Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The Game May Teach the Game But It Could Use My Help - A Short Review of The Constraints-Led Approach

If you have heard coaches talk about motor learning then you have almost certainly heard coaches utter the phrase, "the game teaches the game". This adage is usually meant to point out that the best learning occurs when learners are immersed in the most game-like environments possible as opposed to repetition-heavy drills. But the phrase has also been used as an excuse for coaches to be too passive in their practice design and execution. The authors of The Constraints-Led Approach: Principles for Sports Coaching and Practice Design use their book to show coaches how to walk the tightrope between doing too much coaching and too little and why that balance matters.

This book is written by four authors who are considered to be leaders in the relatively young field of ecological dynamics. The constraints-led approach (CLA) is a methodology that is built on the principles of ecological dynamics and non-linear pedagogy. And this is just the beginning of the list of technical terms to be learned in this field. The authors are well aware that there is a sizable divide between researchers and practitioners (coaches) and that divide is filled with jargon that the researchers are familiar with but that coaches are not. A main goal of the book is to bridge that divide by describing the existing research as clearly as possible. Another goal is to give coaches practical tools and processes to facilitate the application of CLA in practice design. It is a testament to the difficulty of these tasks that the book is still jargon-laden but it is also testament to the authors' skill that the book is still very readable. Part one contains the heaviest mental lifting, as it lays the foundation for parts two and three. Having read many scholarly articles, some of them in this field, I can say that the authors have done well in making their principles accessible but I still had to work for it. The ensuing parts read much faster and made much more sense as a result of the efforts put into part one (by both readers and authors). So what do the authors say?

While I do want to share some of the ideas of CLA, I don't want to spend the rest of this post trying to teach you CLA. After all, that's what the book is for. Motor learning, ecological dynamics, and CLA are all deep, complex areas that are worth study and I don't pretend to think that I can sum it all up here. I want to spend more space talking about how my exposure to CLA has affected my thinking.

Perhaps the heart of ecological dynamics is the idea that skill acquisition revolves around the relationship between the performer and their environment. This relationship includes the coupling of perception and action. The best learning is a product of tight perception-action coupling. Factors that affect that coupling, and therefore learning, are constraints and fall into three categories: task constraints, individual constraints, and environmental constraints. These constraints create affordances, which can be thought of as possibilities for the relationship between performers and their environments, and these affordances change as time and constraints change. Performers then self-organize actions in response to these affordances. Coaches, then, are tasked with manipulating constraints in ways that afford actions and/or decisions that encourage learners to self-organize productive movement solutions.

The main question I keep asking myself now is, "where does this leave me?" which is really a proxy for "what does this mean for my coaching style?" I have learned a great deal from reading this book and I also have a great deal to think about relative to my role as a teacher. As a methodology for learning, I see CLA as somewhere between the cliché motor learning, "the game teaches the game" and drill-based instruction. CLA appears to say that representative practice design (make it game-like) is crucial but that coaches can improve learning by manipulating constraints to accent certain aspects of the game at certain times. The authors put knowledge of the learner at the center of how and why coaches shape training. Coaches must know what their learners need to work on (often by consulting with them) so that they can maximize training sessions. This idea is very meaningful to me because I, like the authors, do not think that a "one-size-fits-all" method of coaching is best. Coaching requires work and, to me, that work means engaging often with the learners in my care and shaping our training with what I learn from them. The authors give me permission to do things that may not be completely "game-like" if I can create constraints that afford an aspect of the game that I have found to be important. This is hardly carte blanche to do whatever I want, but it is a degree of freedom (yes, I deliberately use this term) that strict motor learning proponents  might not allow. But, with that freedom comes responsibility. If I am going to depart from complete representativeness then I better have not only good reason for doing it but I better also have a detailed plan for how I am going to do it. Like any other methodology, CLA can be done well or poorly. The authors are giving me the tools and exhorting me to do it well. I think that the authors view intervening in or manipulating the performer/environment dynamic as a weighty choice that should not be undertaken lightly. If I am going to alter the way an athlete can view the environment then I need to fully consider how perception and action will be affected. I think that the tools that the authors give me are meant to, at least in part, ensure that I have thoroughly considered my interference.

Saint Augustine wrote that, "complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation" and this may be what looms largest in my mind after reading this book. It would be easier, as a coach, to sit back and let the game teach the game or to control every aspect of practice through stringent drills. It is more challenging to walk the thin space in between the two extremes. But the point is that the challenging space between is where the best learning can happen.

n.b.: While I believe that this is an important book and have learned a great deal from it, I also believe that it is in bad need of a second edition. It is my impression that the editing of the text was either hastily or poorly done. I noticed numerous instances where good ideas were clouded and where language usage was inconsistent. Given the importance of terminology and ideas to this book, it seems unfair to me that the authors should be subject to and judged by poor editing. I look forward to an updated edition of this book that may benefit from better editing.


  1. Another quality post with many things to consider Eduardo! Hopefully the note you placed at the end, reaches the right ears, ones that can facilitate your more than reasonable request. As for the main content of this post, my question to you is, based on this book (& many others that you've read to improve your coaching), what would one of your practices look like now vs from your earlier days of coaching, before you dedicated yourself to becoming more educated & informed?

    1. The authors write that "many sport practitioners can be described as 'expert without knowing' whose practice designs embrace a CLA without being able to articulate the technical language behind the methodology that they use in their work". I wouldn't use the word "expert" to define my previous coaching but I do see elements of CLA, where I manipulated scoring or playing spaces, etc. Now I would be much more circumspect about how I manipulate constraints and why I would do so. I'd like to think that I would be less of a "blind squirrel" occasionally finding nuts now. I'd still be asking athletes questions but I think that I'd use the answers to shape training rather than to try to shape athletes' thinking. As they say, "teach them where to look but not what to see".

      As always, thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Eduardo. Currently working through the book after initial expose to Ecological Dynamics lead me on a search for a practitioner focus perspective. After working through a good portion of the book, the two questions I have for myself, and through this post for you are:

    1. How and Why of constraining to afford? Looking forward to developing a menu of "invitations to action" using the constraints builder tool with other coaches and myself. Would be great to hear your interpretation of the individual, environment, task constraints for volleyball.

    2. How can I identify individual athlete skill development levels with a learning environment, from which I create individualized constraints.

    1. I'm still getting a grip on constraints as well. Prior to reading, I would have thought that changing the court dimensions would be an environmental constraint but I got the impression that it is a task constraint.

      One of the biggest insights for me was that motivation can be viewed as an individual constraint. So now when I think of motivation theories like Self Determination Theory, I think that I need to work with athletes on motivation *prior* to practice or competition so that they can be in the best possible mental state. This state would position them to better process affordances.

      Given that we want to treat athletes as individually as possible, I don't know that there is a formula for identifying skill levels. Even the authors find themselves re-categorizing into two *huge* buckets, coordination and adaptation. I think there are many possible subdivisions but I don't know where to begin breaking them down in a formal way.

      The authors recognize that there is a long way to go to help practitioners apply CLA and I think that researchers are eager to hear from us about what works and what we could use help understanding better.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!


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