Understanding Action and Adventure Sports Participation—An Ecological Dynamics Perspective
Immonen et al. Sports Medicine - Open
Understanding Action and Adventure Sports Participation-An Ecological Dynamics Perspective
Tuomas Immonen 0
0 Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, University of Jyväskylä , Jyväskylä , Finland
Previous research has considered action and adventure sports using a variety of associated terms and definitions which has led to confusing discourse and contradictory research findings. Traditional narratives have typically considered participation exclusively as the pastime of young people with abnormal characteristics or personalities having unhealthy and pathological tendencies to take risks because of the need for thrill, excitement or an adrenaline 'rush'. Conversely, recent research has linked even the most extreme forms of action and adventure sports to positive physical and psychological health and well-being outcomes. Here, we argue that traditional frameworks have led to definitions, which, as currently used by researchers, ignore key elements constituting the essential merit of these sports. In this paper, we suggest that this lack of conceptual clarity in understanding cognitions, perception and action in action and adventure sports requires a comprehensive explanatory framework, ecological dynamics which considers person-environment interactions from a multidisciplinary perspective. Action and adventure sports can be fundamentally conceptualized as activities which flourish through creative exploration of novel movement experiences, continuously expanding and evolving beyond predetermined environmental, physical, psychological or sociocultural boundaries. The outcome is the emergence of a rich variety of participation styles and philosophical differences within and across activities. The purpose of this paper is twofold: (a) to point out some limitations of existing research on action and adventure sports; (b) based on key ideas from emerging research and an ecological dynamics approach, to propose a holistic multidisciplinary model for defining and understanding action and adventure sports that may better guide future research and practical implications.
Participant rates in action and adventure sports (AAS)
are on the rise, surpassing many traditional sports in
popularity [1, 2]. In this opinion piece, the term AAS
refers to a variety of sports such as snowboarding,
surfing, parkour, climbing and BASE jumping.
It could be argued that past research has tended to
overemphasize a risk-taking perspective when discussing
participation in AAS. This has imposed a superficial lens
on participation, viewed as fundamentally influenced by
processes underpinned by risk-taking, promoting a
biased perspective where AAS are perceived as a context
for taking socially unacceptable, pathological and
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unnecessary risks [3–10]. To exemplify, classic
theoretical approaches proposed to explain behavior in AAS
include sensation seeking [11, 12], edgework [13, 14],
type ‘T’ personality  and psychoanalysis . The
main narrative of these approaches is that personality
traits and socialization processes predispose individuals
to participate in risky or life-threatening activities .
The overemphasized focus on risk has meant that other
important aspects of participation have been widely
overlooked [17–19]. The most significant limitation with
‘risk-centric’ approaches is that fundamentally, the activity
may be defined as pathological and unhealthy. Most
theoretical explanations assume that participation reflects
a desire for thrills, excitement or adrenaline-seeking.
However, emerging research indicates that these
explanations are an oversimplification [18, 20, 21] and do not
reflect the lived experience of participants who refute the
thrills and adrenaline notion and instead describe AAS
participation as meaningful and life-enhancing [16, 18, 19].
In recent years, a growing body of literature supports the
idea that participation can promote psychological and
physical well-being and health [18, 21–24] in a variety of
ways. Research has recently linked even the most extreme
forms of AAS to varied physical and psychological health
and well-being outcomes. In summary, activities generally
provide benefits, such as (1) opportunities to fulfill basic
psychological needs of autonomy, competence and
relatedness , (2) opportunities to overcome challenge
, (3) opportunities to experience intense emotions
, (4) increased positive psychological outcomes such
as resilience, self-efficacy and positive affect [21, 22, 27],
(5) increased physical activity levels [16, 28] and (6)
feelings of connection to nature [17, 29, 30]. These benefits
are often overlooked as modern societies are increasingly
focused on providing ‘safe’ behavioural environments
which reduce physical risks for members [16, 31].
