Fly Casting Movement – Play and Variability


If you want a wider and more detailed account of movement, play and variability then I recommend Playing with Movement (2019) by Todd Hargrove. Also check out his blog including this post.  Much of what follows is informed and supported by his work.  

Not being a social media fiend, much less an aficionado, I have recently begun to suspect that talking about movement has become a “thing” and there is something like a movement “movement” going on. In some ways that’s good, especially if it leads more people to better health. It would, however, be a pity if trendy half baked guff took hold instead of a solid combination of science and thoughtful experience. Personally, I have been consciously into movement in a wide variety of modes for most of my life. Last time I wrote about how the literature on movement aligned with my personal quest for efficient fly casting. Getting into the literature of movement has affirmed my personal journey and, it has to be said, raised a regret that I didn’t explore the literature sooner. Sigh. The journey is always the journey. No point in worrying about speed instead of enjoying the travel.  Here is a brief account of some more of the things I’ve learned since deciding to explore what lies down the movement road.

We Are Not Machines

Human beings are complex organisms. It makes much more sense to understand ourselves as an ecology than as a machine. Our systems, physiological and psychological, work together collaboratively rather than sequentially or separately. This applies to our movements, both internal and external. To pick fly casting as an example of an external movement what we see while watching the rod arm performing the simplest fly casting stroke belies a host of hidden activity. We can’t make that foundation stroke without having enabling contributions from our senses including sight, touch, balance and proprioception which work in concert with our body bits which are organised and controlled by our central nervous system. Hopefully, all this produces one functionally well timed and coordinated cycle of flexion and extension of one arm. All these contributors, and others, self organise to produce an intended movement outcome capable of towing a fly line from the rod tip and forming a loop which travels through the line resulting in its extension. 

So, “simple” movements are the result of complex processes. That is not, however, to say that we will learn to move better by delving ever deeper into the complexity.  Rather it is important and pragmatic to go about learning and refining movement skills by doing things harmonious with how we naturally move and learn to move. In simple terms, the question is how best can we support and facilitate the movement self organisation which evolution has provided for us. Equally, how do we avoid getting in the way of self organisation?  That’s a clue on choosing between external and internal cues to learn and teach movement. Internal cues focus our attention on what the body bits are doing. External cues focus our attention on what they (body bits) are meant to achieve ie outcomes. It’s an important subject which informs relative choices for complex organisms living in a relative and complex universe. It is definitely not mechanistic, zero-sum stuff from the world of clockwork humans living in a clockwork universe. Might get back to some of that at some point.

Movements Have More or Less Complexity

 “Movement skill is the ability to efficiently solve movement problems” (Hargrove, Playing with Movement p.14). 

Movement skills and problems come in different levels of complexity. I have recently had the pleasure of watching my granddaughter learning to move: from lying to sitting to rolling to crawling. She didn’t need instruction or even demonstration to efficiently solve her movement problems. She was allowed to explore at her own pace and in her own way which is instinctive rather than cognitive.  She learned to move by exploration through trial and error. Watching her was even more delightful having read Feldenkrais and read about his work – from the original book (Awareness Through Movement, 1972) and from movement folks like Hargrove who are heavily influenced by him. Many of Feldenkrais’ ideas about movement were inspired by watching babies learning to move. I’m not about to bore you with a detailed analysis of his work but I do find his ideas about movement extremely interesting, not least because of the fit with my own experience with fly casting movements. Likewise, watching my granddaughter helped me to join some theoretical and experiential dots. 

 My granddaughter is working on lower and more fundamental levels of movement – first posture and then co-ordination of large limb movements to crawl and soon to walk before she eventually starts running. These skills can be acquired by exploration – by play if you like or “by trial and error”.  Skipping past the intermediate levels of movement complexity, fly casting is a complicated and specialised throwing movement at the top level of the movements scale.  As we travel up the scale the demands for co-ordination and control increase and as they do we need to put in more work, through repetition and practice, to acquire and to improve those skills. Throwing things accurately is unique to our species. Basic throwing movements come somewhat naturally from typical play activity (at least they used to !) but high level throwing will probably require more work. Specialised throwing movements like fly casting do not come “naturally”. We need to do work to perform them well and a lot of work to perform them at an elite level. 

