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The reintroduction of a small number of wolves changed not only the population levels of the deer, but their behaviors as well, which set off a complex trophic cascade, impacting animals from song birds to bears, greatly altering plant life and even reaching so far as to impact the physical geography of the park.
This observation took me to look at trophic cascades …
I found myself thinking about change in performance environment ecologies in sport.
I have had the good fortune to spend some time with twenty expert coaches over the last two years. We have been talking about their coaching and the environments they are creating. All twenty coaches are employed in professional sport. My hope is that they are able to plan for and deliver systems that support athlete and their own flourishing.
My interest in their experiences has been focused by the ecology literature. Today’s discussion of wolves has added to that dynamic.
In other posts on Clyde Street I have discussed player-led performance environments. One of the key issues for me is the timing of the empowerment of athletes to transform learning and performance. The decision to change an ecological system is this kind of activity too but on a grander scale.
Perhaps sport can learn from evidence of trophic cascades as well as from autobiographical and biographical accounts of coaching and playing.
An editorial in Nature in 2014 suggested:
Ecological complexity, which may seem like an impenetrable thicket of nuance, is also the source of much of our pleasure in nature. If ecosystems were simple puzzles that all worked in the same way, they would lose much of their mystery, their surprise and their beauty. A lot of conservation work aims to protect the complexity and variability that makes ecosystems so hard to understand, and indeed to conserve.
Emma Morris (2014) pursued this discussion of ecological complexity in the context of Yellowstone Park. She questions the role wolves have played in the transformation of the Park.
I liked her concluding remarks about the evidence for predator-led ecological change:
Many researchers have doubts. They worry that tales of predators shaping their ecosystems are so attractive that they have unrivalled control over discourse. “Everyone likes to think of the big wolf or the big bear looking after the environment,” says Allen. “We do love a good story.”
This led me to think about those clubs in professional sports who appoint coaches with reputations for a particular kind of assertive behaviour.
Andy Dobson’s (2014) paper adds to the discussion of what happens when other factors are taken into account when monitoring change in ecosystems. He concludes that:
Ecology’s mathematical problems are as complex as anything in physics, and their solutions are required with increasing urgency, particularly if we want to test these assumptions and predictions against viable natural ecosystems.
Emma and Andy, amongst others, suggest that there are alternatives to top down change models.
His own smaller-scale work on invertebrates has convinced him that neither bottom-up nor top-down theories adequately capture the story of ecosystems. He is starting to look at the middle players, such as elk, beavers and grass-eating grasshoppers. These herbivores, he says, integrate influences from both the top (such as predation pressure) and the bottom (such as the nutritional quality of plants). “It is not really bottom-up or top-down but trophic cascades from the middle out,” he says. “That is where we will evolve. It is knowing what the middle guy is going to do that gives you the predictive ability.”