Mercier (Merce) Philip Cunningham


Photo Source

A few weeks ago (1 August) I found an obituary of Merce Cunningham written by David Vaughan. I was reading the Canberra Times but have discovered that the Obituary appeared in The Guardian on 27 July.

David Vaughan worked with Merce Cunningham since 1959. His obituary is sensitive and rich in information. Here are some points from his obituary:

  • Merce Cunningham was one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, and the greatest American-born one.
  • As a choreographer, he never abandoned the voyage of discovery that he embarked on at the beginning of his career.
  • His work was essentially classical in its formal qualities, its rigour, and its purity.
  • He was, like most creative artists, chiefly involved in the work he was doing now – or was going to do next.
  • He pioneered work in film and video.
  • In the 90s, his fascination with the computer program DanceForms led to the formulation of a new choreographic complexity.

What fascinated me about Merce Cunningham was his ability to observe movement and transform it into dance. Judith Mackrell has noted that “No one else made dance that looked remotely like this, and at the same time no one else had Cunningham’s conceptual ambitions.”

I am intrigued by observation and creativity. I think sport has an enormous amount to learn from the performing arts and from the life of visionary performers.

Judith Mackrell offered this synthesis of his work:

Throughout his career he continued to make explorations. It was Cunningham who led the way in using computers as an aid to creating dances; he was later one of the first choreographers to use digital technology in staging his work. There was always a part of the dance world, which regarded Cunningham as too cerebral, too weird, that resisted these preoccupations. Some of his early reviews were terrible. Yet for those of us who have loved and admired his works, they seemed the opposite of dry. For one thing Cunningham was a rare, instinctive showman. On stage he was mesmerizing.

It seems to me these are the characteristics of those who define and transform their age.



Over twenty years ago when I was researching my book Using Video in Sport (1988) I came across Peter Dowrick’s work on self-modelling. I have been fascinated by his work ever since.


Photo source: this photograph was taken by D Sharon Pruitt. It can be found at Flickr here and is included in this post under Creative Commons 2.0 licence.


Back in 1980 Peter Dowrick wrote a paper with C Dove entitled ‘The use of self-modeling to improve the swimming performance of spina bifida children’. You can download a copy of this paper from the Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis here. This is the abstract from that paper:

The use of edited videotape replay (which showed only “positive” behaviors) to improve the water skills of three spina bifida children, aged 5 to 10 years was examined. A multiple baseline across subjects design was used, and behavioral changes were observed to occur in close association with intervention. One child was given successive reapplications of videotaped self-modeling with continuing improvements. It appears that a useful practical technique has been developed.

In my book I noted that Peter Dowrick suggests that “the visible nature of most physical skills makes them a natural target for video intervention”.  The key message for me then and now is that:

Self-modelling functions more like feed-forward than feedback; subjects see themselves not so much as they were but as they might be. (My emphasis)

Peter Dowrick was an early adopter of video technology and for the past thirty years has been exploring his insights into learning.


Photo source: The Edsel Show

In 1995 he and John Raeburn reported their work with  children with physical disabilities. In that paper they observe that:

One behavior was treated with video self-modeling and the other was videotaped without further intervention, resulting in a significant treatment effect. Self-model recordings were produced by planning and selectively editing two minutes adaptive-only behavior, which subjects reviewed on six occasions over two weeks for a total of 12 min intervention. Progress was confirmed one year later. The study supports the efficacy of self-modeling for selected behaviors of these children with physical disabilities, and suggests further investigation of structured video replay as an active agent of change.

(David Templin and Ralph Vernaccia explored the use of highlight tapes with music for training in basketball in 1995. Videotapes of each player’s best and most effective plays were supplemented by music and were viewed by the athletes throughout the competitive season. The note that “although a causal relationship between highlight videotapes and offensive field goal percentage was not established, the results did demonstrate a mean increase of 4.7% in overall field goal percentage for 3 of the 5 participants).

In 1999 he presented an analysis of 150 studies that examined the use of self modeling (mostly in the video medium) in a variety of training and therapeutic applications. This analysis is used “to argue for the recognition of learning from the observation of one’s own successful or adaptive behavior (or images of it) as a mechanism in its own right”. This 2007 review looks at 20 years’ of research in video modelling interventions in autism.