Ultimately, however, each of us must find our own movement solutions to the movement problems of presenting the fly where we want it to land and how we want it to land. The nature of the problem varies, especially out on the water, so the solutions we organise our bodies to provide also change. We find solutions by exploring what works and as we get better we increase both our range of standard solutions and our ability to solve new problems or devise new solutions – to improvise. Expertise in a complex movement like fly casting requires control in both repetition and improvisation.  For this we need both work and play. I’ve written quite a bit now about casting practice. It is the work part of the deal but that should not be confused with drudgery which is pretty much the opposite of being playful.


Before I go any further two things need to made clear. First, if you are interested in movement as a learner, a teacher or both (preferably) then Hargrove and Feldenkrais are well worth a read. If nothing else make sure to read  Chapter 10, Skill, of Playing with Movement. It will save you a lot of time chasing rabbits and ploughing through academic, peer reviewed literature. His work is based on scientific research and publications.

Secondly, I’m going to discuss play and its role in learning to fly cast better and when I use the word “play” I don’t mean frivolity or mucking around pointlessly. For my money play is having fun through creativity, innovation, adaptivity and exploration. Play is a means of learning things experientially – individually and interactively with others. We share this delight with many other animals that learn all sorts of seriously essentially survival skills by playing, often with family or wider group members. Play might seem frivolous to the critical, uptight eye of reductive observers but they are missing the point. Play has purpose and play is focussed but it is different because it is more about the process than the outcome. Play helps us deal with uncertainty, just like it does for other playful animals.

Hmm ok, but how is play going to make me a better fly caster, golfer, cricketer or footballer? A short and simple answer is that it will enhance your openness and responsiveness to changes in your environment. Play enables us to deal with uncertainty by becoming adept and adaptive when faced with the uncertain and the unexpected.  I’m not going down the path of detailed analysis and explanation. For now I would offer that basically either you “get” play or you don’t and if you don’t it might be worth looking further into it. Play is something I want more of in my fly casting. We need to consider that neither play nor structured practice (drills) hold all the answers. The mix is different for different types of movement. Babies don’t need structured lessons or practice to learn to roll, crawl or stand. As complicated as these movement tasks might be they are not in the same league as driving a golf ball down the middle of the fairway or landing a fly in a hat lying on the ground some 60’ feet away using a fly line towed by a 9’ flexible extension of your arm. 

The more technically demanding movement skills seem to require more structured learning and practice. Previously I would have said that casters like musicians need to master skills before becoming free to improvise – that is to play freely. Now, the jury is out on the both sequence and the mix. Maybe it would be a good idea to balance, say, 30 or 40 minutes of more structured practice (work) with 10 or 15 minutes of relatively unstructured “play time” either by dividing the practice session into two blocks or spending it with alternate or intermingled attention to work and to play. I’m going to try all those approaches and see what stands out as most enjoyable and most useful. Yep, I’m going to play with it and see what works best for me. I won’t be surprised if they all work and that shifting between different mixes works even better. 

Let’s look at three champions in three different sports being playful. (I usually watch this sort thing with the sound muted.)

The first example is Donald Bradman. This guy, if you don’t know of him, is still regarded as the finest cricketer ever to have held a bat. Here he is throwing a golf ball against the rounded base of a tank stand and playing cricket shots to the returning ball using a cricket stump as his bat. Notice the variability of the ball’s movement in bouncing off a round and uneven surface. Notice the size of the contact area between a golf ball and a cricket stump, both of which are narrow and round. Consider the precision and co-ordination required just to make contact much less to direct the ball into a cricket shot. Trust me, the degree of difficulty is off the scale. You might want to overlook the play element and classify his actions as a drill but I think it is both.

Next is Tiger Woods repeatedly juggling a golf ball against a club face before playing a shot with the moving ball. No way you would call that a drill but is it nothing more than a party trick?

Lastly here is some footage of Lionel Messi in training. You will notice that at least part of his regime is structured and repetitive and he is practicing different forms of agile changes of direction and avoidance of an obstacle similar to a tackler’s outstretched leg. Have a look at this one for more juggling.  Now watch any of the related YouTube videos of Messi playing actual football matches. Wow. Noting but skipping over the huge list of superlatives for his technical and improvisational virtuosity, what I see is a distinct playfulness in both his evasion of opponents and his goal scoring. His work has enabled his play.