One possible explanation for the discrepancies in
popular imagination and theoretical explanations in research
on AAS participation is that conceptual definitions for
these activities remain unclear. Common terms include
action sports [32, 33], adventure sports [25, 34, 35],
extreme sports [36, 37], lifestyle sports [38–40], alternative
sports [41, 42] and (high) risk sports [43–46]. This is a key
concern because the lack of widely shared definitions or
classifications among researchers has led to confusing
discourse and contradictory research findings.
Here, we summarize the lack of clarity of the past
research into five main issues: (1) activities requiring
high level of self-knowledge, personal skills, training,
commitment, environmental knowledge and task
knowledge, such as BASE jumping or big-mountain skiing,
are assumed to be in the same category as activities that
require no previous experience or knowledge of the
activity or environment, such as commercial white-water
rafting or bungee jumping . Findings from studies
on motivations, for instance, in activities such as
commercial rafting, may not generalize to understanding
participation in activities such as BASE jumping. (2)
Research has identified various motives for participation,
such as connection with nature [17, 47], relieving
boredom , pushing personal boundaries and overcoming
fear [18, 20], social relationships , pleasurable
kinesthetic bodily sensations , control, mastery and
skill  and goal achievement . These findings
indicate that the spectrum of motives is wide and
dependent on the form of activity. (3) Sports differ in
terms of activity duration and intensity leading to
different interaction effects on behaviour. For example, a
mountaineering trip might take weeks, exposing the
individual to prolonged periods of environmental
uncertainty, whereas other sports, such as BASE jumping,
might only take seconds. (4) Another finding,
questioning the idea that AAS are synonymous with youth sports
or sub-cultures, is that participants represent a
broad demographic, including males and females of
various age ranges and education and income levels
. (5) Also, each sport has its own unique history
and development patterns . Many are still
evolving and fragmenting. For example, snowboarding can
take place in urban environments, formerly the
home of skateboarding. At the same time,
boundaries between sports are becoming more dynamic, for
example with snowboarding also being undertaken at
high altitude where conventional snowboarding skills
are combined with mountaineering techniques. One
potential pitfall in categorizing a specific sport, or a group
of sports as a single entity (i.e. as ‘extreme’), could be that
distinguishing characteristics of different participation
styles and the role of the interactions between individual
characteristics of participants and varying performance
environments are overlooked.
The term ‘sport’ is often viewed as synonymous with
structured competition. However, from an etymological
perspective, the English word ‘sport’, derived from old
French word ‘desport’, originally refers to a ‘pastime’
. Also, for example the Finnish equivalent ‘urheilu’ is
derived from ‘urhea’, referring to the adjectives ‘brave’ or
‘valiant’ and can be defined as an activity to maintain
physical fitness, recreation or as a competition according
to specific rules . Here, we adopt the broad
definition including the dimensions of self-development
and recreation. Specifically, sports are considered to be
multi-faceted, boundary-crossing activities , which
do not necessarily involve structured competitive activity,
regulated performance environments, rules or institutions.
Understanding these nuances in definition is crucial for
recognizing how a variety of sociocultural values have
constrained emerging participation styles. Consequently, it
is imperative that we develop a clear understanding of
what exactly constitutes an AAS. The confusion in current
discourse indicates an evident need for a more nuanced,
holistic and multidisciplinary approach to the study of
AAS . Thus, AAS should be understood through
emphasizing a different level of analysis to traditional
In this paper, we argue that a more comprehensive
understanding of AAS participation can be achieved
through the ecological dynamics (ED) framework. This
framework promotes an understanding, over relevant
timescales (such as performance and learning), of how
irregular and unpredictable constraints in AAS influence
the emergent dynamics of continuous, dynamical
relationships evolving between an individual and her/his
environment [34, 52]. The cornerstones of ED are that
(a) movement behaviors are examined and understood
at the performer-environment scale of analysis; (b)
perception of information provides opportunities for action
(i.e., affordances) and is the basis of how behaviours are
regulated at an individual level; and (3) performance
behaviours are self-organized over time under interacting
constraints [34, 52, 53]. We discuss how these
performance characteristics compose a wide variety of
participation styles, shaped by key constraints which effectively
support the innovative actions of participants and are
linked to individuals’ cognitions, actions and perceptions
of diverse physical and sociocultural performance
environments [34, 52].
