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

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.