Constraints & Player Development in Football

Mark Upton
Jan 3, 2017

(a slightly amended version of this article was first published in 2015 in issues five & six of the Player Development Project magazine)

In the backyard of an Australian home, a young boy tries to chip a football over a small pond and into the mini-goals on the other side. In Brazil, teens playing on a rocky and dusty street show off exquisite first touch skills as the ball reacts in unpredictable ways off the playing surface. In England, a 7 year old successfully attempts a back-heel pass to a teammate during practice but is told by his coach to “stick to the basics”. In Spain, an experienced youth team coach creates a conditioned small-sided game to work on quick transitions with his players. In Germany, kids are fully engaged for hours on end playing a game of football in the local park. And in a youth game in the United States, the bigger, faster & stronger boy dribbles all the way from the half way line into the box and scores.

If you have been involved with the development of young players for any period of time you will appreciate that the above examples can all influence their learning. What you may also (implicitly or explicitly) understand is that it is a complex mix of these experiences/factors that shape the development of a young person and hopefully their future success. What you may not be aware of is the theoretical and growing empirical evidence base that captures and models the above, and can help us manage this complexity to facilitate positive player development outcomes.

A Theory of the Learner and the Learning Process

Framing the learner (young player) and learning process (becoming a skilled football player in the technical-tactical and psycho-social sense) within the lens of a dynamic and complex system is proving a fruitful approach. Principles from Dynamical Systems Theory, Complexity Theory and Ecological Psychology have been applied to motor learning, skill acquisition and talent development in team sports, as well as phenomena such as the weather and global economic markets.

Two important principles in Dynamical Systems & Complexity Theories are nonlinearity & constraints. In explaining the former, small inputs can lead to large changes in system output and vice versa, i.e. talent development does not happen in a “straight line” — there tend to be peaks, troughs and plateaus. Regarding the latter, behaviour emerges from the interaction of constraints impinging on the system. The “perfect storm” phenomena in a weather sense is a result of the interaction of many atmospheric constraints and perturbations – sometimes the flap of a butterfly’s wings being critical in the forming of a storm, yet in most cases the flap has no such effect. It should not be surprising that the “perfect storm” analogy has been used to describe the conditions required to facilitate the emergence of a world-class player. The examples given at the beginning of this article all constrain the developmental journey. Sometimes the smallest of things – such as a coach telling a player to “stick to the basics” – can significantly impact the outcomes of the developmental journey (perhaps a player completely lacking in creativity).

Crucially, the ability of a system (in this case a young football player) to “self-organise” under constraints enables adaptation to the ecological niche it inhabits. Adaptive behaviour is a key to the survival of the human race and, specific to football, a characteristic of high quality players.

In order to apply these principles in the sporting domain, a Nonlinear Pedagogy (Chow, 2013) and Constraints-Led Approach (Davids et al, 2008) have been proposed as having value for coaches and others involved in player development. They form a strong, but far from exclusive, theoretical basis that is often missing from coaching, academies and sporting bodies practice and policy.

Nonlinear Pedagogy

Please read my post from December ’15 7 Principles of a Nonlinear Pedagogy for more information.

The identification & manipulation of constraints is key to many of these principles, and particularly useful for enhancing perceptual attunement. Therefore we need to delve deeper into the Constraints-Led Approach as a useful framework for designing and conducting practice sessions and, perhaps more critically, the broader context of long-term player development.

Constraints-Led Approach

Karl Newell (1986) is prominently cited for defining 3 primary categories of constraints (task, person & environment) which interact to shape coordination and motor control in a developing youngster. His framework contrasted the dichotomous standpoint that development is determined by either nature (genetically encoded “natural talent”) or nurture (for instance the mythical and completely false 10,000 hour “rule”). As evidenced above, Newell’s ideas have since been formalised as a Constraints-Led Approach to skill acquisition and player development in the sporting domain.

When first introducing the constraints framework to coaches it sometimes requires the terminology to be clarified. A “constraint” is a neutral term, does not directly cause a decision, movement or developmental outcome and the approach is rarely used in a restrictive way in terms of prescribing a specific movement/technique. Instead, constraints create boundaries where some actions or possibilities are excluded but many others are left for the learner to explore. The interaction of constraints guide & shape the behaviours and skills that do emerge over varying timescales.

Short-Term: Coaching & Practice Session Design

I have presented my version of the framework below. This is what I usually work through with coaches to look at the contributing factors that guide & shape the emergence of particular decisions and actions in a match or practice session. It reinforces that, with this theoretical underpinning, the learning process is very much player-centred & more “hands-off” than some alternative coaching methods. However the coach still has an absolutely critical role to play, shaping learning via identification & manipulation of the task, individual & environmental constraints, as well as the judicioususe of more traditional pedagogical channels such as instruction, feedback, questioning, demonstration etc. Many good coaches do all this very well, having figured out for themselves it can be an effective approach to player learning, without necessarily having an awareness of the theoretical basis.