How the Ecological Dynamics Framework can Address
Emergent Characteristics of Participation in AAS
At a fundamental level, a common feature in AAS is that
they are highly dependent on demands that emerge as
the participant engages with the environment, when
factors external to a performer play a major role on
emergent behaviours [17, 29, 32]. In addition, there is a
tendency for AAS to be continuously adapted across
different activity boundaries. An advantage of adopting
an emergent perspective (ED) in defining sports is that it
easily captures the constant evolution of new techniques,
variations in participation styles and philosophies and the
continuous striving for dynamic creativity and innovation.
For example, institutionalization and professionalization
of AAS has led to a shift in emphasis in how these sports
are occasionally perceived, transitioning from ‘youth
subculture’ to ‘competitive achievement’ sports now included
in traditional organized events such as the Olympic
Games [30, 53]. Also, activities characterized as
selfdirected and conducted in nature are increasingly being
repackaged as more structured, formalized, indoor leisure
experiences . The desired, independent experience
and relatively unpredictable outcome is paradoxically
being sold as a predictable, managed commodity . To
clarify, we propose AAS to be clearly understood as sports
which do not necessarily involve a strictly defined
competitive structure, regulated by institutions. They are,
however, differentiated from commodities in that
participation requires specific skills, which are dynamic in form
and continuously subject to constraints of innovation,
refinement and creativity by participants. Thus, their very
essence is predicated on continuous evolution and
development in previously unseen ways and environments,
when ‘established’ movement patterns are constantly
complemented with emerging, novel techniques and
creative styles of action [34, 52]. This striving clearly
requires the continuous and intertwined relationship
between cognition, perception and action [55, 56].
Constraints on AAS Participation
Key constraints  (Fig. 1) that shape individuals’
cognitions, actions and decision-making processes have
been well examined in traditional sports such as soccer,
basketball and cricket [55–57].
Individual constraints include structural (e.g. height,
weight, body shape, technical abilities, connectivity of
synapses in the brain) and psychological (e.g. motivations,
emotions, cognitions) characteristics of an athlete [34, 53, 57].
Recent studies on AAS have indicated that
psychological factors such as fear, anxiety, beliefs and
motivation have significant roles during participation and
considerable effect on how the environment is
perceived by individuals [21, 58, 59]. For example,
experiencing varying intensities of fear can trigger panic
and impair performance, but it can also be seen as a
crucial component of effective performance and
positive and potentially life-changing experiences .
Task constraints in traditional sports include specific
rules, task goals and instructional constraints . AAS
are not primarily controlled in the same way as
mainstream sports by organizational frameworks, regulated
competitive structures or strictly governed rules [34, 61].
They, therefore, differ from many sports in that they are
not usually characterized by the traditional concept of
rule-based task constraints.
Environmental constraints are physical (e.g. weather,
gravity, ambient light) or sociocultural (e.g. values,
family support, cultural norms) . Juxtaposed to
purely competitive sports, AAS offer a possibility for
mastery and perfection in relation to challenging
environments [25, 34, 35]. Unpredictable constraints
vary in relation to performances taking place on land, on
air, on water, either afloat or submerged, and can be
natural (e.g. alpine terrains), partially artificial (e.g. shoveled
‘backcountry kickers’ in snowboarding) or entirely artificial
(e.g. skateboard parks). In addition to gravity-driven (e.g.
BASE jumping) and human-propelled (e.g. parkour,
Fig. 1 Interacting constraints on action and adventure sports participation. Figure 1 was derived from ideas of Newell  and Davids, Button
and Bennett . Emerging, adaptive performer-environment relationships are scaled by situational and context-dependent key constraints that,
in combination, define an AAS form of life/participation style. Due to the infinite combinations and complexity of interactions, irregular and
unpredictable constraints are illustrated on continua, attending to significant situational and contextual fluctuations in each participant’s experience.
Included in the figure are exemplary constraints, as reported in existing literature [16, 18, 21, 22, 25, 26, 29, 30, 34, 36, 45, 47, 63, 72–78],
and varying characteristics and performance environments of AAS in their current states of development. For better understanding of AAS participation,
new emerging constraints should be a posteriori included in the model according to complementary research findings and constant evolution of AAS
climbing) forms of movement, the dominant source of
energy for action can be exploited in natural phenomena
such as an ocean swell in surfing or a thermal updraft in
BASE jumping (Fig. 1).
