Co-founder of Myfastestmile & regular PDP contributor, Mark Upton discusses learning dynamics and the challenges of making change within any existing system citing examples from performance sport.


I was recently asked for a reflection on my experiences in performance sport. After some pondering what came to mind was how learning (for all involved, not just players) needs to be a constant given that there will never be a blueprint/recipe/formula that can be settled upon with any permanency. Over time this becomes easier said than done, as genuine learning is often characterised by significant changes to ways of doing things (not just on-going refinement/optimisation).

The longer we are in a role/environment the harder it can be to make these changes (especially on the back of any relative success). We can become “stuck” and too rigid in our views and methods. We stop paying attention and observing as rigorously as we once did.



Learning (adapting/changing in a positive direction) is a prerequisite when working with and developing people (individually or collectively). There is always a level of uncertainty. Any period of stability is dynamic, a pattern emerging from the on-going interactions between people. Critical interactions often occur “below the surface” and can unexpectedly destabilise a person/team/organisation (system). If paying close attention to these dynamics, this could be an opportunity to shift the system in a direction that is even more desirable than previous. This would reflect desirable, and somewhat serendipitous, “learning”. If we stopped paying attention, before we know it things have moved in an undesirable direction and stabilised again. Unfortunately they can then become hard to shift regardless of the best efforts and intentions of coaches, players and other staff.

In light of the above, the ‘clockwork universe’ or ‘machine’ worldview in sport performance is misguided and counter-productive. It leads us down a blind alley in search of THE blueprint/recipe/formula that can be “rolled out”. It lulls us into a (false) sense of permanent, rather than dynamic, stability and therefore certainty. It whispers to us that it is ok to stop observing, noticing, learning, adapting, changing….that what worked “over here” will work “over there” and continue to do so. We’ve got this all figured out, how smart are we….yeah right!

“You look at the group dynamic, and from a general people point of view, you think ‘right, what have we got as a group this year and what’s going to move them forward?’. What you do know is that a team is in a constant state of flux, it’s dynamic and changes all the time, and unless you’re really spend the time thinking about what you’ve got and the group there’s no way you can decide about the best intervention moving forward. Just taking a ‘copy n paste’ approach – we did this last year so we’ll do it this year – is not going to work. It’s lazy.” – Sir Dave Brailsford




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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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