Coaches will most often manipulate task constraints in designing & conducting a practice session, and you will probably be familiar with the examples given in the framework above. These manipulations are often evident in small-sided games where “conditions” or “resistances” might be more familiar terminology than task constraints. By now you may also realise how a Constraints-Led Approach & Nonlinear Pedagogy provide some of the theoretical underpinning for game-centred approaches such as TGFU and Game Sense. However, is it more than just conditioned games? I believe so, and some of the most successful case studies of constraints-led coaching come from individual sports. Therefore the framework can still be used in what would normally be described as “drills”, where higher repetition of a skill is desired. In this case, the manipulation of task constraints might serve to create sufficient variability (“repetition without repetition”) within the drill.

The manipulation of the environmental (social) & individual (cognitions, emotions) constraints to facilitate deep engagement of players in the session is another concept that can be facilitated with a constraints-led approach ( “Flow” has been covered in a previous edition of the PDP publication and also this post from Sporticus). This is a largely untapped area in learning design and probably requires an article devoted purely to the topic. Somewhat related is Self-Determination Theory – see the paper by Renshaw et al (2012) looking at this in the context of Nonlinear Pedagogy and a Constraints-Led Approach.

Often the biggest challenge for coaches using the constraints-led approach is in the amount of time and effort that goes into planning practice activities using this framework. It is interesting to note that a study by North et al (2015), looking at the player development systems of European countries, highlighted Spanish coaches as committing the most time to planning practices and tasks specific to the learning needs of their players…

Long-Term Player Development

For me, things get more interesting in player learning and development when we take a much broader view and consider it over longer timescales and the experiences young people have in their daily lives, inclusive of, but certainly not restricted to, coach-led practice sessions & matches. Some of these were exemplified at the start of this article. Using the constraints framework can help not just coaches, but also peers, parents, administrators and system-level policy makers to understand how they all contribute (sometimes unwittingly) in shaping player development outcomes.

Regarding task constraints, in the long-term developmental context we consider “tasks” as the different types of experiences young people have in football and other sports. How does the dynamic between coach-led practice v unstructured play in the street/park influence development? What is the contribution of playing other team sports? Futsal has become a popular example of a sport similar to football but with different task constraints (size & weight of ball, number of players, pitch size & surface) that may facilitate the emergence of more skilful players. A recent study distinguished top-level professional German players (including national team players) from their amateur counter-parts via more involvement in unstructured football activity during childhood and greater participation in other sports during adolescence (Hornig et al, 2014). Does unstructured play satisfy the Nonlinear Pedagogy principles and deep engagement/Flow concept more often than coach-led practices? Regardless, it is likely that the interaction between all these experiences can positively shape player development and we need to avoid taking polarised positions.

An individuals structural (anatomical) traits constrain them. The player who is bigger, stronger & faster than his football peers throughout childhood and adolescence (perhaps due to Relative Age) may learn to solve football “problems” on the pitch via brute force rather than skill and finesse. And the socio-cultural values of the country, which we will get to next, may reward this ability. I’m sure you have witnessed what can happen to that player when things “even out” post-maturation and his/her physical advantage is no longer present. Hence policy for combating the negative effects of Relative Age is of critical importance for both the relatively younger AND older players. If you have a player in your squad who is dominating through physical attributes, how might you constrain them to increase the likelihood of developing greater skill and game intelligence? A recent story on Harry Kane from Tottenham Hotspurs described how he managed to survive in the academy system despite lacking size and speed. Is it any surprise that the article also declared him as having developed into the “thinking mans player”?

Environmental constraints are usually broken down into the physical/natural elements of an environment, and the socio-cultural “climate” that cannot be seen but perhaps is the most influential constraint of all. The physical elements and layout of a child’s backyard – such as ponds, windows, buildings – can be a catalyst for certain skills or “signature moves” to emerge through countless hours spent playing in that environment (alone, with siblings or friends). “Where I grew up there was a…” is often the beginning of an explanation from a professional player regarding how they developed a certain skill/ability (Australian cricketer Matt Renshaw recently contributed his story – “Matt Renshaw’s on-side game honed in the family garage”). My very limited basketball skills were influenced by the position of the hoop in our backyard – all the space to play was on the right side of the hoop, and I became more proficient dribbling to my right and shooting from the right side.

The diverse range of surfaces (sand, cement, dirt, hillsides, grass) and small spaces that Brazilian’s experience their unstructured play on is sometimes linked to their 1st touch and ability to play in tight spaces (Araujo et al, 2010). Why then do multi-million dollar academy facilities contain “perfect pitches” – would they be better off having a mixture of surfaces? What would you do if you could build such a facility?

