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Constraints-Led Coaching

When coaches make their decisions in training, such as the practice tasks they design, or the method of communication with their athletes, they do so with the belief that what they are doing will enhance the performance of their athletes. Why would a coach do something in training that wouldn’t help or would hinder athletes in competition? Whether a coach is a full-time professional, or a parent who just wants to provide their child with a great experience, the focus must be on providing athletes with enjoyable learning experiences – I’m not sure anyone would disagree with that. The specific intentions throughout a season (development vs. performance focus), or throughout age-groups (U8 vs adult level) may vary, but the overarching “why” of coaches is the same; to provide the best developmental environment for their athletes.

Currently, we are in the information age, which could also be classed as the misinformation age. Everyone will have an opinion, and some will try and sell you their opinion to make money and they will spin a narrative to try and sell their product. This is not specifically about skill acquisition, but rather a general point. The challenge for regular consumers is to know how to distinguish what is true and what isn’t. This takes some critical understanding and thinking. In my opinion, this starts with a theoretical framework to guide the coaches and their decision making.

"Without theoretical guidance, accompanied with appropriate tools, practitioners could be left at the mercy of often outdated practices, speculative information sources and their own intuition" (Williams & Hodges, 2005).

However, for coaches, this can take a large investment of time and energy. For skill development practitioners, our job is to assist coaches on their journey. Ridiculing, berating or shaming coaches because of the choices that they make regarding the tasks that they implement (which is often done in good faith), is an awful way to bring about change in coaching. An important word I have been using in my work with coaches is SUPPORT. I aim to support coaches through their journey, and aiming to build their own capacity to make decisions, and confidence in their own abilities. The aims of a coach developer interacting with a coach are very similar to the aims of a coach working with an athlete (see here for more).

In my mind (and I’m sure some would disagree with this), the starting point is to investigate one or all the following:

  • What is the difference between development (learning) and performance?

  • How do athletes learn?

  • How can coaches design learning environments?

Development vs Performance.

Coaches are present in many different forms with many different philosophies and beliefs (as it should be). Some coach at youth level, some coach at the adult level. Some coach developmental athletes, some coach high performance athletes. (Wormhoudt et al., 2017) contrasted development coaches and performance coaches based on the timeframes they operate within:

"Development coaches operate along medium- to long-term timescales, continuously challenging children to improve and develop and change their performance behaviours for the better over periods of months and years. Performance coaches are much more caught up in the 'here and now' of driving athletes on to win games, avoid defeat and progress in competitions over periods of weeks, days and hours." (p. 24).

This can present issues when a coach employs the wrong mindset with any given group. For example:

  • A youth development coach creates a “win at all costs” culture, when the focus should be on development and improvement.

  • An adult coach sets training up so there is high challenge and results in a high failure rate, and players go into their knockout championship play-off devoid of confidence.

With this, it is important to define development and performance, so practitioners can understand how training can vary with the differing intentions. In my own words:

Development: learning to adapt goal directed behaviour to the surrounding constraints.

Performance: the ability to adapt goal directed behaviour to the surrounding constraints in the competitive environment.

When training is development focused, it is important to consider concepts like the challenge-based framework (Hodges & Lohse, 2022) or desirable difficulties (Bjork, 1994). When training is performance focussed, skill development may not be the primary focus of training (Farrow & Robertson, 2017), and therefore the challenge component of training can be heavily reduced. It is important to build the confidence set relevant intentions of athletes to enable them to perform.

How do athletes learn?

The constraints-led approach (CLA) is based of the work of Karl Newell (1986), who proposed that learners self-organise to generate functional and effective movement solutions based on the interactions between individual, task and environmental constraints (this is skill).

  • A constraint is an information source that regulates action (Davids, 2010).

  • Self-organisation can be defined as the formation of functional movement solutions (Kelso, 1995).

Information is omnipresent in practice and performance contexts. This information can include the actions of opponents, actions of teammates, position on the field, instructions from a coach, or a game plan. The challenge is, can information in the practice environment match the information in the competitive environment to ensure that athletes are learning to regulate their actions on relevant sources of information? To give an example, in an exercise where a player is instructed to dribble around cones, the key information is the path they are following, and the distance they are away from the cones. Neither of this is relevant to a game. So the player may be learning (depending on the initial skill level of the player), but not developing their skill level (skill is based off the mutual connection between an individual and their environment, see below). The task could be useful to develop coordination, develop confidence, create an enjoyable environment (especially if performed in a race scenario), but it may have a limited effect on competition performance, especially with higher skilled players.

