Coaching, Interactions and The Workmanship of Risk

Killian Sam jpg

Adaptation of our knowledge, skills and understanding is a challenging and confronting process. David Pye’s idea of the ‘workmanship of risk’ emphasises the idea that this process should go on throughout our lifespan. Think of an artist working on a painting, a sculptor chiselling out the finer details or indeed a young player learning to become skilfully attuned to the multiple possibilities for action in each unique situation, the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making and learning. This is a rich description of how child-youth football environments should look in practice and elucidates the idea that interactions between coach and learner(s) are of the utmost importance as they constitute a learning system.

The best youth coaches look to create an environment where young players learn to understand that they will never stop learning what they can do with their skill.

What is skilful performance?

Successful performance (skilful performance) in sport is predicated on the constraints of an individual’s perceptual and action capabilities, selecting among affordances to guide football interactions (dribble, pass, off ball movement…) during performance (Araújo et al., 2006). Affordances are opportunities for action in this case football interactions (Rietveld & Kiverstein, 2014) and are related to an individual’s ability to use available information to regulate and organise actions to develop adaptable behaviours that support expert performance (Esteves, Oliveira, & Araújo, 2010). Football interactions are tuned by environmental information to function specifically in each unique situation emphasising the need to understand the nature of the information that constrains movement. Practice should highlight informational constraints to improve the coupling of perception and action in players and promote the utilization through football interactions of relevant affordances.

Environment Design for Skilful Performance – Design the task and coach around affordances

Skills or football interactions (dribble, pass, running off the ball) require extensive practice but the design of practice is of great importance in the sense that it needs to contain relevant informational variables (opportunities for football interactions) so that young learners learn how to become skilfully perceptually attuned to relevant information as perception plays an on-line role in tuning football interactions and therefore the young players learning. This links in with the ideas put forward by Araujo & Davids in 2010 when they suggested that the main focus of learning in sport should be on a process of ‘skill attunement’. Echoing Gibson (1966, 1986) this implies that the coach should consider perception and action jointly as continuous interactions rather than treating them as separate problems that can be solved independently and afterwards connected. From a coaching perspective, it can be argued that this is about educating the attention of the young learner. But just as importantly, this in turn means that the coaches focus of attention must also be educated! Here we challenge the coach to identify relevant information available to the learner, to skilfully educate the young player to attend to certain features of the learning context so that they can learn how this information can be utilised using football interactions. Design the task and coach around affordances.

Skill when viewed as an interaction is how learners affect change through the utilisation of affordances using football interactions (dribble, pass, off ball movement) as they search, discover and exploit in response to what the game is asking of them. In other words, learning to become skilfully attuned to each situation that the game presents to them. This idea of ongoing adaption or ‘skill attunement’ elucidates the idea that coaches should create an environment where young players learn to understand that they will never stop learning what they can do with their skill.

Skills Have History

The diversity of human motor behaviour should help us to understand how motor solutions emerge from a given set of constraints. This is particularly pertinent with young learners. Young children arrive at training each with their own unique individual bibliography of movement experiences and opportunities. Two kids living in a block of flats. On the 10th floor lives a single mother with a child that is taken care of by his elderly grandmother so that she can go to work. On the bottom floor a child of the same age gets to regularly play daily with his older siblings in the common garden area. The two kids are friends but the opportunities afforded to them to play, move and express their bodies are influenced by different constraints. If it is understood that movement solutions performed as solutions to a problem cannot be separated from the environment in which it takes place then it should be understood as hypothesised by Baily & Pickford (2010) that skills have history. Movement solutions performed in these early organised sports environments cannot be separated from each individuals’ unique bibliography of movement experiences and opportunities their environment offered to them up to that point.

This is a simple example how constraints as highlighted by Rothwell et al; 2017 may influence a young player’s development and how they interact with a performance context and elucidates a key principle of ecological dynamics in player development. That is the interacting influence of task and environmental constraints on a young players’ ability to become attuned to the opportunities for action invited by objects, surfaces, features, terrains, and other people in a performance setting. This key principle as touched on earlier in this article is known as affordances in ecological dynamics (Davids, Güllich, Shuttleworth & Araújo, 2017).

The Workmanship of Risk

The essential idea of ‘the workmanship of risk’ is that that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making and learning. This is a rich description of how child-youth football environments should look in practice, emphasising patience and implying a mutual creation of meaning which arises from the “between”, or the system, of learner and coach (Fuchs; 2007). Unlike more traditional reductionist approaches the diverse range of the affordance landscape in expertly designed learning environments in child youth football is one ‘in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on judgment, dexterity and care which the maker (coach and players) exercises as the work is inherently more pleasing (Pye; 1986). So, the process of ‘making and learning’ through coach – player(s) interactions such as manipulation of constraints, using feedback or players themselves continuously adapting their football interactions in the deliberately designed environment is a coach bringing sensitivity to the different experiences, opportunities, biographies and histories of learners. This implies that the coach must have a deep understanding of the sport, skill learning, the individual (psycho-socio-cultural being) and the environment (learning space, broader social-cultural landscape). If you are stepping in to the learning process, then you better know how to add value.


Araújo, D., Davids, K., & Hristovski, R. (2006). The ecological dynamics of decision making in sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise,7(6), 653-676. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2006.07.002

Araújo, D., & Davids, K. (2011). What exactly is acquired during skill acquisition? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 18, 7 23.

Bailey & Pickard (2010) Body learning: examining the processes of skill learning in dance, Sport, Education and Society, 15:3, 367-382, DOI: 10.1080/13573322.2010.493317

Davids, K., Güllich, A., Shuttleworth., R., & Araújo, D. (2017). Understanding Environmental and Task Constraints on Talent Development, In J. Baker, S. Cobley, J. Schorer & N. Wattie (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Talent Identification and Development in Sport. Abingdon: Routledge.

Esteves, P., Oliveira, R. d., & Araújo, D. (2011). Posture-related affordances guide attacks in basketball. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 12, 639-644.

Fuchs, Thomas. (2007). Psychotherapy of the lived space: A phenomenological and ecological concept. American journal of psychotherapy. 61. 423-39.

Gibson, J. J. (1966). The senses considered as perceptual systems. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Gibson, J. J. (1979/1986). The ecological approach to perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Rietveld, E., & Kiverstein, J. (2014). A Rich Landscape of Affordances. Ecological Psychology,26(4), 325-352. doi:10.1080/10407413.2014.958035

Rothwell, M., Davids, K., Stone I. (2017). Harnessing socio-cultural constraints on athlete development to create a form of life. Journal of Expertise.

Pye, D. (1986) The nature and art of workmanship (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).



2 thoughts on “Coaching, Interactions and The Workmanship of Risk

  1. A great read! But I wonder how many coaches actually take this system theory approach into account. Many add value. The question is if the value added is done randomly or by design……

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s