(the above examples of environmental constraints influencing the emergence of actions/skills can be explained by James Gibson’s notion of “affordances” – more on that concept in a previous post and in this chapter from Gibson)

Finally we come onto the socio-cultural constraints. I will be the first to admit that, when introduced to this framework a number of years ago, I was almost dismissive of these constraints. Yet I now appreciate the enormous influence they have on shaping a young persons football skills as well as their beliefs, values and attitudes. James Vaughan covered this brilliantly in issue one of the PDP publication in his piece titled “Who We Are Is How We Play”, or in the words of his old man “you can take the boy out of Liverpool but you can’t take Liverpool out of the boy”! The North et al (2015) study concluded by reinforcing the dangers of trying to “copy and paste” player development approaches of other countries, highlighting that differing cultural constraints can make this a recipe for failure. After spending the last 3 years living in England, it has been interesting experiencing the social & cultural forces first-hand. I have seen evidence from grassroots football and punditry that people can be suspicious of creativity (a coach telling a young boy to “stick to the basics” after attempting a back-heel pass), value “putting in a shift” and a “good tackle” above skill and game intelligence, and lack an open mind to ideas emanating outside of football. Of course this could be said about a certain percentage of people in all countries, however there tends to be a tipping point that ultimately defines the cultural climate (patterns of values, beliefs, assumptions) that young people are influenced by on a daily basis.

It is possible to create a club environment where a socio-cultural climate emerges that is conducive to positive player development and resistant to negative socio-cultural forces that may swirl around it. This takes an enormous amount of work and commitment from all stakeholders, yet it has been observed that Europe’s best academies invest significant time and effort in this area (Nesti & Sulley, 2015).

As a side note for coaches: it might be worth pausing to reflect on how your own coaching has been shaped by social constraints. Your approach and beliefs will have been influenced to varying degrees by how you were coached as a player and the experienced/successful coaches you have observed or worked with. To balance this out, how much have you evolved your coaching through reflecting on your own experiences? Looking outside of your sport? Applying pedagogical and learning theories such as discussed here?

Final Word…

As we have just covered, player development is inherently complex. Due to this, the article has not prescribed recipes or attempted to provide THE answers (because they don’t exist). Instead, a way to help you manage the complexity is by posing key questions for critical consideration. Reading this piece alone will not allow you to “get” the theory right away – there is much more depth to explore in a number of areas. Take the time to digest it, come at the topic from different angles, learn from applying it in practice and sharing your experiences with others (perhaps even start a blog so you can “learn out loud”…).

Like a young developing player, your learning in this area will be a nonlinear journey requiring persistence and constant reflection. I suspect that journey will ultimately prove rewarding for yourself and the young people whose lives you are seeking to better. In that regard, I wish you all the best.



Araujo D, Fonseca C, Davids K, et al. (2010) The role of ecological constraints on expertise development. Talent Development & Excellence; 2(2):165–79

Chow J.Y. (2013) Nonlinear Learning Underpinning Pedagogy: Evidence, Challenges, and Implications. Quest 65: 469–484.

Davids K, Button C, Bennett S. (2008) Dynamics of skill acquisition: A constraints-led approach. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Hornig M, Aust F, Güllich A. (2014): Practice and play in the development of German top-level professional football players. European Journal of Sport Science.

Newell, K. M. (1986). Constraints on the development of co-ordination. In M. G. Wade & H. T. A. Whiting (Eds.), Motor development in children: Aspects of co-ordination and control (pp. 341–360).

Nesti M, Sulley C (2015) Youth development in football: Lessons from the world’s best academies. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

North J, Lara-Bercial S, Morgan G, Rongen F. (2015) The identification of good practice principles to inform player development and coaching in European youth football : A literature review and expert interviews in Belgium, England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain in the performance pathway. Report Commissioned through UEFA.

Renshaw I, Oldham A. R. H, & Bawden M. (2012). Nonlinear pedagogy underpins intrinsic motivation in sports coaching. The Open Sports Sciences Journal, 5 (Suppl.1), 88–99.

Harry Kane’s incredible journey from Arsenal reject to Tottenham hero

Further Reading

Renshaw I, Davids K, Savelsbergh G. (2010) Motor learning in practice: A constraints-led approach. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Davids K, Araujo D, Shuttleworth R. (2005) Applications of dynamical systems theory to football. Science & Football V. 537–550

Davids, K., Araújo, D., Seifert, L., and Orth, D. (2015). “Expert performance in sport: an ecological dynamics perspective,” in Routledge Handbook of Sport Expertise, eds J. Baker and D. Farrow (London: Routledge), 130–144.

Overview of dynamical systems theory and differential learning

What is a ‘constraints led approach’?

Constraints-led approach to talent development in cricket (Prezi)