Constraints Based Soccer Training: The Key to Unlocking Player Development

Constraints Based Soccer Training:

The definition of a constraint is, “the introduction or natural occurrence of something that creates a boundary or limit, which make some actions possible, and leaves other actions up to the learner to explore”.

It has been shown that when a person has no constraints imposed upon them, affording them complete freedom, they become less creative, reverting back to their comfort zone of doing things the way they always did them. However, when constraints are introduced, people actually become more creative and resourceful, as they attempt to be successful at the task within the framework of the imposed restrictions or limitations. There is also a strong indication that people who are successful in constraint training environments, can transfer their skills into environments without constraints, outperforming the vast majority of people who never trained with constraints.

Constraints can be classified into the following categories:

individual constraints (body size, fitness, strength, speed, aerobic capacity, cognitive ability, concentration, focus, motivation, emotional control, decision making ability and personality factors)

environmental constraints (physical and social factors. Physical – light, temperature, terrain, auditory feedback. Social – constraints based on cultural norms)

task constraints (factors closely related to performance in sport like bats, racquets, pitch sizes, number of players, rules of the game or instructions by coaches). The interaction between the constraints and the player will lead to specific skill development over time. The longer the time frame and the more a player trains with constraints, will determine the skills that emerge over time.

All these constraints eventually combine together to make-up a learning environment. The art of constraint based training is knowing what constraints to implement, and how to manipulate them, in order to facilitate desired outcomes. It is important to know when to sit back and give the constraints time to work before changing them or giving feedback. During the training there will be opportunities to stop the exercise and provide feedback using a questioning method to encourage player led learning. If the constraint trainings are set up correctly, the exercise should become the teacher, while the coach guides the process to make sure the experience is valuable, and that some teachable moments are seized. The outcome of constraint based training is best be measured over a longer time frame. The ideal situation would be to combine constraint based training with unstructured play, structured training, multi-sport participation and an overall cognitive lifestyle.

Let’s take a deeper look into the specifics of sports constraints based training methods, starting with the sport golf. Golf is notorious for having players practicing for endless hours on their swing, rehearsing the same swing, from the same spot, on the same practice range, over and over and over again; ironically this type of repetitive practice has very little value after a certain point. Constraints training contends that players would be far better suited practicing their shots from all different surfaces, angles, locations, conditions and using a variety of swing range of motion constraints. Once the player is on the golf course playing, they can use the natural layout of the course to create the constraints. Example, any ball that lands in the left rough off the fairway is out of bounds, or no shot from 150 yards or further is allowed stop on the putting green. These types of constraints will alter the players experience, forcing them to maximize and develop alternative skills, in return making them a better golfer. Another interesting constraint would be only allowing the player to use four clubs to play the entire 18 holes with? How resourceful and creative would the player be forced to become with only four clubs? At the same time, watch how the player’s skill set will increase with each of those four clubs.

To get a better understanding of constraints based training specific to soccer, it is important to examine some specific soccer constraint examples. Growing up I was never the fastest player, in-order for me to play at a high level, I was forced to adapt my game in-order to be successful. My “individual constraint” was my lack of speed, this constraint wasn’t put in a place by a coach, it was my own genetics. However, being slower made me notice that the faster players often only used their speed to succeed, they were never forced to develop the technical skills or problem solving abilities that I was forced to develop. How many times did I say to myself, “if I had the speed of that kid, I would be a pro!”. Deep down I knew that some of the more athletically gifted players would have benefited immensely by training in environments that placed constraints on speed, forcing them to find alternative solutions that did not involve speed. What types of constraints can a coach implement that will limit speed or the advantage of speed, forcing alternative skills to be developed? The coach can start by using task constraints, some examples would be, reducing the field size, using small-sided games that limit space, using touch restrictions, inserting a 1-touch box into the field, restricting forward passing options, creating number overloads or requiring players to use equipment that reduces physical speed. The next constraint is a called an environmental constraint, in regards to speed, this might be playing beach soccer or letting the grass grow longer to decrease the speed that the ball travels, speed is not as useful if the ball travels slowly! Those are some basic examples of how a coach might use constraints to give a fast player a unique learning experience that will force the development of skills they otherwise would not be developing. Constraints can be used for all areas of development, here are a few more examples of constraints for soccer. Use a quick time limit of 8-12 seconds for scoring a goal, this will alter the decision-making process for players, encouraging a more direct style of playing; reverse the time limit constraint and require a team possess the ball for 15 seconds before scoring, now the 15 second minimum constraint makes the exercise a possession oriented exercise, forcing a different decision-making process for players. Want to work on long range passing and attacking space off the dribble? Divide the field into three horizontal 1/3’s and only allow forward passing from the defending 1/3, this will force long passes from the defensive 1/3, but players can only advance the ball forward in the middle and attacking 1/3’s by dribbling or running with the ball and shooting, they can still pass the ball square or backwards from the middle and attacking 1/3’s.
Using constraints in training is something all coaches should become very familiar with, it really is one of the best teaching methods there is.