Errors have a massive role on the impact of learning, and this is why high challenge (which is relative to the individual) training environments are vital for development. Errors guide players to more functional solutions (see here).

The CLA is centred on the concept that skill acquisition is based on the mutual connection of the individual and the environment they perform in (Newell, 1986). As the focus of the CLA is around the individual adapting to their environment, Araujo and Davids (2016) framed skill acquisition as skill adaptability or attunement, with learning being defined as the emergence of a functional relationship between a performer and their environment. For coaches, this framing highlights the importance of ensuring that learners are given opportunities to adapt to their environment i.e. through variability (see here).

For more on the CLA, see here.

Designing Learning Environments.

A constraint is an information source that regulates action, therefore in order for athletes to develop/learn/become more skilled in training, they must be subjected to the same information sources in training. In other words, training must be representative of competition, hence representative learning design. Representative learning design is not simply sampling the external environment of competition i.e. opponents, rules or the direction of play (Task Design Model (Sullivan et al., 2021)). Consideration must also be given to the feelings and intention of competition. Such representative design will allow learners to experience and explore the cognitions, intentions and emotions that will underpin perception-action couplings in a competitive setting. Even small increases in anxiety in training can transfer to high anxiety conditions like competition (Oudejans & Pijpers, 2010). One potential method to incorporate affective learning design that samples the competitive environment is to introduce a scoreboard with score and time information (Headrick et al., 2015). Practicing under small amount of anxiety could potentially transfer to conditions of high anxiety, like competition (Oudejans & Pijpers, 2010) Manipulating contextual constraints, like score and time remaining can allow for the emergence of thoughts and feelings similar to those that occur in competition (Maloney et al., 2018). Designing practice environments is discussed in much more detail here.


For a practitioner, it is important to understand what they want to achieve at any given moment. Once that is clearly defined, then they can clearly outline methods to help them hit the already defined targets. In my opinion, the CLA provides a suitable framework to guide practitioners in designing suitable tasks to elicit the desired response.


Araújo, D., & Davids, K. (2016). Towards a theoretically-driven model of correspondence between behaviours in one context to another: implications for studying sport performance. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 47, 745-757.

Bjork, R. (1994). Memory and Meta-memory Considerations in the Training of Human Beings. In (pp. 185-205).

Davids, K. (2010). The constraints-based approach to motor learning: Implications for a non-linear pedagogy in sport and physical education. In Motor learning in practice (pp. 23-36). Routledge.

Farrow, D., & Robertson, S. (2017). Development of a Skill Acquisition Periodisation Framework for High-Performance Sport. Sports Med, 47(6), 1043-1054.

Headrick, J., Renshaw, I., Davids, K., Pinder, R. A., & Araújo, D. (2015). The dynamics of expertise acquisition in sport: The role of affective learning design. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 16, 83-90.

Hodges, N. J., & Lohse, K. R. (2022). An extended challenge-based framework for practice design in sports coaching. J Sports Sci, 40(7), 754-768.

Kelso, J. A. S. (1995). Dynamic patterns: The self-organization of brain and behavior. The MIT Press.

Maloney, M. A., Renshaw, I., Headrick, J., Martin, D. T., & Farrow, D. (2018). Taekwondo Fighting in Training Does Not Simulate the Affective and Cognitive Demands of Competition: Implications for Behavior and Transfer [Original Research]. Frontiers in Psychology, 9.

Newell, K. M. (1986). Constraints on the Development of Coordination.

Oudejans, R. R., & Pijpers, J. R. (2010). Training with mild anxiety may prevent choking under higher levels of anxiety. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 11(1), 44-50.

Sullivan, M. O., Woods, C. T., Vaughan, J., & Davids, K. (2021). Towards a contemporary player learning in development framework for sports practitioners. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 16(5), 1214-1222.

Williams, A. M., & Hodges, N. J. (2005). Practice, instruction and skill acquisition in soccer: challenging tradition. J Sports Sci, 23(6), 637-650.

Wormhoudt, R., Savelsbergh, G. J., Teunissen, J. W., & Davids, K. (2017). The athletic skills model: optimizing talent development through movement education. Routledge.

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