Coaching Theories: What is a Constraints Led Approach?

Coaching Theories: What is a Constraints Led Approach?

Constraints led approach infographic

What is the basis of a Constraints Led Approach?

Continuing from the last blog post on Non-Linear Pedagogy, A Constraints Led Approach is the framework for how we coach based on those principles. Mark Upton says due to the complexity of human nature, movement and actions occur under constraints. Newell (1986) defines learning and performance as the interaction between the individual, environmental and task constraints.

  • Individual Constraints – Physical & psychological characteristics of an individual (e.g. height and emotions)
  • Environmental Constraints – External factors to the player (e.g. culture, playing area)
  • Task Constraints – Exercise performed by the players (e.g. pitch size, rules & equipment)

Guiding Principles

Above is an image by Ben Bartlett, a coach educator with the England FA, stating there are four main principles for a constraints based approach. These are that there is direction, with a target to aim towards. Definition of the pitch area, considering the area of the field the theme is focusing on. Players must make decisions, with perception and problem solving. The final principle is to practice different themes or objectives in the same exercise.

Implementing a Constraints Led Approach

As a beginner to this approach, the obvious method is to create a rule which will directly bring about the desired behaviour. Mark O’Sullivan (on Just Kickin’ It Podcast) gives an example of focusing on switching the play as the desired behaviour. The most obvious constraint is to only allow shots after the ball is played from one wide channel to the other wide channel. Mark mentions this approach is unrepresentative of the game as the defending team will look to block passes to the opposite channel than block a path to the goal.

Instead, he proposes that if the ball is in the wide channel, the defending team are not allowed in the opposite wide channel. This would give the attacking team space in the far channel, encouraging them to switch the play to exploit the space. Giving more realism to the practice, as the defending team will still have the priority to protect the goal and more compact.

As players change their behaviours to adapt to constraints, changing the constraint will force them to continue adapting. For example, created a constraint where the desired behaviour was for the players to dribble toward to exploit space. To do this, he created a rule where the only play who could pass forward was the goalkeeper, encouraging dribbling forwards. In his next blog post, the constraint was changed to the defending team earning a point by intercepting a pass. This new constraint encouraged the defending team to make interceptions, by blocking passing options, and affording the player in possession to dribble to exploit the space.

Restrict, Relate & Reward

Ben Bartlett explains there are three ways to bring out behaviours. Restrict is the most commonly used, but must be used with caution. Too much can reduce options a player can have making it unrealistic. Relate is about giving them a coaching point to consider during the practice, rather than an actual rule in place. Reward is the opposite to restrict, instead of taking away options there is an award for desired behaviours. While the reward approach doesn’t restrict, it may change the risk-reward factor of some decision making, especially if the reward is high.

Using the three Rs with the theme to switch the ball from one wide area to another.

  • Restrict – ask Mark suggested above
  • Relate – Tell the players to recognise when it is possible to play to the opposite channel.
  • Reward – If they score after playing from one wide channel to the opposite wide channel, two extra goals are awarded.

Provide & Persuade

Josh Faga (via Twitter) suggests using Provide and Persuade

In the above example, Josh states that practices must provide opportunities for actions and persuade players to make these actions. This shows how multiple constraints can be used. Restricting the team in possession by limiting their space, provides more opportunities for desired action. Rewarding the defending team to perform an action places a need on the attacking team to act to prevent this. I’d recommend reading this thread Josh posts for more examples.

Constraints In Action

Below are some video examples of how constraints can be used in practice design to achieve an outcome.

Theory to Practice

Constraints led approach exercises

To be able to understand this approach, I’ve attempted to use constraints to design an exercise. Above are three examples with the theme for playing passes through the middle of the opposition. If anyone else has done this before, give me a shout out on Twitter.

First exercise is restricting the field shape to cut the corners off to encourage playing through the middle. Although this does make it easier to defend the middle and can prevent the attacking team from playing wide to exploit the middle.

Second exercise is based on rewarding. This one does give the players an external focus on trying to play through from the middle, without taking the option of playing wide if possible.

Third exercise is looking to give the attacking team an overload with a potential 8v6 in the middle of the field. Trying to keep the practice as realistic as possible by keeping at least one player wide for the attacking team. Maybe becomes unrealistic for the defending team as they are forced to be away from the middle and be less compact.


  • Constraints come in three forms, individual, environment and task. As coaches, it is easier to change the task to bring about desired behaviours.
  • Players will adapt to any constraints put in place and could result in unexpected and unwanted behaviours. Especially if constraints are too strict or unrealistic to the game.
  • Restricting isn’t the only way to use the approach. Rewarding a behaviour or adding a focus can also bring out desired behaviours.
  • To successfully implement this approach, practice must provide opportunities and persuade the players to perform an action.

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