In 2006 Peter Dowrick et al wrote about feedforward in reading:

Video feedforward can create images of positive futures, as has been shown by researchers using self-modeling methods to teach new skills with carefully planned and edited videos that show the future capability of the individual. As a supplement to tutoring provided by community members, we extended these practices to young children struggling to read. Ten students with special needs participated in a multiple baseline intervention. Each received tutoring only, followed by tutoring plus video feedforward, another phase of tutoring only, and follow-up. Overall, reading fluency improved significantly for all students; in 9 out of 10 cases, rate of improvement was significantly greatest during feedforward. Other measures (e.g., word identification) confirmed student progress from most at-risk to mid-stream status. We conclude that video images of success with challenging materials may enhance the acquisition of reading skills.

Peter Dowrick’s doctoral research was published twenty years after the first commercially available reel to reel system video appeared in 1956. His doctoral thesis at the University of Auckland was Self-modeling: A videotape technique for disturbed and disabled children (1977). His work has continued through analogue video and on to digital video. This is a link to an early paper about creating a self model film (1979). His 1991 textbook A Practical Guide to Using Video in the Behavioral Sciences (New York: Wiley Interscience) has pride of place on my bookshelf. (This is a 1996 review of the book.)

Sport Literature

Some sport literature discussion of self-modelling includes:

  • Barbi Law and Diane Ste-Marie (2005)
  • Shannon Clark et al (2005)
  • Jamie Baker and Marc Jones (2006)
  • Shannon Clark and Diane Ste-Marie (2007)
  • This is an article about social play (2007)
  • Deborah Feltz et al (2008)
  • Eleni Zetou et al (nd)



Photo source: this photograph was taken by Garry Knight. It can be found at Flickr here and is included in this post under Creative Commons 2.0 licence.

When I first read Peter’s thoughts in the mid-1980s I was immediately attracted to the idea of feedforward. It is hard to explain to a media rich world in 2009 just how exciting video was as a medium in the 1980s. My book on Using Video in Sport (1988) contains a bibliography that was drawn from the origins of using video in sport. The earliest reference I have there is a paper by Anne Rothstein and R Arnold (1976) on videotape feedback and bowling in the first edition of Motor Skills; Theory into Practice.

There was a great deal of discussion about feedback in those days. There was an enormous sense of adventure. Early in the 1990s I read some of Richard A Schmidt’s thoughts about feedback (1991, 1997). Later this led me to explore Gabriele Wulf’s work amongst others ( 2001, 2002). This work resonated with me too and it has encouraged me to explore the possibilities for guided discovery in coaching and teaching environments. It made it possible too for me to explore performances of understanding in play, games and sport.


Photo source: this photograph was taken by William Kitzinger. It can be found at Flickr here and is included in this post under Creative Commons 2.0 licence.

Momentum in Team Sports


Photograph by (Tres) descamarado (2006) (Flickr Creative Commons image)

A weekend of watching televised sport renewed my thinking about momentum in sport. I thought I might illustrate my post with some images from Flickr.

I think about momentum as a wave (perhaps from my reading of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) and have been contemplating for a long time now the role of probabilistic approaches to sports performance. I like the idea of a wave as it suggests tidal change.

The Wikipedia article on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes that his concept of flow involves “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”


Photograph by Mike Baird (2007) (Flickr Creative Commons image)

Some years ago (1990 in fact!) I was thinking of writing a paper entitled ‘Do coaches need a Gamelan rather than a Gameplan?’ I had seen a Gamelan in action at the Dartington College of Arts and what attracted me then was the characteristics in this description:

Varying forms of gamelan ensembles are distinguished by their collection of instruments and use of voice, tunings, repertoire, style, and cultural context. In general, no two gamelan ensembles are the same, and those that arose in prestigious courts are often considered to have their own style. Certain styles may also be shared by nearby ensembles, leading to a regional style.

So … whether it is jazz or gamelan music … it seems to me that athletes and coaches can have an active engagement in performance by being sensitive to rhythms. I think there are three types of rhythms in team games:

  • Negotiating
  • Driving
  • Chasing

I believe that in all three rhythms probabilistic behaviour can optimise the opportunity to drive a game and amplify that driving process. The enormous temptation when chasing, I believe, is that players seek possibilistic outcomes and abandon risk management. Clearly some teams do have a once in a lifetime experience but winning teams are able to counter most of these challenges by applying principles and probabilities. In most team games there is ample time to manage risk and probabilities so that the outcome is under your control independent of conditions and officiating.


Photograph by Jim Frazier (2005) (Flickr Creative Commons image)

(Note: Jim Frazier’s Flickr Profile can be found at and the Surfing in Chicago picture can be found at

I hope to return to this post to add some more about Martin Lames‘s idea of phases in games and Clive Ashworth‘s notions of figurations.