There is one more constraint that I have not touched on yet, but it is worth mentioning. The socio-cultural element which surrounds soccer at almost every level, it provides an almost invisible constraint that is a bit more complex than all the other constraints. It is not always easy to define, but socio-cultural constraints have an influence on player development. A socio-cultural constraint is something that the general culture assimilates with and generally comes to expect. An example of this would be, the Brazilian people expecting to see great dribbling skills from their players, or the English fans demanding simple quick play with bravery in every tackle! The socio-cultural elements can be broken down smaller than just traits that individual countries take on. However, the important point is that these elements exist and coaches and players need to effectively deal with these elements, they can have a very positive influence if dealt with in the correct way. The culture of the club does not have to reflect the socio-culture of the community, society or country that it is located in, you can take the positives of the socio-cultural elements and mold the players and club into its own unique entity with the proper work. My advice is to create an awesome learning environment where there is no fear of failure or fear of being judged, put the emphasis on enjoyment first!

Some soccer constraints to think about:

Neymar playing futsal. Ronaldinho playing beach soccer. Ozil playing cage soccer. Petr Cech catching ping pong balls from a machine. Henry playing in a parking lot with shopping carts as obstacles.

Would these examples be considered constraints based training? In my opinion, yes!

Here are a few more interesting observations on constraints. Remember that everything can be related to soccer.

Constraints give us a starting point and some building blocks to work with—a problem to solve, an innovative twist to be revealed, or a person to please. And, it doesn’t matter how tightly constrained we feel.

Max Shephard is another guy who tested what’s possible with tight constraints—he built a prosthetic arm with fully functioning fingers, capable of mimicking all natural movements of the human hand. His constraint? He had to build it entirely out of Legos.

When it comes to creativity, start with your constraints—they are the foundational elements of your Great Work. Look beyond the rules, the norms, the procedures and the policies. Look beyond what’s being done and start seeing what’s possible. And, if you’re feeling creatively stumped, do something you probably never considered before, “embrace your constraints.”

A good example is Claude Monet. His habitually high level of variability in painting was learned in childhood and through early apprenticeships. What truly set Monet apart though was his ability to maintain such variability throughout his career by constantly imposing constraints on his materials.

Change it up. If you want to think outside the box you need a box to think outside of. Once you know what your constraints are you can start using them to your advantage. Deliberately challenge your constraints (What if you only had 1 day to solve your problem? What if your budget was half the size?) and think more creatively as a result.
There is a common misconception that creativity thrives on “openness” and a lack of boundaries. Schools are criticized for hindering creativity with rules and people complain about the limitations of their work. They dream of projects where they have complete freedom to do as they please. But this is not necessarily the best thing to wish. Putting constraints on your work can actually increase your creativity.

“Recent studies offer evidence that, contrary to popular belief, the main event of the imagination — creativity — does not require unrestrained freedom; rather, it relies on limits and obstacles.” — Matthew May, The Laws of Subtraction

“Creativity is often misunderstood. People often think of it in terms of artistic work — unbridled, unguided effort that leads to beautiful effect. If you look deeper, however, you’ll find that some of the most inspiring art forms — haikus, sonatas, religious paintings — are fraught with constraints.” — Marissa Mayer, Yahoo! CEO

Life in prison can be viewed as major constraint for a person who wants to be free: The below paragraph is a true account of inmates that broke out of Alcatraz in 1962. They were faced with the many constraints and limits a typical prisoner faces, but their resourcefulness in the face of limitations was unusual to say the least. This was considered the most difficult and resourceful prison break of all time.

On June 11, 1962, lifetime criminals Frank Lee Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin escaped from “The Rock” or Alcatraz. The three brothers constructed heads out of a mixture of soap, toilet paper and real hair, and placed them in their beds to fool prison guards who were making night-time inspections. Over the time-span of a year, they had used crude tools to carefully dig a tunnel in their adjacent cell walls which led them to an unused service corridor. From the service corridor, they climbed a ventilation shaft to reach the roof.
The three men then climbed down the roof and scaled a fence and assembled a raft out of raincoats and contact cement they had stolen from the prison’s supplies cache. They pumped up the raft and shoved off from the island at around 10 p.m. Nobody had discovered they were missing until the next morning. The FBI never found any trace of the men on Alcatraz or nearby Angel Island, where they were supposedly headed, according to NPR. After a 17-year investigation, the FBI concluded that the three men must have drowned in the bay.

Stay-tuned: I will be posting much more on soccer specific constraint based training methods in the months to come.

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