to specific parts of their body or equipment and reduces movement exploration and variability. Feedback is used as a mechanism for informing the learner of the gap between what they have just done and the ideal technical template; like a game of dynamic spot the difference.


Coaches have also historically been encouraged to communicate this information about movement form based on a model of individual learning styles (VAK).  According to this (now thankfully debunked) model of preferred learning styles, there are three key ways in which information can be exchanged: through verbal instructions, visual demonstrations and practice. Rookie coaches are still encouraged to use all three by giving a silent demonstration using ‘correct technique’, adding some targeted verbal instruction (for example; what is happening with the body, the boat and the blade), and then setting up some structured practice. Often generally done on an environmental ‘blank canvass’ and in isolation of a context. This scatter-gun approach of conveying information with the three information sources was recommended to begin with so that the coaches were providing the same information in a variety of ways.


Using this system of instruction, demonstration and feedback as a mechanism to relay information about the difference between current and ideal movement form (i.e. position of the body) is based on a theory of learning known as information processing. This theory of learning came from computer programming analogies and has a focus on technical templates, explicit cognition and producing movements in isolation of the dynamic environments in which they will eventually be performed in and embedded.

Pete Robbins

Photo: Pete Robins on Manic Strain in Dinorwic Quarry. Photo by Jethro Kiernan.

Elite performers like Aled and JD are often described as being unable to remember how they learnt. They have supposedly forgotten the declarative, technical and form-based information that they used to learn. But what if they have not forgotten? The information that they describe is about the opportunities for movement and action being offered to them through their perceptions of the environment. In other words, they are paying attention to, and have a deep understanding of their performance environment. What happens if we put aside the information processing model of learning, explore some different ones, and listen to what the elite performers say instead of dismissing them because we are expecting to understand their experiences?


In the following sections of this article, we are going to explore what information is used when learning and performing movement skills in adventure sports. We will also examine the wider context of the learning experience and compare this to what information highly skilled performers like Aled and JD describe experiencing and attending to; as well as the wider context in which they perform. Finally, we will explore what this may mean to us as coaches, and how we can develop skilful performance in a way that functionally supports information, practice and social needs.



I would like to thank all of the people who helped in the writing of this article. There are so many people I 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. I would particularly like to thank Greg Spencer and Sam Davies for their input and encouragement in writing this series.





Do we need to understand coaching theory?

Fluid dynamics, weather systems and coaching adventure sports


olly pics2 063 

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

Adventure sports coaches typically support individuals to operate confidently and competently in changeable and complex environments. To do this we need to understand how people learn to interpret their environment, make decisions and move skillfully.


An ecological dynamics (ED) theory approach to coaching and learning views human movement as an interaction between the individual, the activity and the environment in which the activity is taking place. This approach emerged from the application of dynamical systems theory and ecological psychology6 to motor learning and is the underpinning theory for the ‘constraints’ led approach to structuring practice. All of you who coach or participate in adventure sports will be familiar with aspects of this approach already. You will intuitively recognise and understand it even if you have not used it to understand movement and learning. This is a brief introduction to the concepts and theories behind an ED approach to coaching and learning. In the following articles, armed with this understanding, we can look at the implications that this approach has for coaching adventure sports.


Understanding Learning

Do we need theories in order to provide a framework for understanding learning? Unfortunately, we can’t just open up a human 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 use will inform our expectations, our decision making as coaches and our coaching behaviour.


Traditionally coaching practice has used motor programming or information processing theories7 to describe and understand how we learn to move skillfully. The main reason for this is that the basic concepts and the language used are more established in our coaching literature and behaviour, and in our education systems. Because of this, many coaches will be more familiar with the ‘information processing’ approach and find it easier to understand.


What is ‘information processing’ theory?

In very simplistic terms information processing theory attempts to understand how we move and how we learn by using computer programming analogies. This is based on how computers process information. There is an input, various programmes (usually shown as boxes), and an output. The more complex the movement, the more boxes! The programmes do things like recognise, organise, initiate, carry out, and monitor intended actions; for example:




Stimulus Identification Response


Response Programming Movement


An example information processing model for the Human7

Whilst this approach is appealingly simple it does have a number of problems.  These include; limited storage space (for all those programmes and all those boxes), slow reaction times, top-down control, no account of movement variability, no account of non-linear behaviour, the ‘degrees of freedom’ problem (too many variables to individually control), no link to performance environments or perceptual information, and issues with how the programmes are programmed in the first place.


