The value of controlled chaos

Different types of coaches frame training in different ways. Skills coaches often think in terms of time: a 20-minute block spent on passing and 10-minutes on defensive positioning. Strength coaches, on the other hand, tend to frame training in sets and reps. Each frame has its place in training, but depending on the task one can be better than the other.

The sets and reps framing makes sense in the weight room. Weight lifting is very quantifiable, so thinking in numbers is natural. But as soon as we step away from the bar, that case makes less sense. As the task becomes more complex, the framing needs to change as well.

» Learn more: Next week’s GAIN Master Class Series event will focus on physical literacy with award winning PE teacher Greg Thompson.

The term physical literacy emerged over the last decade as a metaphor to describe competence in key physical tasks. Is the “sets and reps” approach the best to teach physical literacy? Using that analogy, would you use the sets and reps approach when teaching literacy in reading and writing? Would a teach prescribe that students read a certain number of letters and pages each day to improve literacy? Probably not. Instead, they should be exposed to a variety of material in increasing complexity.

Case study from locomotor learning

All movement is a combination of basic locomotor patterns: walking, running, skipping, jumping, landing, etc. In our latest member video on teaching movement and rhythm with PE teacher Greg Thompson, he walks participants through variations of these patterns one after another.

This is how he demonstrates the patterns, but how does he teach them? Many strength coaches would teach just like he demonstrated and have athletes do 10m shuttles of each variation in the warm up. But teaching is not the same as demonstrating. Thompson also shared several ideas on teaching them better in the session, with one that I think exemplifies many of the things that a sets and reps approach misses out: the figure 8 chase. The setup is simple: two athletes play rock, paper, scissors with the winner chasing the loser in a figure 8 pattern. A rope or push-pull strap is added in as an obstacle. Then the athletes go; that’s it.


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Chase games are classic elements of PE, and there is a reason for that. A big one for me is that they create chaos. It is not complete chaos, but controlled chaos. Games provide a nice safe environment for chaos to occur.

What chaos adds to training

Watch the video of the chase and a few elements immediately emerge that are hard to replicate with sets and reps exercises. A little chaos can add a lot to training, including:

  • Fun – These are grown men doing games designed for primary school kids and they are laughing the smiling throughout. That is an immediate sign we are on to something.
  • Stress – Games add all kinds of new stress that you do not get through straight repetition. It begins with rock, paper, scissors: you don’t know if you will chase or be chased and therefore have to think of two things at once.
  • Intensity – Too often if we focus on repetition, attention wanes and then quality and intensity suffer. Make it a competition, and the intensity and focus are automatically are high.
  • Problem solving – I had a chat with Thompson recently to get his advice on designing some new games that fit within our social distancing framework. With less athlete interaction possible, he suggested one thing I should focus on: gait perturbation. Gait perturbation is essentially adding a little chaos to the environment. Find ways to perturb an athlete’s gait a little, and you’ll develop stronger movement skills. Athletes have to problem solve in a dynamic environment, self-organize into more adaptable positions, and as a result, they generate more overall robustness. Such chaos doesn’t just help kids, but also elite athletes and even older adults. You don’t get that from linear skips back and forth.
  • Scalability – You can also easily adjust the challenge here to make it easier or harder, or just a different challenge. Raising or lowering the height presents a different challenge requiring more or less jumping versus sprinting or bounding. You can even change it up so that athletes have to go under the rope. Varying the height throughout the same race adds even more chaos.  All these features allow you to dial the exercise up or down to meet the athlete’s needs.

» Related content: In our laster member video Greg Thompson shares some practical demonstrations from PE class on teaching movement and rhythm.

Letting go

Another issue strength coaches often have with embracing chaos is that it means letting go of some control. Chaos in the weight room can also be counterproductive, so a framework that gives coaches more control is also helpful. But teaching is not about control. Teaching is about learning, and often that means letting go. Coaches still decide the overall framework and goals of the session, but by resisting the urge to micromanage they let more learning happen. It’s worth a try, and small games like the figure 8 chase can be a good way to introduce a little controlled chaos into training.