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Ecological scale of behavioral analysis

This is an excerpt from Dynamics of Skill Acquisition-2nd Edition by Chris Button,Ludovic Seifert,Jia Yi Chow,Duarte Araujo & Keith Davids.

When scientists attempt to understand an organism's behavior—such as how they learn new skills—it is important that they adopt an appropriate scale of analysis. Prominent psychologists such as Gibson, Brunswik, and Reed recognized this fact in developing the ecological approach. Ecology is defined as “a branch of science concerned with the interrelationship of organisms and their environments” (Merriam-Webster.com: Online Dictionary). Hence, from an ecological perspective, human behavior, for example, can only be understood in the context of the environments that humans have partly designed and in which they operate (see chapter 3). Arguably, research and practice in sport and exercise psychology have been dominated by an organismic-centric methodology and theorizing (i.e., characterized by a narrow focus on describing internal mental states and processes of individual performers) (Araújo and Davids, 2009). For too long, important elements in the environment, such as cultural norms, traditional practices, and the influence of significant others, have been conveniently ignored, yet we intuitively know that they have considerable influence on motor learning. For example, children may not feel comfortable tackling new learning challenges if their parents or caregivers have shielded them from risky situations from an early age. Let us consider sociocultural constraints in more detail.

Sociocultural Constraints

The acquisition of perceptual-motor expertise in different performance domains (e.g., clinical, physical education, music, sport coaching) is a complex, contextualized process. Theoretically, the constraints-led approach to motor learning has provided major insights, mainly from empirical research on individual and task constraints. However, as Clark (1995) suggests, there is a need to further explore the sociocultural environmental constraints of this model: “Culture also acts as environmental constraints that shape movements. Although these constraints may be more subtle than the physical ones, they are nonetheless ever-present surrounds to the actor” (Clark, 1995, p.175).

The environments in which humans learn and practice skills are flavored by sociocultural factors. For example, the presence of an evaluative coach or audience may (or may not) have a significant impact on the performer. Similarly, the culture of different clubs, regions, or countries leaves footprints that can shape the ways in which people move and act. Sociocultural constraints have always had a significant impact on sport and physical activity participation. For example, the obesity crisis that plagues the developed world may be further accentuated by societal expectations of body image, forcing more and more people away from physical activity and toward sedentary lifestyles (Lewis and Van Puymbroeck, 2008). How comfortable people are with their body shape is affected indirectly by culture and the broad set of values that society may have concerning body shape (Swami, 2015). Another obvious example is that until relatively recent times, women were not encouraged to compete in certain sports (such as soccer, tennis, rugby, and track and field) because their participation was not deemed appropriate through social norms. While recent decades have seen such gender-biased attitudes relaxing, idealistic attitudes concerning the human body are arguably strengthening, particularly in Western and modernized countries.

It is important to note that sociocultural influences, like other types of constraint, can both disable and enable skill acquisition. For example, Uehara, Button, Falcous, and Davids (2014) identified numerous factors common to Brazilian society (e.g., street soccer; capoeira, a style of martial art; and samba, a form of dance and music) that have a positive impact on the highly skillful soccer players this country historically produces (see Spotlight on Research). Also Rothwell, Davids, and Stone (2018) discussed how historical industrial working practices influenced professional coaching in team sports like the rugby league in the United Kingdom. Some of these practices in sport can be traced to militaristic training that provided the backdrop to physical education syllabi until recent decades (Moy et al., 2015). These fascinating studies underline that working practices in sport and physical education do not exist in a vacuum, but are very much continually constrained by sociocultural and historical tendencies and traditions. Indeed, one can readily identify how cultural practices and traditions present in different countries, such as dance, rituals, and other popular pastimes, enable opportunities for skill acquisition that may not exist to the same extent in other countries. Moreover, sociocultural constraints have often persisted over many generations, and their lasting influence cannot be underestimated (Rothwell et al., 2018).

Environmental constraints that impinge on a learner's development are multiple, intangible, intertwined, and dynamic (Davids, Araújo, Hristovski, and colleagues, 2013). Consequently, an ecological scale of analysis will demand a range of research methodologies to improve our understanding of human behavioral adaptation. Motor learning research has traditionally persevered with a relatively narrow range of research tools emanating from a long history of a positivistic, laboratory-based research paradigm (Uehara et al., 2014). Such tools seem suitable for investigating how unique personal constraints interact with task-related factors in the skill acquisition process (Araújo and Davids, 2011). However, for the study of far-reaching sociocultural and historical constraints, other methodologies may be more functional. Indeed, several recent studies have begun to illustrate such approaches, including interviews and observational analysis (Uehara et al., 2014), document and biographical analysis (Rees et al., 2016; Anderson and Maivorsdotter, 2016), and interpretive, phenomenological analysis of practice structure (de Bruin, 2018).