If we assume that we all agree that God didn’t write the programmes and we don’t have Numskulls living in our heads (for those old enough to remember them from the Beano), then we have a problem. This is known as the problem of infinite regress, or, if the Numskulls are controlling Edd’s head who’s controlling the Numskulls?


The Numskulls: There’s a lot going on in Edd’s head!


Another potential problem is that the variables are usually depicted as having sequential, linear relationships making it easy to design simple experiments to test them (i.e. variable A: causes, moderates or mediates variable B:). The research and experiments are also usually conducted in laboratory settings using very simple movements. The guiding assumption is that to truly understand a relationship you need to strip away everything else that could possibly influence it and test it in isolation. Then you need to assume that when it is put it back in the whole (a complex movement in a dynamic and complex environment), the relationship between the variables stays the same.


This is a bit like viewing us, and how we move and interact, as though we were mechanical clocks. If you dismantle a clock and look at the various components in isolation, they still behave the same way as they did when it was a whole clock. But we can’t do that with people, and we know that it would not work as a mechanical clock if we could.


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. There was lots of research looking at how we physically moved and how we perceived our environment, however, at that time most researchers were still using motor programming theories to understand how we learnt new movements. The emergence of the ED and the constraints-led approach as a coherent framework for understanding skill acquisition has been a huge boon to those of us who coach and design learning contexts.


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

‘Dynamical systems’ is a mathematical theory of complex systems (like people, not 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 dynamics5. Weather and our waters do not behave like mechanical clocks; there is 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 starts to rise, does it just become a proportionally faster and bigger version of what it was in low water? Of course not. Features appear, fluctuate, mutate, and disappear again. However, the features on the River Tryweryn will be recognisable at specific cumecs of dam release (all other constraints being equal), and high tide hole on the Menai Strait will form during predictable tidal heights and directions. 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 constraints.


Dan Soana

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. 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 learning. If you speed up your ‘out of phase’ movements enough (unless well learnt) they will start to become unstable and then spontaneously go back ‘into phase’. In phase and out of phase are not different motor programmes but the result of self-organisation of our movement system.


A familiar psychological example is the ‘catastrophe curve’ theory of the ‘stress and performance’ relationship3. The catastrophe curve predicts that performance will increase with increases in arousal levels (stress) up to a point, then it will start to drop. However, at some point, it starts to become unstable and will eventually drop off dramatically. Once this happens, you have to significantly reduce arousal levels to get back onto the performance curve again. There are many of us who have tipped over this point, some never getting back on.


The problem with humans; perception, intention and free will!

The concept of direct perception was proposed by James Gibson in the 1970’s4. 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 and that affords movement and survival.


Sam Davies KGB-1640-2

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


This concept of direct perception and affordance means that we have perception-action coupling. This perception-action coupling is strengthened through learning and becoming more attuned to information available to us that is relevant for movement2. 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, skier or any other adventure sports participant. An experienced climber will see patterns and affordances in the rock features 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.


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 pre-conceptions, motivation, inspiration, or lack of interest. These psychological and cognitive factors, whilst creating more complexity for coaches to think about, form some of the individual (organismic) constraints in skill acquisition1. It is worth noting that an ED approach does not have a clear and testable explanation of internal representation, cognition or emotion (yet). It does, however, allow us to get rid of some of the black boxes (and the Numskulls). Other individual constraints include things that are easier to measure, like fitness, body size and shape, right or left-handedness, injuries, and technical abilities.


What does all this mean to us as coaches?

As a coach, it is worth thinking about the implications of learning being about developing perception-action coupling. What are the implications of the authenticity of the practice, or learning environment? Does it contain the same perceptual information as the performance environment? When viewed as an interaction between the individual, the task (or skill), and the environment, how important is it that information (perceptual) and outcome are focused on in coaching rather than movement form. What would this mean in terms of designing learning programmes and practice schedules? What are the implications of ‘perception-action coupling’, ‘self-organisation’, ‘attractor states’, and ‘instability’ existing in movement, skill acquisition and performance? We will expand on these concepts in the following articles and explore how we can use an ED approach practically in our coaching practice.


