Coaching like a Gardener: A “Nudge” toward Nonlinear Pedagogy

It’s happened on several occasion: in the days leading up to the time I’ve set aside to blog, I’ll come across a podcast or article on the topic I’m working through. Chalk it up to coincidence or cognitive priming, but I prefer to think of the sequence of events as a gentle nudge from the writing gods for me to sort through the ideas bouncing around in my head. The subject of today’s post is coach pedagogy, which regards how coaches structure training environments to optimize learning and performance. This time—prior to sitting down to write—I stumbled upon an episode from NPR’s podcast Hidden Brain, Kinder-Gardening. If you have time, click the link to listen. Regardless, I offer a quick recap of the podcast, its application to coaching, and implications for athlete development.

In this episode, Shankar Vedantam interviews psychology professor, Dr. Alison Gopnik, on her recently published book in which she offers a carpenter-gardener analogy to characterize two different parenting philosophies. Gopnik’s argument builds off several assumptions about the work that carpenters do distinct from gardeners. Carpenters control a range of variables given the closed environment in which they work. Absent variability, carpenters follow a more rigid, prescribed protocol to craft their desired product. Gardeners, however, control far fewer variables in their more dynamic, complex work environment. Variability abound, gardeners must adapt to this uncertainty and embrace unexpected changes as a part of the growth process. Carpenters and gardeners may similarly have a vision and set objectives; however, unlike carpenters who create according to a linear, prescription-product plan, gardeners understand that no two creative processes are the same. Instead, they seek to nurture new ways of creating and being.

According to Gopnik, these philosophies play out in parenting. Parents who ascribe to a carpenter approach focus on prescription and product. Those who parent like carpenters hold to a prescribed protocol in their quest to equip kids with desired skills. In contrast, parents who act like gardeners prioritize their child’s process. These parents may still hold goals, but their focus is on cultivating environments in which children can navigate uncertainty and grow through—not in spite of—variability. In that humans (kids) are complex systems, and youth development an individual, dynamic process, Gopnik advocates for parents to shift from the more pervasive carpenter parenting model to that of the gardener in order to support a child’s development (e.g., creativity, adaptability, and intrinsic motivation)[1].

Gopnik’s carpenter-gardener framework not only invites interesting conversation about parenting, but also coaching.

What does coaching like a carpenter look like, and how does that differ from coaching like a gardener? Within sport, does one approach more (or less) effectively support athlete development?

Answers to these questions conveniently direct us toward coach pedagogy. In particular, linearity and nonlinearity are two prevalent pedagogical perspectives on coaching, and also analogous to carpenter-gardener model. Similar to the carpenter, a linear pedagogical approach emphasizes that players learn and perform best when they can reproduce an idealized technique or pattern despite variability. For carpenter-like coaches, “textbook technique” is the gold standard, and athletes master a skill and optimize performance through prescriptive instruction and repetition (think: 10,000-hours of deliberate practice). In contrast, a nonlinear pedagogical approach to coaching aligns with the gardener model. Gardener-like coaches understand that learning and performance occur in dynamic environments that results from interactions between constraints specific to the task (e.g., sport), athlete (e.g., developmental stage), and context (e.g., playing conditions). As such, subtle changes in one, or more, of these variables can impact—or nudge—players’ goal-directed actions and outcomes. Coaches who adopt a nonlinear pedagogical philosophy embrace the numerous ways to execute a skill outside of the “textbook” prescription. Gardener-like coaches can still focus on repetition of technical or tactical fundamentals, but they do so by inserting variability in training for players to discover different, functional ways to perform a specific skill. In other word, they implement “repetition without repetition”.

Where coaches fall on the carpenter-gardener (linearity-non-linearity) spectrum underlines how they view growth and the role of variability in player development. These assumptions inform how coaches structure a player’s learning context. Within the unique achievement domain of sport, does a linear, carpenter-like or non-linear, gardener-like approach best suit athletes’ learning and performance? While Gopnik’s work is not sport-specific, research in the physical domain supports this stance (See Chow et. al. (2013)’s paper, “Nonlinear pedagogy: Learning Design for Self-Organizing Neurobiological Systems”, for a thorough review). Athletes, like all youth, are unique individuals embedded in variable, dynamic performance contexts. As such, here are two practical considerations for how coaches might integrate a gardener-like approach into their work with athletes.

  1. Structure time for athletes to PLAY.

This consideration echoes the popular coaching adage, “there is no better teacher than the game”. Coaches have lofty aspirations for themselves and their athletes—which though noble— can often lead coaches to plan an unrealistic number of drills/activities for a given practice. While these activities may be goal-directed and necessary, if they last longer than coaches think, we may fall into the habit of cutting into time we allot for players to just play. Learning is the process of perceiving what information matters most (e.g., an athlete’s ability, an opponent’s position, or that of their teammates) and responding accordingly in real time. Play can familiarize players with this perception-action process under real game conditions. Through play, athletes can solidify fundamental technical/tactical patterns and build their capacity to make decisions and adapt to what the game gives them.

  1. Adjust constraints to expose players to variability characteristic of their sport.

By changing specific parameters (such as using restrictions in activities), coaches can expose players to certain tasks more than others and guide athletes to explore their own functional solutions. They can do so by prescribing a problem (or task goal) instead of an answer for players. For example, a coach might design an activity to give players practice in stopping an attacker by creating a restriction that increases the frequency of attacker versus defender scenarios (e.g., players can only advance forward by dribbling), but first allow players to discover movement solutions, rather than direct players to use specific movements. This does not prevent coaches from offering feedback to reinforce desirable actions (or explanations). Rather, a coach might offer general analogies to describe coupled movements (e.g., “Land like an airplane not a helicopter when you dive to save the ball!”) to support functional variability over rigid, individual movements. Such an approach can help players develop competence that is dynamic and adaptable.

As with any complex craft, there is seldom any one-size-fits-all prescription for effectiveness. Coaching is no different. While coaching like a gardener holds promise for enhancing athletes’ learning and performance, certain situations may necessitate that coaches be flexible—and perhaps more carpenter-like in their practice. For coaches reading this post, I invite you to weigh in on your experience with two situational constraints: athlete ability level (as more or less proficient) and sport context (as more or less controllable). Feel free to offer your position on two question in the comments section:

  1. Do you use structured, isolated repetition more often with players of lower ability levels to help them gain fundamentals skills (and self-confidence) that support problem solving?
  2. Do you see a gardener-like approach as equally beneficial in less variable, more controlled sport contexts?[2]

[1] Gopnik distinguishes between these two approaches in the interview. I haven’t read the book to know whether she defines these philosophies as mutually exclusive, but I interpret the carpenter-gardener analogy on a continuum. Parents may be more, or less, inclined toward one approach in general or specific to a context.

[2] Soccer, my coaching context, is a highly variable and fast-paced sport with relatively few opportunities for external, coach control (e.g., timeouts to call plays). The coaching community often describes soccer as a “player’s game” given these high degrees of uncertainty, but I wonder if the nature of the game allows for more functional variability  relative to other sports.


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