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Dynamics of Skill Acquisition: Notes

I've spent countless hours reading and re-reading Dynamics of Skill Acquisition: A Constraints Led Approach and think the text presents important information clearly. After going through the book a few times I decided to type up the parts that ultimately most resonated with me. (Feel free to check that out here)

But that document was over 15 pages, and the words were mostly copied directly from the text. In order to really own the information, I felt the need to type up some bullet points in my own words. And since reading the entire book closely is a time consuming endeavor, I figured I'd share my notes.

So enjoy. And if you find this information intriguing, buy the book and read it!


CH1: Traditional Theories of Skill Acquisition

  • No one will ever encounter the exact same movement problem twice in competition, so training to be adaptable is vital.

  • Whole task training is superior to part task training.

  • Variable training is superior to blocked training, especially with advanced athletes.

  • External over internal cues.

  • Modeling can be valuable for beginner athletes, but realize that modeling is just giving the athlete a general idea of how a movement should work.

CH2: Physical Constraints on Coordination

  • Coaches should focus on manipulating and constraining the training environment, allowing the athlete the opportunity to search for effective, individual solutions to the movement problem. By creating constraints we are simply narrowing down the possible solutions to those most likely to result in success.

  • We can constrain the organism, the environment, or the task.

  • Movement is highly non-linear, and small changes to one piece of the puzzle can result in drastic changes in outcome. Also, progress will not progress linearly, instead experiencing many peaks and valleys on the path forward.

  • An attractor is the stable part of a movement pattern.

  • An athlete will begin to learn a new movement by fixing it’s degrees of freedom, leading to a stiff looking movement. Eventually the athlete will release some of these, leading to more efficient movement that looks more fluid and dynamic.

  • Movements don’t live in isolation. They interact with their surroundings. Every movement is composed of a perception and action coupling.

  • There is far more variability in movement than most would expect. And it isn’t inherently bad. Slight changes in gate can help runners avoid injury. (It would only follow that the same would hold true for throwing. Is this a component in the relative lack of arm injuries position players experience compared to pitchers?)

CH3: Informational Constraints on Coordination

  • Movement is timed, usually to some external where and when information.

  • In training, it is important to pair movement to the appropriate, specific environmental information.

  • These things in the environment are called affordances. They give the athlete information as to possible solutions to whatever movement problem they are encountering. For example, a professional rock climber would see different affordances in a sheer cliff than I would. I wouldn’t see any. He would see a path up.

  • Advanced learners use environmental information as a means of constraining their movement and becoming more energy efficient.

  • Feel (haptic) and sound can give as much if not more information to an athlete than vision, but most rely too heavily on vision.

CH4: Redefining Learning

  • Learning a movement begins by choosing a rigid, generalized form of the movement that progresses and regresses in jumps and spurts, eventually falling between continually smaller and smaller ranges of similar movement solutions.

  • An athlete is a different person all the time - everything about everyone changes constantly - and this leads to changes in performance from day to day and even rep to rep.

  • Nerves and anxiety can cause an athlete to regress by refreezing previously unfrozen degrees of freedom. Under pressure they might revert to simplified, rigid patterns.

  • The main role of the coach in all of this is to provide an environment where the athlete can search and explore. A good coach will be able to manipulate the environment in such a way as to allow each individual athlete to find their own unique path towards improved performance.

  • Less variability can help in locking in new movement patterns while more variability will give those patterns a better chance to emerge on the field.

CH5: Understanding the Dynamics of Skill Acquisition

  • If an athlete’s natural tendencies lead them to natural movement patterns that are close to optimal, they will learn far more quickly than an athlete whose natural inclinations are to move in a less efficient manner.

  • Learning a new movement pattern in one part of the body can transfer to similar new movement patterns emerging in other parts of the body.

  • Real change can take a long time to emerge, even if change happens quickly during constraint training.

  • The best way to create a plan for an individual athlete:

  1. Take a look and see what they need to work on.

  2. Test out some constraints and see how the athlete reacts.

  3. Tweak the plan to fit what you’re seeing.

  4. Continue to monitor movement

  • If an athlete gets stuck in a rut, the best way to facilitate change is to knock them out of the rut by drastically manipulating constraints to force more exploration, variability, and hopefully an adaptation.

  • It’s important to train in environments that include game-specific contexts.

  • It is equally important for a coach to know when to intervene and offer feedback as it is for him to know when to step back and allow the athlete to search and explore on his own.

CH6: Dealing With Individual Differences

  • People need time to warm up a movement pattern.

  • Genetics aren’t everything - so much of performance is being in an environment that allows and encourages quality movement to emerge.

  • Modeling movement helps athletes get a sense of the general shape of a movement or its general goal.

  • Modeling is more successful when paired with explanation of what the athlete is looking for when watching the model.

  • Athletes generally get more out of a modeler that is developmentally similar to themselves.

  • Feedback is best given when the athlete wants it. Usually feedback works best when given during breaks in the action, but giving an athlete ownership of how frequently this happens has been shown to produce the best results.

  • Athletes view things in relation to where they are in space and what they can physically do in a situation.

  • As a coach, stay positive. The best athletes are simply the best adapters. Allow them the time and space to fail and adapt.

CH7: Organizing Practice to Optimize Learning

  • The goal of practice is to achieve “repetition without repetition.” (Bernstein)

  • Some athletes will benefit from short bursts of focused practice. Others will need to spend hours honing their craft.

  • Task Constraints: A coach can change the size of the practice space, manipulate the rules of the game, tweak the equipment being used, or change the availability of senses to help athletes improve.

  • Random practice has greater carryover to competition than blocked practice.

  • It is okay to simplify a practice task by making it easier (such as hitting off of less than game speed velocity), but the components of the task mustn’t be broken down in a way that eliminates the coupling of perception and action.

  • All task constraints should be made with a goal in mind and last only as long as necessary.

CH8: Using Verbal Guidance as an Informational Constraint on Learners

  • A coach is also an explorer and should explore what methods work best to help each athlete improve.

  • Verbal instruction is often overused. It’s better to rely less heavily on words and more heavily on finding constraints and goals that allow each athlete to discover their own movement solutions.

  • The best verbal instructions explain the goal of the movement or use analogies to direct movement. They direct athlete’s towards the appropriate components of a movement’s outcome.

  • Implicit learning, or learning what a movement feels like when a goal is met, is less perturbable in stressful situations. The more explicit the learning - the more the athlete is aware of how their body is moving - the more likely that movement will fall apart under pressure.

  • The majority of learning should come in this implicit, discovery form.

CH9: Observational Learning as Directed Search

  • The reality is that exploration on it’s own is not enough. It is the coach’s job to guide and direct the exploration, model the movement, and provide feedback when necessary.

  • The words and demonstrations should be viewed as just another constraint and a jumping off point from which to search for movement solutions.

  • Use peer group models whenever possible, but realize that modeling works far better for those athletes whose intrinsic dynamics closely align with the modeled pattern than those whose intrinsic dynamics don’t yet allow the athlete to accomplish the movement task efficiently.

  • Knowledge of results is the most important, but giving movement related feedback also has value. A coach should give athletes input into how frequently each receives movement related feedback through instruction or video.

CH:10 Implementing the Constraints-Led Approach

  • Case studies


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