THE UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE- Uncertainty and Learning

 The Uncertainty Principle

There is a fuzziness to nature. Uncertainty is present in much of what we observe but cannot explain. It is hard to predict with precision how our young players will perform in the future, even if they are performing like world beaters now. Uncertainty is nothing to worry about. Embracing uncertainty means we are willing to evolve. A good coach will use uncertainty to find the challenge point thus creating learning opportunities for the players. Uncertainty can become intrinsic to the process of curiosity, discovery, learning and refinement. Learning is built on previous learning as problems are solved and decisions are made by evaluating what works best. Uncertainty can be fuel for each individual and their learning.


Now that the Stockholm spring/summer ( it happens fast here!) is truly upon us we have started up our weekly fun football sessions. Every Sunday kids between the ages of 5 and 6 will turn up with a water bottle in one hand and a parent in the other. It is always fun when a new child joins and the parents introduce themselves explaining that their son/daughter wants to begin with football and would like to know how we do things. My answer is always the same- here we have some footballs that they play with, over there is a tree and in front of the tree is a small climbing hill. Your child is free to choose how it wants to use this area. I also add that many of our kids over the last year have enjoyed playing football and developed an understanding of how a game can be played and have become very good at climbing trees.


There is a certain sense of anticipation, excitement and uncertainty from all parties the first time a child arrives with their parents at our fun football sessions. To reduce uncertainty there is a need for information. Reducing uncertainty (formed by lack of experience and knowledge) goes hand in hand with the learning process. My success as a coach will come down to my intuition, my coaching experience and my knowledge of each child. In the case of a new child there will obviously be uncertainty.

What I do after I say hello is essential. Before a child commits to any form of play they need to enjoy the experience. I know that my main job is to make the first experience a positive one. As Dr Martin Toms ( ) says “coach the child, not the sport”. All children are different.Play is intrinsically motivating and fun. It is what comes natural to children. It is what they do.( )

That is why I place little emphasis on the sport and a big emphasis on the environment and the potential it offers for “PLAY”.


Let them discover the game during childhood so that they can take ownership of it during adolescence. ( )


Over Easter I was in Barcelona at the RCD Espanyol academy coaching a group of 12 year olds. Jordi and Sergi the two academy coaches that I was lucky enough to work with displayed a fine understanding of how to use uncertainty as a learning tool. They had no previous knowledge of the players so they relied on their coaching intuition experience to create learning opportunities for themselves and the players. By continuously varying the content presented to the players the uncertainty created drove the learning. Jordi and Sergi got to know more about the players and addressed the uncertainty they observed through questions. They reduced uncertainty by helping the player find the information needed to carry out the task. Using a constraints approach ( ) the coaches got the players to self-organise, engage in a variety of techniques, motor skills, perception skills, communication skills and tactical skills. Over the four sessions I did with them this holistic approach gave the coaches a more accurate understanding of each player’s knowledge, skills and an insight in to their personality. It was a learning experience for all parties.

Research tells us that learning is an individual process. This suggests that the coach should individualise the approach to coaching to enable different players to learn the same thing. Each time we learn something new the brain is rebuilt. How this rebuilding happens can vary from person to person even if they are taught the exact same thing.                                                                                     Brain researcher and leading neuroscientist Robert Zatorre refers to the frustration and uncertainty in children caused by a “one size fits all” approach to learning. Learning that works for one child does not necessarily work for the other. In a recent interview Swedish child pedagogue Anne Marie Körling referred to the fact that children give us many hints with regard to how they learn, often through talking about what they understand. Perhaps this is one of the ways they try to alleviate uncertainty. The coach needs to be alert for these signals because if missed then the uncertainty may remain.

As well as practicing technique and skills players need to practice retrieving information. It is a very important part of learning the game. At first there is uncertainty as they will be wondering if they are choosing the right technique at the right time within the right context. But with practice the player will learn to make the right decision based on knowledge and experience gained from the practice of retrieving information from memory. Therefore it is vital that the coach creates learning opportunities where learning takes place within the context of the game.

How fast recall and learning happens creates a problem for many coaches, so to eliminate uncertainty they use traditional “one size fits all”rote methods of repetitive often isolated (blocked practice) one skill at a time practice. Here uncertainty is not seen as a learning tool and the coach may naturally feel justified by the immediate short term results they see. However their misplaced observations can have an effect on the long term behaviour.  The problem here is that working on one isolated skill ignores the random nature of the game. The brain doesn’t need to strain itself as it knows what is coming next.  A more holistic/variable approach means that the brain has to work on solving many problems simultaneously, thus practice will reflect the real game. This is better for long term development, learning and retention.

Unknowingly a coach using more traditional methods  may well be sacrificing a manageable short term uncertainty for a greater uncertainty in the long term. …… And that is the uncertainty principle ;-)!








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