River jumping

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

About the author 

Marianne’s practical experience includes more than 20 years of coaching and 8 years as a coaching manager, coach educator & assessor. This is complemented with a passion for participating in most adventure sports and many years as an active Mountain Rescue team member, giving an insight into diverse aspects of performance in the outdoors. Her main interests are climbing, paddlesports and equestrian activities. Marianne is currently doing a PhD (Developing an ecological dynamics model of skill acquisition) at Hartpury University. Marianne has an MRes. (Distinction) Sport & Exercise Science (Motivation & Skill Acquisition and a BSc (Hons), Sport, Health and Physical Education.              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.
  1. Davids, Button & Bennett (2008). Dynamics of Skill Acquisition; A Constraints-led Approach, Kinetics.
  2. Hardy, L and Fazey, J. (1987). The inverted-u hypothesis: a catastrophe for sport psychology and a statement of of a new hypothesis. In Jones, G. and Hardy, L (1990), Stress and performance in sport, Wiley and Sons Ltd.
  1. Gibson, J. J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillside, HJ: Erlbaum.
  2. Gleick, J. (1988), Chaos: The amazing science of the unpredictable, Minerva.
  3. Renshaw, I., Davids, K., and Savelsbergh, G. J. P, (Eds.) (2011) Motor learning in practice; A constrains-led approach. Routledge.
  1. Schmidt, R. A., (1988). Motor control and Learning; A behavioural emphasis (2nd Ed). Human Kinetics.



Would you like to feel more motivated?

A hard lesson in motivation

Being involved with horses is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. On a massive high one day, desperately struggling the next. There is so much that we can’t control that staying motivated and really loving it sometimes seems more down to luck than anything we can do.

A big learning experience for me came when I went to have showjumping lessons with one of my horses many years ago. We were doing really well in the local unaffiliated classes, and we generally won everything up to 1.15m. A local instructor persuaded me that what I really needed was some lessons to get us to the next level and compete in affiliated classes. Within two months I had totally lost my confidence, my ability and my motivation. I should have read the warning signs when he said that I ‘needed him’ to be successful, that I could never do it on my own. My need for autonomy is high and I know I struggle with any threat of losing it.

To be honest, I thought that I could protect myself from the negative effects of his coaching as I knew that it was not intentional. He passionately believed in what he was doing. As an experienced coach myself, well versed in motivation theory and sports psychology, I believed that I could anaesthetise myself from the negative motivational impact. But I couldn’t. Even with all that awareness, I couldn’t stop being affected. The experience really brought it home to me that our motivation and confidence is not just ‘in our heads’, but part of our interaction with the world around us, socially and physically.

This might seem like a daft question but, do you know what really motivates you?

Have you always thought that your motivation is simply a result of your own behaviours and attitudes? Perhaps you sometimes feel guilty for not being as motivated as you would like to be? Research into motivation and behavioural regulation (controlling our own behaviour) suggests that we are very much influenced by how we feel about the support we get from those around us, particularly people who are important to us such as parents, partners, teachers and coaches. Understanding this can help you to create a more supportive environment for yourself and boost your self-motivation and enjoyment.

Our motivation is influenced by our perceptions of the support we get from those around us. Particularly people who are important to us like parents,  partners, teachers, and coaches.

Justine and support

The joy of being with other people who are passionate and skilful. Lusitano English Class, Royal Windsor Horse Show. Justine Armitage and her support team at Aintree International. Photo by Simon Armitage

As a coach, my interest in studying motivation was initially influenced by the way my son responded to the learning environments he experienced when he was young. One, in particular, stands out. 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 canoeing with me too. Then, ten years later, after a conversation with total strangers, he joined the Bangor University canoe polo club for a practice session. One day with them and he was hooked! He learnt quickly, become very skilful and ten years on he is still playing.