AAS as a ‘Form of Life’
Affordances refer to aspects of the environment
perceived on the basis of what they offer, invite or
demand in terms of action . Different surfaces,
substances, objects or other individuals in the
environment can afford different actions from different people
in relation to individual constraints [53, 62]. Effectivities
are complementary capabilities of an individual that
can realize affordances in coherent forms of behaviour
[63, 64]. For example, skateboarders might seek
handrails in urban environments as an affordance to
creatively perform, normally perceived to support
locomotion by other individuals, and a skilled skateboarder
might approach the same handrail with different set of
‘tricks’ compared to novice.
Wittgenstein’s [65, 66] concept of the ‘form of life’
implies how sociocultural practices of humans can
constrain the emergence of specific behavioral patterns
[63, 67], emphasizing that effectivities are not merely
relative to particular individuals actually perceiving or
detecting affordances but also have an existence relative
to the skills available in practice, or to the abilities
available in a form of life as a whole . For example, the
same beach and wave conditions can afford many
surfing styles: ‘classic’ walking maneuvers on a longboard or
more radical direction changes on a high-performance
shortboard. Therefore, what is common to participants
in particular activities, e.g. for surfers, might not only be
the ocean as a material environment or the variety of
waves as affordances but also the being of individuals
embedded in human sociocultural practices, i.e. sharing
stable ways of doing things and interpreting actions and
living with others . In the case of humans (or surfers
in particular), these regular patterns, being manifested in
sociocultural practices, can be exemplified by the
emergence of multitude of participation styles and
philosophies in AAS, i.e. varying styles of surfing and
related lifestyles or different ‘forms of life’ in interacting
with specific environmental conditions of the ocean,
constrained by winds, surf, currents and proximity of
Thus, a niche is a set of affordances which offers an
individual a specific way of life . An important
notion when considering how distinguishable niches or
disciplines are being evolved is that stable ways of doing
things might surpass the boundaries of tool-related
constraints. For example, the ‘ecological niche of free
riders’ (big-mountain skiers and snowboarders) might
have more in common in terms of effectivities that
shape participation and experiences than effectivities
common for big-mountain and freestyle snowboarders
(two groups of snowboarders representing different
forms of life). Therefore, ignoring sociocultural
constraints when defining sports fails to capture the
depth and nuances through which participation of
individuals or groups in sports can be described.
When varying sociocultural practices evolve in
similar environments, participants can acquire abilities
that flourish in different practices from one’s own
. New possibilities for action can emerge for
individuals in a material environment, simultaneously
transcending the ‘sport’ itself. This idea exemplifies
one potential constraint: interacting individual and
social factors which can lead to the emergence of
novel forms of movement such as ski-mountaineering
or tow-in surfing, examples of humans making new
combinations by exploring different fields in the rich
landscape of affordances that the environment already
offers. The important point here is that these
innovations are an inherent aspect of AAS which has been
completely ignored in previous research. They are
predicated on the perception and exploitation of
affordances which depend on effectivities, individually
perceived by innovating athletes. Further, the development
of new inventions, such as equipment (e.g. wingsuits) or
built environments (e.g. cable wakeboarding parks,
parkour facilities), extends the opportunities for exploiting
rich possibilities for action available in a form of life,
unveiling creative behaviours and forming previously
Skill Acquisition and Creativity in AAS
Although some attempts have been made, skilled
performance in AAS should not be evaluated
comprehensively by traditional quantitative measurements
(e.g. measuring time, distance or score) or in
comparison to other participants as in many traditional
sports. In AAS particularly, aesthetic aspects such as
personality of ‘style’ (i.e. how it looks and meets task
goals) and creativity (i.e. innovation, novelty,
originality) play a major role in how performances are judged
[61, 68, 69] and further promoted  in an AAS
form of life [61, 68, 69]. Here, we argue that this
visual judgment, dependent on the perspective of other
participants, represents a unique social constraint,
interacting with each individual’s physical and
psychosocial experiences (i.e. how it feels) [17, 47, 70]. In
AAS, the functionality of skill (i.e. how effectively task
goals are achieved) partially depends on subtle
interactions of task and personal constraints such as
originality, collective agreement and interpretation.
