Expert researcher and PDP contributor, Mark Upton of myfastestmile  discusses the 7 principles of non linear pedagogy. Mark examines how to create an ideal environment for players to focus on task mastery using a constraints approach.

How do players best learn to select & control their actions to meet the demands of a dynamic environment as found in football/rugby/hockey/basketball/netball etc? To help answer this question, below are my interpretations of the key principles from Chow’s (2013) notion of a Nonlinear Pedagogy. Considered through the lens of 15 years experience coaching, analyzing and observing junior and high performance sport, I feel they hold much promise for the design of creative learning spaces that will help players master these dynamic environments.

1) Players (humans) are complex systems whose movements and actions emerge under constraints

Learning & performance is continuously shaped by interacting task, environmental & individual (player) constraints. These constraints vary at different timescales (i.e. body height and weight change relatively slowly compared to feelings of anxiety or fatigue) and their interactional nature can see relatively subtle changes catalysing significant shifts in learning & performance (sometimes termed “nonlinearity”, and hence Nonlinear Pedagogy). The ability of the coach to identify and expertly manipulate constraints is a key in effective learning design & pedagogy. The interactional nature also explains why certain components of performance practiced in isolation, i.e. “technique”, may collapse when task constraints (inclusion of opposing players) and/or individual constraints (emotions) change.

For more insight into the constraints framework in the context of short and long term player development, have a look at my articles “The Perfect Storm” and “Playful Mastery” in issues 5 and 6 of Player Development Project Magazine.

Image: Constraints framework as defined by Newell (1986)

Image: Constraints framework as defined by Newell (1986)


2) Variety is the spice of life!

There is no need to impose a putative “textbook” technique. Instead players must learn to adapt their movements (in milliseconds) to the various situations encountered on the pitch. Being adaptable means players will have a certain degree of functional variability in their movements or, in other words, have a number of ways to solve the problems they are faced with in a match. Therefore, whilst training can still focus on repetition of a particular skill or tactical concept, it must inject sufficient amounts of variability – elegantly termed “repetition without repetition”.

3) Skill Learning = forming of information-movement couplings

During a match there exists a constant stream of “information” that is available to be perceived by the player (in the form of the ball, teammates, opponents, goals, pitch markings, surfaces etc). Learning is the process of becoming attuned to key sources of information* that can be used to complete a task, and coupling with functional movement/action. When the sources of information players are using to select & control their actions (on or off the ball) varies from those used in a match, we may only see limited transfer & gains in the match environment. A most obvious example of this – rarely in a team sport will a cone or marker be present on the field of play that specifies where a player should position themselves…yet this is a common sight in many training sessions.

*in team sports there is another kind of “information” that clearly influences perceptions and actions during the match – that being strategies, set plays, positions, formations etc that are given to players pre-match (and sometimes change during the course of the match). How this kind of information interacts with the information available to be perceived in “real-time” , and how to best incorporate into learning design, is a significant topic that is outside the scope of this post. (Our recent Hangout with Dr Andrew Wilson covers information and task dynamics in much greater detail)

4) Simplification

Whilst trying to avoid completely removing critical information sources, we may need to simplify them to cater for the learners current abilities. We can reduce the speed, distance & variety of trajectories the ball may travel, decrease the number of opponents or player density, and/or enlarge the goals & playing area. We still need to vary these informational constraints over different timescales to allow players to become more sensitive to them (the on-going process of “perceptual attunement”). Increasing perceptual attunement via the purposeful manipulation of constraints is where I have seen some of the greatest benefits for learning and performance.

5) Prescribe a task (“problem”), not the movement (“solution”)

Humans are goal-directed creatures – they often learn best when given a task/goal to achieve and minimal instruction (at least initially). This can facilitate search and discovery of movement solutions, in some cases over a long period of time. As an example, the task goal might be to get past a defender and dribble the ball over a line using any moves/actions the player wishes to try, rather than prescribing at the outset a specific move or technique (i.e. enforcing the use of the inside or outside of the foot, “step overs”, “maradona” etc). Further, instruction given to the learner should create an external focus of attention or use analogies to describe desirable movement patterns – instruction that creates an internal focus of attention could be detrimental, i.e. concentrating on a specific part of the body, such as using the inside of the foot. Although contentious for some, the above approach may exploit the capacity for self-organisation of individual and collective actions. Mark O Sullivan has recently written a blog post detailing the emergence of pressing traps being created by his youth football players without any instruction or direction on his part. The final two principles are not strictly part of Chow’s Nonlinear Pedagogy but, based on my experiences, I feel they need to be included in any discussion regarding learning and player development…

6) Your actions speak so loudly I cannot hear what you say

Player learning is largely demonstrated in the “doing” (particularly in a match environment), less so the “knowing” and verbalising back to the coach. Sometimes we confuse the latter for genuine learning, leading to flawed beliefs regarding the effectiveness of our learning design & pedagogy. High quality observation during matches (possibly complimented by post-match video analysis) is crucial for the efficacious monitoring and evaluation of player learning.

7) Rome wasn’t built in a day

If you had to prioritise one characteristic required of a coach and others involved in player development patience would surely rate a mention. I’ve already covered the nonlinear nature of learning – sometimes quick, other times slower. This will be the case regardless of the pedagogy employed. I often get the impression people expect to see immediate results after using a constraints approach for one session. If only! Learning Objectives for a session don’t help matters, creating the illusion (and unnecessary expectation) that the rate of learning can be fully controlled. The skill of the coach/learning designer is understanding why and how to manipulate constraints when they perceive the developmental progress of a player(s) has stalled for a significant period of time. Identifying the “rate limiter” is key – this could be technical-tactical, psycho-social or maturation issues. Often life events off the pitch will need attention, highlighting the importance of having good relationships with players and understanding them as people in order to be an effective facilitator of learning.

To Conclude…

The above is not a recipe or blueprint for success, nor is it a comprehensive disscussion of each principle (such as the inevitable “exception to the rule” situations). However, as a starting point they should prove helpful in navigating the complexity of learning design and player development. A useful activity may be to examine your current practice activities against these principles and see how they stack up. What might you do differently?



Chow J.Y. (2013) Nonlinear Learning Underpinning Pedagogy: Evidence,
Challenges, and Implications. Quest 65: 469–484.
Newell, K. M. (1986). Constraints on the development of co-ordination. In M. G. Wade & H. T. A. Whiting (Eds.), Motor development in children: Aspects of coordination and control (pp. 341–360).
Also keep an eye out for this book in 2016 – Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition





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Mark Upton
Mark Upton
Mark is co-founder of myfastestmile and is one of the UK’s top coach education researchers. Mark has been an active supporter and top contributor to Player Development Project since our inception.
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