Creative Paradoxical Thinking and Its Implications for Teaching and Learning Motor Skills: Understanding Paradoxes Such as "Less Is More" Can Improve Teaching Effectiveness

Article excerpt

In my 20 years of teaching and research in the area of motor skill acquisition and performance, I have encountered many phenomena (either research findings or anecdotes) that first puzzled and then fascinated me. I would like to introduce three fictitious scenarios to illustrate my point.

* Mary, a novice teacher, coaches tennis at a high school. She is frustrated with one of the students she is trying to help by correcting a flaw in his backhand stroke. The more she talks, the less the student progresses. The young teacher does not realize that when presenting feedback to a student, less is more. Feedback is more effective when it is brief and focuses off a key point, than when it is excessive.

* In another case of coaching tennis, Mary finds that her students retain more of what she teaches if she introduces multiple skills (e.g., service, forehand, backhand, and volley) in a random order, even though they may not progress fast initially.

* She also observes that during an important game, one of her best players chokes up due to an obsession with avoiding the mistake she fears most. Ironically, she does exactly what she was trying to avoid.

Each of these occurrences seems counterintuitive and irrational because they have some contradictory elements. My understanding of these phenomena was greatly enhanced when I started to employ the concept of paradox and paradoxical thinking. Paradoxical thinking allows me to combine the rational, linear, left-brain approach with the creative, nonlinear, right-brain approach in understanding many previously confusing phenomena. I have also discovered that most of the effective learning and teaching strategies involve paradoxes. In this article, I will attempt to (1) define the concept of paradox, (2) propose the concept of creative paradoxical thinking and its benefits for theorists and practitioners, (3) identify six paradoxes by going through research findings of motor learning and performance, and (4) offer suggestions for applying the paradoxical-thinking process in solving problems encountered in learning and teaching motor skills.

What Is Creative Paradoxical Thinking?

A paradox is defined as a statement or situation that contains two or more logically opposing elements, but that may actually be true (Fletcher & Olwyler, 1997; Quinn & Cameron, 1988). In other words, in a paradox, contradictory and mutually exclusive elements are present and operate at the same time. In one of the above examples (less is more) "less" and "more" are juxtaposed to create an illogical statement, but a closer examination of the facts reveals its wisdom: less information contained in a sharply focused message is more conducive to learning than a verbose message that contains several ideas. People tend to dismiss paradoxes as coincidences or nonsense because they think in a more linear and logical way, without realizing that effectiveness in learning or teaching is often associated with paradoxes.


Gannon (2008) points out that there are three methods for us to understand paradoxes. The first method is to accept both elements as true despite their contradictory nature. The second method is to reframe the paradox. Reframing permits examinations of the paradox in different contexts and at different levels of analysis. The third method accepts the paradox but looks for a "higher unifying principle to understand it" (p. 6). The concept of creative paradoxical thinking is based on these three methods, but it is not limited to these methods. The core of creative paradoxical thinking suggests that practitioners should identify new paradoxes in their teaching and learning experiences and create new strategies for achieving outstanding results.

Motor-Learning Paradoxes

The process of teaching and learning motor skills is very complex, as it involves interactions between two or more people. …