I was curious… How could one experience put him off so completely, and another inspire him so much? What was so different about the two experiences? If we understood what was influencing our motivation, could we be more savvy about ensuring that we have positive experiences (& our kids too)? After my experience with the showjumping lessons, I reflected again on my son’s experiences. I began to really focus on the motivational environment that I created with the people that I was coaching, and eventually, it inspired me to go back to university and do some more research.

Motivation Theories

There are many theories about motivation, but the one we’ll look at here is particularly useful for sports. It is called the Self Determination Theory, or SDT for short. SDT is made up of a number of micro-theories one of which is called the Basic Psychological Needs Theory. According to the Basic Psychological Needs Theory, motivation to engage in an activity is influenced by the support, and subsequent satisfaction of, three innate basic needs. These are the need for:

  1. Autonomy (a sense of control over your own life and personal volition),
  2. Competence (the need to be effective and skilful),
  3. Relatedness (the desire to feel connected to, and cared for, by others).

Motivation to engage in something (anything) can be increased by the satisfaction of any, but optimised by the satisfaction of all three, basic psychological needs. Interestingly, the satisfaction of these basic needs is not only very important for motivation, but also for overall health and well-being.

How does satisfying our basic needs influence motivation?

As human beings, we are inherently driven towards being creative and curious. This means that we will actively seek opportunities to satisfy our needs; to be masters of our own destiny, to be effective and feel connected.

If we do something that leads to our needs being satisfied, our motivation increases and we become more self-determined (self-motivated). You might have started riding horses because your parents did, or maybe your parents took you to a riding school, or your friends invited you to have a go. I’m guessing it was a good experience if you are still riding now.

Dysgu water

Marianne Davies and Dysgu having fun in the water at Somerford Park

Your motivation to continue to ride is likely to have become more self-determined over time because you were within a rewarding social context and your basic needs for relatedness, competence and autonomy were being satisfied.

Changing your motivational environments

Let’s look at a few examples of how you might make your own environment more supportive:

  • Your social groups

Have a think about your relationship with the people you ride with, train with and/or compete with. What about the people you spend time within your local riding club? Do you share ideas and values? Are you part of a supportive group of riders who celebrate each other’s success? Being amongst like-minded people is very important for your perceptions of relatedness and feeling valued, which in turn will increase your motivation. And being around people who are passionate and skilful has a positive effect on everyone.

Iberian line up

The joy of being with other people who are passionate and skilful. Lusitano English Class, Royal Windsor Horse Show. Photo by Simon Armitage

For those of you who don’t have your own facilities, a big challenge for your motivation is the whole complex environment of the livery yard. From the other livery owners and the yard owners to the rules that are in force on the yard. Is it somewhere you love being and can’t wait to get to every day? A big and important part of your social life?  …or is it somewhere that causes you stress and anxiety?

Maybe you spend much of your time on your own, intentionally or not. In the modern world of social media, we can create virtual support networks even if we can’t create real ones. Remember that the social environment you are part of is important for your motivation.

Yard and dog                                                                                                                                                                 A happy yard is important for you and your horse. Photo by ForagePlus

  •  What about you and your horse(s)?

Equestrian sports are unique because our performance partners are sentient animals. Although motivation theories have not been used to explore human-animal relationships, most people involved say that they ‘love’ their horses and value their relationships with them. This means that our relationship with our horse could also affect our motivation. How would you describe your relationship with your horse? Is the relationship part of what you love about riding and equestrian sports, or is it a source of conflict or frustration?

Relationship issues with your horse could impact on your feelings of competence and autonomy too. Sometimes spending time getting to really know your horse and doing something different, perhaps some in hand or liberty work can really improve your relationship.

Sarah and Smurf in hand

Sarah Braithwaite and Smurf getting to know each other better in hand. Photo by Forageplus

And what about your goals and aspirations? Is your horse able to fulfil them? Or do you need to re-evaluate what you want to achieve, or what you need to do with your horse to get there?

  •  Having lessons

Autonomy support:

  • Do you and your coach agree long and short term goals?
  • Who makes most of the decisions regarding your lessons? Do you have an input?
  • Are you able to choose your own level of challenge?
  • Do they provide opportunities for you to take initiatives and work independently?

