Approximately one year ago, as we collectively approached the start of the 2018 NFL season, I wrote a blog post where I proclaimed a renewed sense of focus that I was planning to take for the blog’s Movement Plays of the Week where I also implored readers to ‘respect the problem.’
Week-to-week as the season played out, I attempted to draw attention to ‘the movement problem’ that the player in our featured blog post was presented with solving. More importance was given to individuals who faced greater complexity within the problems they found themselves in as well as those players who were able to execute under the constraints of key performance inhibitors that are the reality of playing the sport of American football at the highest levels such as anxiety, pressure, fatigue, and pain.
All throughout the season, I kept with the focus that any analysis on this blog site has always been about: an individual organizing a multi-dimensional movement solution that most closely fits the problem at-hand and, thus, one that goes well beyond the evaluation of some putative, idealistic technical model of movement from a mechanical sense.
As last season’s emphasis continued to evolve and materialize, it allowed me to have more opportunities to encourage each reader to realize: The problem is always talking to the player…and the key lies is determining what it is saying. Obviously, it doesn’t literally ‘speak’ to a player, but the problem does communicate with them, and it does this through the information and energy transactions which take place between the problem and the solver.
It is here then, in this information, that we find one of the most vital concepts of movement science. Matter of fact, if we are ever going to understand the movement problem solving processes of an athlete in a sporting environment to the degree that I personally desire to, we must first more deeply examine the information which is exchanged between the problem and the solver as they interact with one another.
Because of it’s importance, I thought this was the best place to focus more of our attention on in our movement skill breakdowns this upcoming season. So, key questions that I will ask and attempt to shed further light on from my perspective will include:
1. What is the nature, the range, and the bandwidth of information existent in the problems of the player’s world during that specific play?
2. What are the potential specifying informational variables?
3. How is the player perceiving (i.e. picking up and detecting) the specifying information?
4. How is the player utilizing that information which has been detected in the organization of his movement? Specifically, what is the role of the information for the guiding of the coordination and control of his movement behaviors?
It should be noted that when attempting to answer these questions, I will personally be employing an ecological dynamics-oriented framework in viewing the context of information in these problem-solution dynamics (as I have been for years here but in case you are new to what I do!). Namely, concepts such as direct perception, perceptual attunement, affordances, and perception-action coupling, will be at the forefront of our discussions.
Why the need for this ‘information-based’ approach?
At the heart of this ecological dynamics framework will exist a more systems-oriented line of thinking where we will study the relationships between component parts of the systems at play and how they configure together to form a whole rather than being examined piece by piece (Clarke and Crossland, 1985). Furthermore, in a tightly coupled unified system, the flow of some resource through the system is its primary integration factor that allows it to act as a whole (systemsinnovation.io). Of course, when it comes to movement problem solving in sport, information is that integration factor and it’s why its as equally powerful for us to study as it is for the athlete to intimately connect to.
Concepts which make up ecological psychology take this another step further and begin to apply it in the study of human movement behavior in sport. At its most basic level, these related ideas would state that “the on-going control and regulation of movement is predicated on the role of information that emerges from the individual-environment system to guide movement activity (Seifert and Davids, 2015).”
If you have ever even remotely studied kinesiology, motor behavior, motor control, or motor learning, you will certainly have heard of information. However, what it is comprised of and what its role will be in perceptual-motor control, will be entirely dependent on the theoretical and conceptual lens that you choose to look at the movement behavior through (ranging from a traditional ‘information-processing’ approach to the more contemporary, yet ‘information-based,’ ecological approach).
“Information in the ecological approach refers to specificity between the structured energy distributions available to a perceptual system and the environmental and movement properties causally responsible for that structure (Turvey, 1990).” What Michael Turvey is alluding to here is really the deepness and richness of the patterns of stimulus energy (both internal taking place within the human movement system, as well as external in the outside world) that could be picked-up and detected by the performer (aka perceived), all of which will directly specify action-relevant opportunities.
Giving the idea of information greater practical relevance in the study of movement behavior in sport is the concept of information-movement coupling which is “the development of successful functional relations between movement and information in a specific performance context (Anson, Elliott, and Davids, 2005).” However, in my mind, it goes beyond this, at least as we continue to analyze, understand, and explain how information-movement coupling lives and breathes on a football field.
Essentially, for me, information-movement coupling is where an individual is able to more effectively utilize the information present in a problem to support the movement solution which is organized (again, reminder: in my view, the movement solution is a functional behavioral unit which is underpinned by the intertwined processes of perception, cognition, and action). And that is exactly where our scale of analysis, and the relevance of our investigation of information heading forward in the next four months of NFL Sundays, will take place.
How does the performer connect to this information?
