It’s a game after all!

 In Coach

Constraint based coaching and learning.

“We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us.” Marcel Proust

You may have heard of the term Constraint Based coaching.    There are a number of related terms that are based around somewhat similar approaches to coaching.  Nonlinear coaching, Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU), Implicit coaching. Athlete-centred coaching. These terms are all different, but they have cross over and things in common.

In a broad sense, they mean looking at your athletes and designing specific activities for and with them, allowing them to explore their own capabilities and come to their own conclusions about how they achieve the outcomes.   Self-reflection is often a subsequent and related activity, to allow them to learn from their actions and inactions, their success and failures.

For constraint based coaching, the constraints are generally categorised as

  • Individual (or performer) constraints – that could be how tall, how fast or how fit an athlete is.
  • Environmental constraints – which could be the physical environment like the size of the playing area, but it could also be cultural and social constrains around expected behaviours and norms.
  • Task constraints – the rules and equipment used to complete the task.

The combination of these constraints can significantly affect how skills, strategies and tactics will be used, and indeed developed, throughout the course of these activities.

The coach has the ability to add and remove constraints, so that the training environment differs from the playing environment.   The coach can also introduce game related outcomes to move from coaching explicit drills to coaching using activities and games, so that the athletes have opportunities to learn, implicitly.

Take this explanation and example for cricket coaching, shared by Ian Renshaw and Darren Holder.

“As behaviours emerge as a result of self-organisation under constraints, coaches can deliberately manipulate the surroundings of players to create the conditions that lead to changes in organisation states. For example, the coach could create rule changes in small-sided games that reward taking of singles or encourages bowlers to bowl in specific areas (Renshaw & Holder, 2010).”

The application of constraint-based, implicit or athlete-centred coaching, is equally important in junior coaching as it is in elite coaching.   Let’s look at some other examples.

Let’s say we want to encourage more movement from our young netballers or basketballers, within our attacking players in the goal circle.  We want to encourage them to run to space and receive a pass within the circle where appropriate, as opposed to wait under the goal.  How can we encourage them to move into space that may not necessarily be under the goal? We could introduce additional goal scoring options for them. What if we had two other goals available, one at either side of the shooting circle?   They can score a point from scoring at any of the three goals.  Too hard to set up extra goals on posts?  Give them a box at each alternate point. If they drop the ball in the box, they score 1 point and play on from there. Scoring a goal could be 3 points.  With limited time to score points they need to make decisions and build on skills to achieve their desired outcome.  In these examples, we have changed the constraints – certainly both the task and environmental constraints – so now they are encouraged to make full use of the goal circle. There will be areas of interest to them that weren’t of much interest before.

Let’s say junior rugby players have an issue going forward and they are always trying to avoid their opponents by running across the field.  We could set up a channel of only one third of the width of the normal field, and play unlimited possession, but only if you manage to make ground – that is, you must get tackled in front of where the last tackle was, or otherwise it is an immediate handover.

Moving more to the elite end of the game and expanding the suggestion of Renshaw and Holder, asking a cricket team to only have fielders on the off-side would encourage the bowler to bowl off-side and usually at a full length, and the batter to improve their accuracy to beat the crowded field, or to be creative to work the ball to the leg side.  As the batters become more creative, the bowler needs to think about his or her variety to avoid being predictable.

These alterations of constraints encourage players to solve problems in creative ways. It gives them an opportunity to become more aware of their movement. It encourages them to try to solve problems though the intersection of mind and movement.

A traditional or direct approach to coaching is coach-led, with the coach instructing the athlete in what to do when – this might be structured skill drills where the athlete is expected to rehearse a movement pattern they are taught, as opposed to determine their own approach to solve a problem.

The athlete-led, learner-driven constraint based method also creates an environment for technical and tactical awareness and development, as explained here.

“Constraint-based instruction facilitates learning through manipulating boundaries or constraints to enable the learner to find a movement solution. The learning is discovery-based and guided by an experienced coach” (Renshaw, Chow, Davids & Hammond, 2010).

“Through the process of finding solutions to games-based challenges, the learner discovers and develops effective motor skill. Furthermore, the learner develops a sense of when and how to perform these skills within the context of a competitive environment. Hence the constraints-based approach improves the learner’s decision-making as well as their movement skill execution”.

In this athlete-led, learner-driven model, the coach is more a facilitator than an instructor.  The coach may determine the constraints (although there is no reason why the athletes should not be consulted on what constraints may prove challenging to them, at any age, but certainly beyond the most junior years).   The coach provides opportunities for the athletes to review and helps give, and more importantly, facilitate feedback from the participants.

By entwining the athletes’ perceptions, their decisions, their actions and their movements, we give an environment for learning that will hold the athlete in good stead, for when new and unique challenges are presented to them.

“Constraints-based instruction facilitates what is known as perception–action coupling. Perception–action coupling describes the reciprocal relationship between what the performer sees (perception) and the actions they take;  that is, the performer’s perception influences their actions and, in turn, their actions influence what they see. This relationship between perception and action underlines the importance of using games in practice”.

Not only do we create learning opportunities that enable athletes to grow as problem solvers and autonomous learners, but invariably they find their training more enjoyable, and more engaging.  As coaches, we might find training preparation and execution more enjoyable too and we may learn more about the game as we think about the challenges we can facilitate for our athletes.

The athletes are being challenged in an environment closer to the game environment, which may help them in dealing with pressure in a game environment, as they learn to make decisions and execute movement intent to achieve outcomes despite the constraints.

We are not saying there is no place for explicit, direct coaching, but as Coaches we need to ensure that we offer coaching opportunities across the entire coaching continuum, and we need to ensure that we are regularly creating opportunities for our athletes to solve problems in their own unique way, so they learn more about the game they play, and learn more about themselves and those around them, in the process.

So …. how do you prepare your team for a game?  Do you incorporate modified games at training?

How do you modify the games at training to concentrate on a smaller group of skills or decisions that your athletes need to consider?

How do you let your team explore their own capabilities and their environment, and become good decision makers themselves?

We’d love to hear your examples and creative approaches to coaching.

Coach’s Companion provides learning opportunities and appraisals examining coaching styles and techniques, to help you learn about yourself and your coaching.  Learn about yourself and your players.  Develop yourself – Mentor others – Learn together – on Coach’s Companion.

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