Competence support:

  • Does your coach make sure that you have the knowledge and understanding you need to practice what you have been learning between lessons?
  • Do they provide competence feedback (acknowledging when you do things well instead of pointing out ‘faults’), and use non-controlling language (no use of words like ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘have to’… etc)?
  • Do they promote a mastery rather than ego involvement (developing your own performance and setting up tasks, manège patterns and exercises that allow you to recognise your own improvements)?
  • Are you still challenged and supported to be successful?

Relatedness support:

  • Are your feelings acknowledged and respected? Particularly anxiety or fear?
  • Does your coach explain the reasons behind what they ask you to do?
  • Do they avoid providing support that is not needed, or restricting opportunities to take initiatives, make decisions or be more independent? This is known as ‘controlling-support’.
  • Do they interact with you and show genuine interest in you and your horse?

If the answer to these questions is mostly ‘no’, you may need to challenge your coach to change some of their behaviours! If it is ‘yes’, give your coach a hug and keep hold of them! Coaches need motivation too!

  • Can we apply any of this to understand our horses’ motivation?

Whilst there is no specific research into equine motivation, there is some fascinating research being done at the moment into equine ethology and learning. The work of people like Dr Andrew McLean and Professor Paul McGreevy is of particular interest from a motivational point of view. According to McLean, not only do horses have a need to be free of pain, fear, and suffering but they also have a need to feel in control (have some autonomy) and to have some self-determination.

A  horse’s mental health is linked to their ridden and training experiences.

McLean also highlights that a horse’s mental health is linked to their ridden and training experiences. Whilst horses have a very different cognitive and learning capacity to humans, there is clear evidence that they do not learn best from simple punishment and reward, but from shaping their behaviour and rewarding incremental success.  This is very much a mastery focus for training your horse. Although we know that horses do not think the same way as us, it makes intuitive sense to acknowledge that a prey animal has a need to feel competent in their environment and movement ability.

We also know that horses, as herd animals, need to have strong social bonds to feel safe. Safe with us as their riders and trainers, and safe with a herd that they are able to spend time with.


Your motivation is not only influenced by you having a goal and intentions, but also by the little details of your everyday experiences that can create a supportive environment and satisfy your basic psychological needs. These are the needs to have autonomy, become competent and have meaningful relationships.  You might be surprised about how much difference you can make to your self-motivation, and enjoyment, by ensuring that you have as much support as possible.

Sarah and Morris

Sarah Braithwaite fulfilling her goals and supporting the needs of her Arab CSA Maurice. Photo by ForagePlus

Think through all of your equine experiences – which are supportive and which are not? What can you change? If you can’t change something that is not supportive, can you find a different way to make it work for you?

Don’t forget your partner. After all, for most of us, it is the love of our horses that is the most important part of our sport.

Justine passage

The fabulously competent Justine Armitage performing at a dressage Demo. Photo by Simon Armitage

It is interesting for me to think back on my son’s experiences with the two canoe clubs knowing what I now know about motivation and how much it is influenced by the support of autonomy, competence and relatedness needs. His experiences were very much a result of the environments that he was in at those moments in time and summed up perfectly for me how important and influential those environments are to all of us. We cannot become really skilful without passion and motivation, and we can’t develop those without self-determination.


This article is based on my postgraduate research, but most importantly many conversations and the freely given knowledge and passion of too many people to individually mention. I would like to thank all of my friends and colleagues who proofread this for me, those who willingly offered pictures for me to use and the fabulous communities of support and practice that I am part of, both real and virtual. I would also like to thank both Paul McGreevy and Andrew McLean for taking the time to proofread the sections about the horse and confirm my interpretation of their research.

Beach with Dysgu & River

Marianne Davies and El Brown having fun at the beach with River Tiger and Dysgu. Photo by Matt Tuck

Marianne Davies

Marianne has been a coach and coach educator for over 20 years as well as conducting research in motivation, learning and skill acquisition. She is currently at Hartpury University doing a PhD researching skill acquisition in equestrian sports coaching. Her main interests are equestrian activities, climbing, mountaineering, and paddlesports.

MRes. (Distinction) Sport & Exercise Science – Influence of motivation on skill acquisition. BSc (Hons), Sport, Health & Physical Education.

Copyright remains with the author