I believe How We Learn to Move by Rob Gray got on my reading list thanks to a mention in a coaching group. As is often the case, it sat there for some time before I actually got around to buying it. Coincidentally, I did that shortly before coming across an episode from the author’s Perception & Action podcast. That episode was about some research showing that more traditional skill training via drills produces less retention than working in a game context. Not a new finding, but it motivated me to start reading the book. The funny thing is that while I may have unconsciously known of the link between the podcast and the book, I wasn’t thinking about it consciously. The podcast just happened to motivate me to do some reading on skill acquisition.

As his bio notes, Gray is a university professor. He’s been doing research on, and teaching courses related to, perceptual-motor skill for more than 25 years. Baseball is clearly a top sport for him, but the book brings in examples from several sports. That includes volleyball.

First, a couple negatives

Let me first address some criticism I noted in the reviews of the book. Several readers commented on the lack of editing. It definitely does suffer somewhat from that. It didn’t impact my reading experience much, however. I guess it depends on the reader.

I will note, however, that the first couple chapters are a challenge. They do create the foundation for the rest of the book, but they don’t exactly suck you in. Get through them, though. Things get a lot more directly “usable” once you do. And that carries through the remainder of the text.

Now, the good stuff

The starting point of the book is the idea that the traditional approach to skill training with its focus on trying to teach the one “right” technique is flawed. Basically, there can be no one correct technique because there’s too much variance in conditions – some external, some internal. The research supports this by showing that expert performers actually show more variation in their skill execution than average performers do. They essentially are adjusting to that condition variance from repetition to repetition. The upshot of this is that true skill development requires variation.

Further, Gray talks about how the the research can’t support the old model of breaking a skill apart into components. That’s things like “…hitting balls off tees in baseball, running through ‘agility’ ladders or tires in football, hitting balls tossed underhand by a coach in tennis, practicing the ball toss in a volleyball serve without striking it, doing passing lines in basketball, etc.” He makes the point that in doing this “decomposition” we take the purpose out of the action, which has a negative impact on motivation.

The other key point is the close link between perception and action. This means our actions tie in to the cues and other information we take in from the environment. That’s both external and internal. In other words, we cannot disconnect skill from the context in which it’s executed.

Put these together and you have a strong underpinning for training in conditions as similar to game-like as possible. To quote Gray:

“In the new way of thinking about skill acquisition, the preferred method for reducing the complexity of sports for new learners is task simplification instead of decomposition. In task simplification, the whole movement is always completed. Movement and information always coupled.”

Going game-like, but not just simply playing

The big focus of the book is the Constraints-Led Approach (CLA) to skill development, though Gray does also introduce Differential Learning (DL). While DL is about trying to break away from set patterns by inducing high variability, CLA is about the athlete exploring solutions while operating under a set of limitations. In other words, task simplification rather than decomposition.

Here’s how someone else defines it.: “The CLA advocates a hands-off approach, where the coach designs the environment and directs learning by manipulating the constraints, rather than using prescriptive instructions and corrective feedback.”

Manipulating the constraints means doing things like changing court dimensions or the number of players. It could involve changing the rules or altering the scoring system. Technically, the rules and equipment of the game are their own set of constraints, but for our purposes we’re talking about adjusting things from there.

Getting it right

It’s not just about the constraints, though. Gray notes:

“A common misconception about this new approach to skill is that it is just “set it and forget it”. That is, once a coach designs practice, they must just let it run, without saying anything or stepping in. Just let them play games, don’t coach them on how to do it. That could not be further from the truth.”

Now, coaches have used constraints in different ways for a long time. As Gray indicates, however, they’ve been doing it from the wrong perspective – one that doesn’t focus on allowing the players and teams to self-organize their way to solutions.

“While it is true that coaches have been reducing the number of players and size of the playing area for a long time, it was typically not done with goals that were compatible with the CLA. For example, a common experience that I have had in observing soccer and hockey practices over the years is for coaches to set up as small sided or conditioned game, let the players start, then stop it in less than a minute so that they correct something that was done wrong (e.g., a player not passing to the correct teammate). Clearly, this is not promoting self-organization and exploration but rather using smaller numbers and smaller spaces to coach ideal solutions.”

And more

There’s a lot more to all of this, of course. That includes a chapter about how injury prevention links to variability of technique. I’ve commented before that a good judge of the how useful a book is how many nuggets I’ve pulled out. I grabbed several more quotes beyond those above, so this book definitely got and held my attention. Definitely give How We Learn to Move a read, or listen if you prefer audio books.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager for Volleyball England (overseeing the national team pipeline systems), as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

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