An examination of learning design in elite springboard diving

Barris, Coralie Sian (2013) An examination of learning design in elite springboard diving. PhD by Publication, Queensland University of Technology.


The overarching aim of this programme of work was to evaluate the effectiveness of the existing learning environment within the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) elite springboard diving programme. Unique to the current research programme, is the application of ideas from an established theory of motor learning, specifically ecological dynamics, to an applied high performance training environment. In this research programme springboard diving is examined as a complex system, where individual, task, and environmental constraints are continually interacting to shape performance. As a consequence, this thesis presents some necessary and unique insights into representative learning design and movement adaptations in a sample of elite athletes. The questions examined in this programme of work relate to how best to structure practice, which is central to developing an effective learning environment in a high performance setting. Specifically, the series of studies reported in the chapters of this doctoral thesis: (i) provide evidence for the importance of designing representative practice tasks in training; (ii) establish that completed and baulked (prematurely terminated) take-offs are not different enough to justify the abortion of a planned dive; and (iii), confirm that elite athletes performing complex skills are able to adapt their movement patterns to achieve consistent performance outcomes from variable dive take-off conditions.

Chapters One and Two of the thesis provide an overview of the theoretical ideas framing the programme of work, and include a review of literature pertinent to the research aims and subsequent empirical chapters.

Chapter Three examined the representativeness of take-off tasks completed in the two AIS diving training facilities routinely used in springboard diving. Results highlighted differences in the preparatory phase of reverse dive take-offs completed by elite divers during normal training tasks in the dry-land and aquatic training environments. The most noticeable differences in dive take-off between environments began during the hurdle (step, jump, height and flight) where the diver generates the necessary momentum to complete the dive. Consequently, greater step lengths, jump heights and flight times, resulted in greater board depression prior to take-off in the aquatic environment where the dives required greater amounts of rotation. The differences observed between the preparatory phases of reverse dive take-offs completed in the dry-land and aquatic training environments are arguably a consequence of the constraints of the training environment. Specifically, differences in the environmental information available to the athletes, and the need to alter the landing (feet first vs. wrist first landing) from the take-off, resulted in a decoupling of important perception and action information and a decomposition of the dive take-off task.

In attempting to only practise high quality dives, many athletes have followed a traditional motor learning approach (Schmidt, 1975) and tried to eliminate take-off variations during training. Chapter Four examined whether observable differences existed between the movement kinematics of elite divers in the preparation phases of baulked (prematurely terminated) and completed take-offs that might justify this approach to training. Qualitative and quantitative analyses of variability within conditions revealed greater consistency and less variability when dives were completed, and greater variability amongst baulked take-offs for all participants. Based on these findings, it is probable that athletes choose to abort a planned take-off when they detect small variations from the movement patterns (e.g., step lengths, jump height, springboard depression) of highly practiced comfortable dives. However, with no major differences in coordination patterns (topology of the angle-angle plots), and the potential for negative performance outcomes in competition, there appears to be no training advantage in baulking on unsatisfactory take-offs during training, except when a threat of injury is perceived by the athlete. Instead, it was considered that enhancing the athletes' movement adaptability would be a more functional motor learning strategy.

In Chapter Five, a twelve-week training programme was conducted to determine whether a sample of elite divers were able to adapt their movement patterns and complete dives successfully, regardless of the perceived quality of their preparatory movements on the springboard. The data indeed suggested that elite divers were able to adapt their movements during the preparatory phase of the take-off and complete good quality dives under more varied take-off conditions; displaying greater consistency and stability in the key performance outcome (dive entry). These findings are in line with previous research findings from other sports (e.g., shooting, triple jump and basketball) and demonstrate how functional or compensatory movement variability can afford greater flexibility in task execution. By previously only practising dives with good quality take-offs, it can be argued that divers only developed strong couplings between information and movement under very specific performance circumstances. As a result, this sample was sometimes characterised by poor performance in competition when the athletes experienced a suboptimal take-off. Throughout this training programme, where divers were encouraged to minimise baulking and attempt to complete every dive, they demonstrated that it was possible to strengthen the information and movement coupling in a variety of performance circumstances, widening of the basin of performance solutions and providing alternative couplings to solve a performance problem even when the take-off was not ideal.

The results of this programme of research provide theoretical and experimental implications for understanding representative learning design and movement pattern variability in applied sports science research. Theoretically, this PhD programme contributes empirical evidence to demonstrate the importance of representative design in the training environments of high performance sports programmes. Specifically, this thesis advocates for the design of learning environments that effectively capture and enhance functional and flexible movement responses representative of performance contexts. Further, data from this thesis showed that elite athletes performing complex tasks were able to adapt their movements in the preparatory phase and complete good quality dives under more varied take-off conditions. This finding signals some significant practical implications for athletes, coaches and sports scientists. As such, it is recommended that care should be taken by coaches when designing practice tasks since the clear implication is that athletes need to practice adapting movement patterns during ongoing regulation of multi-articular coordination tasks. For example, volleyball servers can adapt to small variations in the ball toss phase, long jumpers can visually regulate gait as they prepare for the take-off, and springboard divers need to continue to practice adapting their take-off from the hurdle step.

In summary, the studies of this programme of work have confirmed that the task constraints of training environments in elite sport performance programmes need to provide a faithful simulation of a competitive performance environment in order that performance outcomes may be stabilised with practice. Further, it is apparent that training environments can be enhanced by ensuring the representative design of task constraints, which have high action fidelity with the performance context. Ultimately, this study recommends that the traditional coaching adage 'perfect practice makes perfect", be reconsidered; instead advocating that practice should be, as Bernstein (1967) suggested, "repetition without repetition".

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ID Code: 63807
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD by Publication)
Keywords: adaptability, adaptive movement variability, baulking, complex systems, ecological dynamics, functional variability, learning environment, movement patterns, neurobiological degeneracy, practice task constraints, representative design, springboard diving, variability
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Health
Current > Schools > School of Exercise & Nutrition Sciences
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 29 Oct 2013 04:42
Last Modified: 10 Jul 2014 05:47

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