Kath Bicknell

One of the upshots of workplace responses to the Covid-19 pandemic is that virtual catch ups with colleagues and other wonderful, like-minded folk have become more normalised. In an academic context, this is especially exciting when it means conversations, workshops, seminars and conferences become possible that would have previously required a significant travel budget in the past. There are certainly limits to online participation, but the plus-sides are an unexpected source of joy and motivation during very challenging times for all.

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“Skilled practitioners think strategically and flexibly to cope with challenges as they arise and increase their chances of success.”

This is why athletes returning to a sport after a break may do far better than expected compared to considering their physical form alone. Sharp thinking can also be the difference between going well once or twice, and performing consistently when risk, pressure or other stakes are high.

I was recently interviewed about these topics by Fran Malloy for a feature article, “The Science of the Sporting Comeback”. This story was published on Macquarie University’s Lighthouse website as part of Brain Awareness Week. It reflects the kinds of questions we ask, answers we are finding, and research we get excited by, in the Cognitive Ecologies Lab in the University’s Department of Cognitive Science.

If you’re curious to learn more about the mental side of sport, or an enticing overview of the research I do and what drives it, or even why mountain biking provides such terrific opportunities for learning more about these topics, please follow this link and enjoy the read.

Image: Gaye Camm rides the exit line from the ridiculously fun Trouty trail in Derby Tasmania, without having seen it before suddenly being on it. There are some fascinating cognitive processes involved in staying upright in this scenario!

“Parkour is not as dangerous as it looks from the outside. Part of it is looking at a challenge and breaking down the risk, and then building up the skills to mitigate those risks.”

Back in 2019, I was interviewed by Amelia Dunn for my research expertise on high risk sports for a SBS News story on the rise of women and girls in parkour. In the end, the above quote from me is the only bit of that interview that was needed. What makes the story so strong is the articulate, enthusiastic perspectives of the traceuses (female participants) themselves. As visibility for an increasingly diverse range of experiences in sport continues to grow I hope to see more original, insightful content like this more often.

You can watch or read the feature here. Warning: their energy is infectious and you may not look at the built environment, or think about your own way of moving through it, quite the same way again.

Image: SBS News

The answer: as many things as there are trails, bike designs and ways to enjoy them!

Earlier this year, I took philosopher colleague, Wayne Christensen, on a ride at the Ourimbah mountain bike track in New South Wales, Australia. After a lap of the cross-country track on his own bike, a ten year old Cannondale hardtail, I then encouraged Wayne to do a lap of the trails on my bike, the latest model Specialized Stumpjumper with 29″ wheels and a whole lot of bounce.

The video below documents Wayne’s reactions to the new bike after 20 minutes on board, and what this meant for the way he approached the trails. This fieldwork forms part of a journal article we are writing together on affordances – a theory which attempts to explain how humans perceive and respond to action possibilities in relation to the environment.

We argue that mainstream applications of this theory need to better account for the impact of social and cultural factors on affordance perception, as well as the rapid speed at which our awareness of these action possibilities can update. We’ve recently published a handbook chapter discussing the affordances and anticipation, also using a case study from mountain biking, which may be of interest too. Please get in touch if you’d like to know more.

Header photo: Wayne hits the rock garden with new-found confidence (Kath Bicknell).

My partner, an analytical chemist, always laughs at academic work in the humanities  due to the large number of, what she calls, made up words. Something that always makes me smile about affordances, then, is that Ecological Psychologist James Gibson quite freely admits that he invented the term. Quoting from Wayne Christensen and I in a book chapter that’s just been published on affordances and anticipation in sport, Gibson described affordances as:

“what the environment ‘offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill’ (1979, 127, italics in original). For example, the ground affords walking, stairs afford climbing, a nearby cup affords grasping, a Facebook button affords liking (or, by 2017, other reactions such as surprise, sadness, or love)’ (Christensen and Bicknell 2018, 602).

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This chapter is one of several compelling contributions to the (impressively heavy) Handbook of Embodied Cognition and Sport Psychology. The book is a testament to editor Massimiliano Cappuccio’s work ethic and passion for the topics that fill its 770 pages, cleverly bringing together 26 chapters from thinkers around the world with a shared interest in minds and movement. Most chapters are collaboratively authored, drawing on the complementary expertise of researchers in disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, sociology, exercise and sport science, performance studies, coaching, anthropology, neuroscience, education and cognitive science. You can read more about it here.

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The contribution from Wayne and myself has cemented a joyful, joint writing process and shared interest in using practical case studies to challenge and expand theories of skill from philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science. While affordances is a concept that started with Gibson, it’s since been used widely in a whole number of other academic disciplines, far more than Gibson may have imagined, and certainly not in ways he would have fully endorsed.

Rather than stick with Gibson’s original, strict approach to the concept, we wanted to paint a bigger picture of how the concept has been used and adapted in other fields. We took this chapter as an opportunity to canvas approaches to thinking about affordances in ecological and cognitive psychology, as well as anthropology, theatre and performance studies, and the real life experience of racing mountain bikes in the mud. This encourages science minds to engage with challenges to theoretical claims provided by the humanities, and vice versa.

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The handbook has an impressive contributor list.

If the topics of the book interest you, please seek it out and order it for your libraries if you work at an academic institution. We hope you enjoy the read.

Photos: Kath Bicknell (book) and Gaye Camm (action shot).