3P Problems and Ecological Coaching

In Nick Winkelman’s book The Language of Coaching, he outlines a model known as the “3P Performance Profile“. This is something I’ve found useful as a coach when trying to diagnose a student’s issues with performing a skill, so I want to quickly outline it here and talk a little bit about how it can relate to the Ecological Approach to motor skills learning.

The 3P performance profile is based on evaluating a student’s ability to perform a given motor skill across a range of three factors: Position, Power, and Pattern.

  • Position is about whether an athlete has the range of motion required for the skill. For example, when performing a fencing lunge, the fencer’s ability to open their hips towards a split will constrain the depth and length of their lunge.
  • Power is about the ability to produce force against resistance in the positions associated with the skill. For our fencer, the power with which their leg can drive them forward will limit how far they can reach with the lunge.
  • Pattern is about coordinating and sequencing the elements of the movement to achieve optimal results. When our fencer lunges, if their two legs don’t move in concert effectively, their lunge will lack distance as the front leg lands early.

As should hopefully be clear immediately, all three Ps factor into the athlete’s performance of a given skill. For a fencer to have a long and effective lunge, they must have the necessary flexibility (position), the necessary strength (power) and coordinate the movement well (pattern). When you look at your students, try to understand which of these three aspects is getting in their way the most — flexibility exercises won’t help improve someone’s lunge if the actual problem is their coordination.

When discussing an Ecological Approach to coaching, it is common to have questions related to 3P problems brought up. For example, a student who is lacking in baseline explosive power will struggle to discover a movement solution that requires high speed to execute effectively. This is sometimes taken as a reason to switch to traditional prescriptive coaching for these students, but I think that’s a mistake for two reasons:

Firstly, a 3P profile represents the students baseline of physical ability for the skill in question. Whether you try to coach in a more traditional manner or a more ecological manner, you’ll still be constrained by the same 3P problems in the same way. A good practical example of this is when a student’s front knee collapses inwards during a lunge, which is commonly the result of a Position problem (insufficient ability to open the hips). Whether you try to prescribe the exact movement or you try to have the student discover their own movement solution, they will not be able to perform a lunge in this way until you’ve resolved the underlying Position problem through hip mobility exercises.

Secondly, using an ecological approach to coaching empowers the student to adapt their movement solution to the idiosyncrasies of their own 3P profile. In the traditional approach to coaching, the athlete is expected to exactly reproduce the ‘ideal’ movement solution presented by the coach — and so if they’re unable to do so for a 3P reason, this is a problem in their execution of the skill. When we take an ecological approach, an athlete’s 3P profile is a part of the environment which constraints their potential movement solutions, so they are able to freely adjust other factors of their performance to meet the underlying goal of the skill. Continuing with the example of a fencing lunge, a student with less hip mobility may be able to organically adapt their lunge by turning the back foot more forward, if given a good cue for front leg tracking like “aim your knee guard at the opponent”.