The Constraints-Led Approach…what is it, really?

I have just finished reading “The Constraints-Led Approach: Principles for Sports Coaching & Practice Design”, by Renshaw, Davids, Newcombe & Roberts.

A really interesting read, as it attempts to make sense of CLA for practicing coaches. Taking the concepts beyond the realm of sports science ‘pracademics’ and showing how they can be applied on the practice ground by coaches without a Sports Science degree.

And this title is only the first in a promised series looking at the application of CLA to coaching in a range of sports.

Although, if I was to be critical of anything, perhaps describing the title as “…a vital pedagogical resource for students and practising sports coaches, physical education teachers and sport scientists alike” maybe misses the point.

This is certainly not “An Idiot’s Guide to CLA”, but “The Constraints-Led Approach…” is the “how to…” manual that coaches (should) have been clamouring for!

As a call-to-arms for all coaches, however experienced they might be, this quote perhaps sums up the ethos of the project.

Sport practitioners, like athletes, should be ready to search, explore and exploit information and solutions in the quest to be the best that they can be.

Renshaw, Davids, Newcombe & Roberts
The Constraints-Led Approach — Principles for Sports Coaching and Practice Design, 2019

From my perspective (cricket coach for 10 years, working mostly with junior and “participation”-level players, dedicated to ongoing CPD and frustrated by the lack of guidance from ‘the powers that be’), the most applicable sections of the book are those detailing the “environment design framework”.

There are resources to help the coach to define and select appropriate practice environments and even a constraints builder (what factors can be modified to influence behaviours and, ultimately, performance?).

But perhaps of most (intellectual and practical) interest are the Environment Design Principles (EDP) — “Just like a bridge, the EDP are designed to support the practitioner’s journey, providing a clear route between what would otherwise be two disconnected and distant locations (i.e. theory and practice).”

Environment Design Principles

Intention

CLA sessions are not just modified games. There must be performance- or outcome-based intentions, which define appropriate constraints and game modifications.

If the coach (and, at higher performance levels, the athlete) don’t know where they are going, how will they know when they have arrived?

Constrain-to-afford

Constraints and modifications should offer, invite or encourage learners to explore the opportunities for action; these opportunities should be related to the session intention.

No point developing a new technique, skill, perception-action coupling, if it does not relate back to performance and outcomes in competition.

Representative learning design

Make sure that the cues players receive in practice mimic those seen under match play conditions.

The famous example is batting against a bowling machine — batters pre-empt reactions and movements in anticipation of another short ball on the hip, or a wide half volley…this “learning” cannot transfer to batting against a live bowler.

Repetition without repetition

Top players do not play like robots, with pre-programmed movements deployed against machine-like opponents. So why try to develop “perfect”, repeatable movement patterns in practice?

There are some basic requirements in the delivery of any performance— to deliver the perfect outswinger, the position of the ball in hand immediately before release is vital [see Comment, below — thanks to Ian Renshaw for his suggestion] — but the real art is to deliver under varying conditions, of pitch, climate, opposition, match situations.

So that outswinger might one day be delivered into the teeth of a howling gale, or with a brand new cherry in hand, or a rag, against a right or left handed batsman, from close to the stumps or wide out by the return crease.

And ‘repetition without repetition’ is the only way to develop that art.

Final thoughts

A thoroughly engrossing read, “The Constraints-Led Approach: Principles for Sports Coaching & Practice Design” really should be on every coaches reading list.

I shall be compiling my own Environment Selector and Constraints Builder for cricket, and using them to (try to) deliver better practice sessions over the summer.

Oh, and hoping that Ian Renshaw has the cricket title in the series well in hand!

4 thoughts on “The Constraints-Led Approach…what is it, really?

  1. Thanks to Ian Renshaw, who commented via Twitter “I remember being told that the great Malcolm Marshall would spend the first few overs varying (exploring) his wrist position until he found the “right” seam angle for THAT day to get his outswinger going. Genius.”

    So rather than talking about “…the position of the ball in hand immediately before release is vital” I perhaps could have written about “…the right wrist position for that bowler under the conditions prevalent on the day”.

    Or even — “right seam position”.

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