Thus, an important task constraint to address is the
value placed on creativity and innovation of actions
expressed during performance or in terms of the
contexts within which performance takes place. These
notions further emphasize the need for a
multidisciplinary approach and careful evaluation of research
methods to understand these emerging characteristics
shaping participation in AAS.
Central to any AAS is the innovative and creative
behaviours of individuals or groups that compose a form
of life. Sociocultural tendencies within forms of life, or
‘the field of promoted actions’ , can significantly
constrain the behaviours of individuals, or reinforce
established ones. However, particular social agreement
among participants might, for example, invite them to
act functionally, by challenging rules and norms.
Therefore, development of expertise requires that a participant
is not only well aware of underpinning sociocultural
constraints or functionality of practice (i.e. usefulness,
effectiveness, appropriateness or adequacy) but also
knows how to diverge from them with novelty (i.e.
originality). Functional skill (engaging with affordances to
achieve goal-directed outcomes) might consequently
consist of understanding and balancing actions relative to
sociocultural influences that can be in conflict with
personal style and tendencies. Performance is not
predicated only on participation purely as subordinate to
social norms but also on tendencies to imagine,
innovate and explore action possibilities outside of
(affordances available to) a particular niche. The culture
of innovation in many AAS forms of life would suggest
that behaviours supporting the capacity to explore new
environments (e.g. urban skiing) and creative
movement solutions (e.g. ‘tricks’ in skateboarding) are
particularly functional to participants. Thus, in the case
of AAS, creativity can be defined as ‘the process of
perceiving, exploiting, and ‘generating’ novel affordances
during socially and materially situated activities’ .
One practical implication of this idea is that (with solid
understanding of sociocultural affordances) constraints
in learning contexts should be designed to support
continuous functional exploration of performers .
The ecological dynamics framework provides a rich
multidisciplinary platform for comprehensive and
nuanced understanding of participation and creative
actions of AAS participants, which emerge in all kinds
of imaginable and ever-changing environments. Instead
of trying to determine the ‘traditional ethos’ of each
sport or categorizing (sub)disciplines, we have argued
that deeper understanding can be gained by considering
participation as emergent and acknowledging that
performer-environment relationships are shaped by
dynamic interacting constraints that distinguish a niche,
or a form of life in AAS.
Thus, researchers and practitioners should refine a
nuanced understanding and consider a sociocultural focus
on affordances to appraise these characteristics and
constraints within and across AAS. This is important when
choosing research methods or pedagogical approaches or
when designing learning environments. A fundamental
consideration in the study of AAS is that rather than being
predetermined, affordances emerge from a dynamic form
of life in a sociocultural context. Practical examples of the
historical development patterns of many AAS suggest that
it would be most useful for future research to clarify the
exploration of affordances outside of particular ecological
niches or ‘discipline-typical’ environments (physical and
sociocultural). In terms of originality, more attention is
needed to understand possibilities potentially provided by
interactions between activity categories or ‘human’ and
‘non-human’ interactions, including becoming attuned to
affordances via new technologies and emerging online
performance demonstration sub-arenas in social media.
To better understand the link between affordances and
creativity in any AAS, more empirical research needs to
be conducted from an ecological, multidisciplinary
perspective and directed towards the use of introspective
and qualitative methods.
TI conceived and planned the work that led to the manuscript or
acquisition, drafting and critical revision of the manuscript for important
intellectual content and approval of the final submitted version of the
manuscript. EB, DO, KD, FF, JL and TJ conceived and planned the work that
led to the manuscript or acquisition, critical revision of the manuscript for
important intellectual content and approval of the final submitted version
of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
Tuomas Immonen, Eric Brymer, Dominic Orth, Keith Davids, Francesco Feletti,
Jarmo Liukkonen and Timo Jaakkola declare that they have no conflicts of
interest relevant to the content of this article.
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