My point in linking to these videos is that all of these maestros of their sports have managed to combine the discipline of achieving technical skill and the fun of improvising in the exercise of their skills.  Moreover, they all do it expressively, in different ways with different mixes. 

Now I want to switch to variability which obviously a good fit with playful and creative exploration. Improvisation is creative variation. My recent reading has supported and enlarged my decision to practice with more variation and less repetition. 


What is variability in our context of fly casting? It happens at both the unconscious level and at conscious/intentional level (and probably somewhere between the two). It means that not only do we never step into the same water twice but when we cast we never move EXACTLY the same even when we are casting in the same overall manner to the same target.

About a century ago Nikolai Bernstein realised that repetitive movements, even those of an expert blacksmith hammering  on an anvil, were not identical. The overall pattern and outcome were repeated but after extensive observation he concluded that “none of [our] actions is repeated but every action is constructed anew; it’s just a matter what level regulates this construction”. I haven’t read his work and might never do so. What matters to me is getting past the illusion of identical repetitions by humans as machines. We are complex living organisms. Control is what we are really after rather than a selection of fixed programmes to be executed on demand. Variability is not a fault, it is rather a noble practice by which the central nervous system (CNS) controls our movements and learns to control our movements. Control then is relative, dynamic and relies on variability which is, actually, the “programme”. So, it makes sense to embrace variability and to practice it deliberately to give the CNS what it wants – variation.

As we perform each cast we will vary and adjust the movement and the effort we exert in performing it and we do that consciously to some extent and unconsciously to some extent. Now that will raise some eyebrows in the instructosphere but I’m not too worried about that. I’m now convinced that we can help our casting control and movement skill by mixing things up a bit, especially after basic movement skills are acquired. All of us need to find our own ways of making variation work for us. I’ve consciously added more variation to my practice sessions casting, for example, to the different targets at different distances and with a mix of techniques – side cast, overhead, backhand, forehand, dynamic rolls and so on. Sometimes I vary the finish – hard stop, boink stop with an extra bit of wrist or finish “stopless” meaning soft and easy with full arm extension. Each requires changes in the effort profile of the movement. I do this to help improve movement control rather than to make sure I have a particular set of technical arrows in the casting quiver. 

The problem with endless repetition is that it runs the risk of becoming drudgery instead of enjoyable work. For me that started to happen when the repetition no longer provided much learning, enjoyment or improvement. The red flag goes up when it ceases to provide enjoyment. That’s when mindlessness begins to set in. Above all we want our practice to remain mindful and purposeful. Rather than damn all repetition as inherently boring I’d say that it served me well for quite a while and it might serve you well too in really nailing the movement skills of fly casting. There is, however, more to motor learning at a high level of skill than doing exactly the same things in large blocks. Series can kick in. Variation can widen the options further. 

I still practice accuracy at different distances but I now find it more interesting and helpful to do it with much more intentional variation. Previously I set up a line of golf balls on spikes at 10 foot intervals starting at 50’. I would then make repeated casts to each ball and between them in the pursuit of consistent accuracy with nice extension and loop shapes. Later I used the targets as measures of how far I could cast without noticeable effort.

What about now? Let’s say I pick out a short to medium distance target – a leaf, a tuft of grass or whatever. I will cover it a few times using an overhead action, sometimes PUALD and sometimes with one or two false casts. Then I might change shoulders and do it backhand. Then I might switch to dynamic rolls, again switching shoulders. Of course I might just switch around at random. Next, I’ll pick another target and play around with covering it in the same sorts of ways. I might then take a few steps and cover it or a different target from a different angle and wind orientation. You get the idea. Mix it up. Play with your food.

For longer distances I have a couple of targets in front and usually one behind me as well. I present to all of them and see how effortlessly I can perform the cover. If I’m not happy I’ll shorten up and refresh the sensation of casting without superfluous effort. What I don’t do is keep casting in the same way at the same target in the hope of sorting problems out. 

Summing Up

Play is purposeful in its exploration and creativity.

Variation is not a weakness or fault but rather a natural and normal aid to improvement of movement control.

Incorporating both in our practice helps define and strengthen fundamental features of casting technique.

It’s a good idea to play with variability.