Exploring Action-Specific Perception and Action Goals

Exploring Action-Specific Perception and Action Goals

I have been working with ecological modelling of games and dynamic systems theoriy as a a skill learning theory explaining the Game Sense sport teaching/coaching approach emphasis on games deliberately designed by teachers/coaches for play with purpose: that is, play with a deliberate educative intent.

Descriptions of ecological modelling of games as dynamic systems emphasise the relationship between perception and action, and the role of perception in directing players’ action. Direct perception is often implied, with the player mapping the structure and dynamics of the environment and events occurring in the environment as patterns of play. Functionally preferred coordination dynamics are constructed by the player to meet the in-the-moment requirements of the game dynamics.

The pedagogical direction emerging from dynamic systems thinking is the use of games deliberately designed through the manipulation of task, performer and environment constraints to heighten the perception-action connection: that is, the connection between the game as an information system and the possibilities for action within the system.

Where the Dynamic Systems theory emphasises a direct relationship between what the game environment permits and the actions that are possible, the information processing model explains sport skill from a focus on memory – specifically, the storage and retrieval of information. Stage theory model, levels-of processing model and connectionist model are variations of explanations of the information processing model.

Similarities in the two theories product or outcome, but differences in explanations of the process have meant that dynamic systems and information processing have been presented as two distinct, and sometimes viewed as opposing, ideas on skill acquisition. This is because some skill acquisition accounts of the information processing model position motor actions as built from cognitive functions for attention, memory, decision making and pattern recognition. The role of perception here is to filter information for cognitive operations. Dynamic systems explanations stress cognition being built from action and perception which are strongly connected and not isolated ‘modules’.

Recently I have been reading about action-specific perception theory. According to this theory, people perceive their environment in terms of their ability to act in the environment. Thus, the perceivers’ ability to act influences perception. It seems another take on an ecological model and the concept of affordances as the possibilities for action. According to action-specific perception theory, because perception relates to the perceivers potential for action similar environments will ‘look’ different to perceivers with different abilities.  Ability is explained as a function of a person’s body size and coordinative capacity, level of difficulty of the task, and the energetic demands of the task. Players therefore ‘see’ the game according to their ability and intention. Perception of the environment is not a direct product of optical information or a players ‘vision’ but also influenced by non-visual performance related factors such as motivation, intent or action goal, and ability.

According to action-specific perception theory, action ability adapts perception in ways consistent with an ecological model, stipulating the environment in terms of the performers’ ability to act. Players of differing ability will therefore perceive the same environment differently (the environment will provide a different perceptual experience) as they have different action potential.

I am just getting to know action-specific perception theory and the function of action goals on perception-decision making ability, but I see potential with the concept to explain differences in player engagement and action in the same game deliberately designed by teachers/coaches for specific play with purpose.


Anson, G., Elliott, D., & Davids, K. (2005). Information processing and constraints-based views of skill acquisition: Divergent or complimentary? Motor Control, 9, 217-241.


Witt, J. (2011). Action’s effect on perception. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(3), 201-206.


Witt, J., & Riley, M. (2014). Discovering your inner Gibson: Reconciling action-specific and ecological approaches to perception-action. Psychonomic Bulletin Review, 21, 1353-1370.

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