Participation in sport is a human activity with all its baggage

Human systems are made up of people and people make decisions for complex reasons; moreover, they learn, they interact and they live in complex environments which themselves are constantly changing (Jean Boulton, Complexity and the Social Sciences; June 2010)

Humans are not systems that behave like machines. They are dynamic, not static and not predictable in their behaviour. Humans (in this case as individual athletes and sports teams) are complex adaptive systems

“Complex from the perspective they are comprised of multiple systems that interact in non-linear and unpredictable ways. Adaptive, from the perspective that they are capable of spontaneously modifying behaviour in order to accommodate unexpected change or sudden perturbation” (John Kiely; Periodization, Planning, Prediction: And why the future ain’t what it used to be!)

Cultural beliefs and assumptions

“It’s as if, if we do not separate them out we are not able to see them “. This line from innovative coach Juanma Lillo (once mentor to Pep Guardiola) explains his thoughts on clubs, coaching and society. Traditionally, through a reductionist approach we have been spoon fed the illusion of predictability and control.

Let’s take the example of trying to perform a technique exactly the same way through repetitive drills. By narrowing and standardising everything we have been placing a focus on decontextualized technique training. Here, the learning process is emphasised by the amount of time spent rehearsing a specific technique and usually involves the use of explicit teaching methods with verbal instructions. This does not simulate the performance environment and may narrow the focus of attention for the learner. We challenge this pedagogy and promote the influence of context. Daniel Memmert’s takes this approach to task in his excellent book “Teaching Tactical Creativity”. Coaches should avoid obsessing over correction of technique at a young age as this is likely to induce a more internal focus.

“We know from studies that technical training is not as effective as combined technical-perception training. It is important that children experience in which situations or constraints they have to evaluate which technique they use. Only then they will be able to apply those techniques in real complex game forms or the real match” Daniel Memmert, (Footblogball interview; July 2015)

Reflecting on a previous blog, Maths Elfvendal and I challenged the traditional approach to goalkeeper coaching. The role of the goalkeeper is broken up in to its structural components and it is proposed that the goalkeeper needs to work in isolation. We suggest the need for a better understanding of the goalkeeper’s functional role in the modern game. This will help coaches in designing a more integrated goalkeeper training, therefore meeting the needs and the demands of the role of a modern goalkeeper. We need to design training sessions that allow for a variation of solutions to emerge as opposed to the same solution being repeated time and time again.

“It is not about maintaining a specific set of wiring connections it is about trying to maintain the capacity to perform a specific function – Learning organises the perception- action system with respect to what happened” (

From my experience as a coach educator I see that many blame the failure of the performance of a technique on the fact that the young learners whom they assume will react in the same way did not behave like they should. The reductionist approach seems to be focussed on teachers and coaches as they attempt to organise, control and manage the complexity of working with young children in sport.  However, it does not work as well for the learner as learning is highly individualised.

In the excellent book Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition the individualised differences in learning are discussed. Some constraints that can have a profound influence on the young learner are suggested.

  1. Physiology 2. Morphology 3. Aptitudes 4. Needs 5. Personality 6. Attitudes

These constraints change over time due to developmental differences. These variables have an impact on each individuals training (and learning) response.

“… the potential to shift the dominant paradigm from that of the still-dominant mechanical world view towards a view of the world as interconnected: where variation cannot be ignored, where new eras and behaviours can emerge, where change is not predictable and understandable in simple single-dimension relationships”. (Jean Boulton, Complexity and the Social Sciences; June 2010)

A flexible framework where our training and planning is designed around emerging information. One that puts a focus on the learner and the learning process.

CLA BLOGThe Constraints Led Approach

A Constraints – Led approach, I find is a useful framework to help us integrate vast amounts of complex and emerging information to give us an understanding of skill learning during practice and play. Constraints whilst not always negative or limiting are boundaries that channel the learner to explore and search for functional movement solutions. Constraints are factors that can influence learning and performance at any moment in time

Individual Constraints:

Physical aspects: Height, weight, limb length, genetic make- up, strength, speed,

Functional aspects: Motivation, emotions, fatigue, anxiety

It is important that the coach can identify rate limiters (lack of strength, flexibility).

Environmental constraints:

Physical environment: Light, wind, surface, temperature

Socio-cultural: Family, support networks, peers, societal expectations, values and cultural norms.

Task Constraints:

Rules, equipment, playing area, number of players involved, teammates. Opponents, information sources

Coaches have more control over the manipulation of task constraints than individual and environmental constraints. Representative Learning Design (discussed in a previous blog) and manipulation of task constraints are cornerstones of nonlinear pedagogy.

The constraints that need to be satisfied by each learner will change according to the needs of different individuals at different stages of development. Constraints decay and emerge over time meaning that their importance can vary.

“We need a flexible framework where our training and planning is designed around emerging information, whilst being underpinned by sound developmental principles” (Mark O’ Sullivan & Al Smith; 2016)

 References and inspiration

Nonlinear pedagogy in skill acquisition (Jia Yi ChowKeith DavidsChris ButtonIan Renshaw; Routledge December 9, 2015)

Periodization paradigms in the 21st century: Evidence-led or tradition-driven? (John Kiely; International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 2012, 7, 242 – 250

Periodization, planning, prediction: And why the future ain’t what it used to be! (John Kiely)

Richard Shuttleworth: Decision Making in Team Sport (Sports Coach Vol 30, No 2, Pages 25-27; 2015)

Teaching tactical creativity in sport research and practice (Daniel Memmert; Routledge April 2015)

The Brain in Spain (Sid Lowe, Blizzard issue 1, 55-64, 2011)

The Newtonian Paradigm (Jean Boulton, May 2001)

Complexity and the Social Sciences (Jean Boulton; June 2010)

Daniel Memmert: Interview Footblogball ( July 2015 (

Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists

Endless twitter conversations!




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