Ultimately, how an individual connects to the information is vital to the movement which will be organized. In this view, information in our contextual world is deep, rich, and contains everything we need to interact with the problem without much need for ‘processing’ in the traditional sense.
However, the information is only meaningful relevant to the perceiver’s goals and intentions (their aims to act in a given way in relation to the problem being faced). Thus, we must attempt to understand the information from the perspective of what the player is aiming to do (as well as what options exist presented by the landscape of the affordances present). The most optimal information to use (which will specify one’s movement actions) will be different depending on the contextual situation but also be due to individual differences because of the individual player’s intrinsic dynamics (i.e. their movement toolbox) and unique affordances for action (and their effectivities).
I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention here the words of ecological psychology innovator, J.J. Gibson, which can serve to guide where many of our upcoming discussions in the 2019 season may flow. Gibson poignantly stated, “We perceive to act and we act to perceive.” Meaning, perception guides action and action generates additional perceptual information; the two are in a relationship of constant circular causality. Overall, it is through this manner that we can start to investigate and assess the behavioral dynamics of that functional movement solution (i.e. how perceptions, cognitions, and actions are coupled together at that moment in time).
It is under this lens then, that we can begin to obtain an understanding regarding the information the player ‘should be’ picking-up and detecting in his environment to carry out those intentions. Of course, it is intuitively obvious to acknowledge that there is also an abundance of information available in our world. We are truly inundated with it and it can become overwhelming if we were to try to attend to it all (besides, it’s impossible anyway).
Because there is so much potential information available, it starts to point to the importance of the performer’s ability to become highly sensitive to the most specifying information that is available in any respective movement problem. Known as ‘perceptual attunement’ (Jacobs and Michaels, 2007), this sensitivity will allow the performer to attend to the ‘right’ information and at the ‘right’ time. This characterization of right versus wrong when it comes to perceptual skill organization is an under-discussed and often misunderstood topic though. Thus, I will be aiming to spend significant time over the course of the season discussing it from a practical perspective (you can bet a common term we have discussed often here in ‘degrees of freedom’ will show up but this time in regards to the perceptual side of the coin).
Often times, individuals interested in movement skill will limit their investigation to the link between where a player is looking and what the player may be attending to. This is definitely an adequate place to begin. However, contrary to popular belief, the two are not always one in the same. Meaning, the eyes could be camped, anchored, or fixated somewhere, and the specifying information needed to couple one’s actions to it is not actually being picked-up or detected (aka the information is not being adequately perceived). Additionally, because of the nature of our study (it’s qualitative and subjective), a certain degree of speculation is needed in order for us to understand and it should be noted that our movement analysis blog posts should be taken with that in mind.
Our Information Emphasis in 2019 and beyond
If you followed along over the course of the 2018 NFL season, you may remember that in our weekly movement analysis post, I included a section where I was already attempting to do exactly what I am suggesting today that I need to do more of: speculating on the information-movement coupling processes of players and, in particular, highlighting the potential landscape of the affordances for action that the player may have been invited to accept which were being specified by the information the world in front of and around him.
So, how will my blog posts look any different headed forwarded now armed with the renewed objectives for us to collectively understand the nature and role of information in the organization of movement skill? Well, I want to really dive in deeper to this endeavor. I want to take you on a journey where we, together, can put ourselves in the player’s movement system and connect ourselves to the information present in the problem through the qualitative analysis of his respective perception, cognition, and action processes which underpin his movement behaviors that we are witnessing.
Finally, you may also remember the concluding section of each one of my Movement Play of the Week posts last season where I attempted to highlight how I personally would aim to address those displayed movement problem solving processes in the learning environment design for my own players. This season we will also take an ‘information-based approach’ here too. Specifically, we will discuss how we can get away from practice settings which are un-informative and instead, begin to gravitate more towards the design of representative tasks which contain a more informative nature for the athlete to couple their movements to; practice tasks which present problems to be solved, those which allow us to constrain to afford/offering of invitations to act, etc…meaning, we will try to answer the question, how do we provide a problem in practice which looks, feels, and acts more like the one that we find players needing to solve on Sundays?
All in all, what we must remind ourselves constantly is: information is power! Hopefully I was able to highlight not only that fact throughout this blog piece but to also energize you all to lock arms with me in the journey of emphasizing its understanding in highly practical fashions in our upcoming football movement analysis this season and beyond.
P.S. Though we are going to be unraveling the ideas around information and information-movement coupling week by week throughout the season, if it’s a topic that invigorates you as much as it does me, let me recommend just a few key places for you to look:
Gibson, J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 1979
Michaels, C and Carello, C. Direct Perception, 1981
Fajen, B, Riley, M, and Turvey, M. Information, affordances, and the control of action in sport. International Journal of Sports Psychology, 2009
Gray, Rob. The Perception-Action Podcast.
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