by Shawn Myszka, MS, CSCS, PES

One of the most frequent questions I’ve received over the years has been something along the lines of, “I am in agreement with many of the things that you’re saying from a theoretical or philosophical perspective, but how do I take all of that and put it into action?”

Honestly, when asked this, my answers may too often attempt to take the question-asker deeper down the rabbit hole, and maybe too far into the proverbial weeds, by further addressing ideas related to representative task design, information-movement coupling, affordances, repetition without repetition, and other nonlinear pedagogical ideas. Of course, these topics are all needed at some level. However, by going this route, I can acknowledge that I was muddying the waters a little too much without bringing the Sport Movement Specialist a little more practicality to add to their coaching craft immediately. 

So, let’s take today to really talk about where to start when it comes to constraint manipulation. To do so, we will use the context of the movement skill of agility for sport (no matter if it takes place on a court, a rink, or on a field) to illustrate how some of these ideas may play out. However, as you may see, the recommendations could be far-reaching well-beyond acquiring the ability to make someone miss. 

As you’ve heard me say before, sport movement behavior IS complex. And because the path towards skill acquisition (or skill attunement and/or skill adaptation, if you prefer) is equally complex (and nonlinear too), there’s a whole host of directions that we could go. That all said though, I do think we can narrow things down to ‘A Top 3 Places to Start’ when it comes to manipulating constraints to facilitate enhanced movement problem solving specific to agility contexts. 

1. Space
The easiest and most obvious constraint to begin to manipulate (that many coaches probably already do to a certain degree!) is that of the workspace area of the activity.

Size matters…especially when it comes to an athlete’s movement skill and the problem(s) they are comfortable interacting with. Of course, you can modify the size of the space by changing both the length and width of the movement workspace. Generally speaking, though still dependent on a specific context, the bigger space will usually give the athlete more time to play with the creation of the coordination and control of the movement solution. In contrast, the limitations of smaller space will often end up challenging an athlete to find solutions more rapidly in a tight phone booth. That said, the opportunities to act, and the decisions to make will be significantly different across the space continuum and will start to show you what each individual athlete is more comfortable operating within.

Try changing the shape of the workspace (such as setting up the activity in the shape of a rectangle, circle, triangle, or square) to see how it channels various affordances and which shapes are more similar to the dynamics of the game
Note: as you adjust the workspace of the activity, you will obviously also be concurrently changing the time that the athlete has to solve the problem, as well.

2. Opponents
James J. Gibson once stated, “Behavior affords behavior.” Meaning, when it comes to the information which will serve to guide the on-going regulation and coordination of an athlete’s movement, arguably the most influential task constraint will come from who the player is up against (their opponent/opponents) and how that opponent is behaving. There are a number of really straightforward ways to manipulate constraints as it pertains to this:

  • Number of opponents present
  • The initial start position of the opponent(s)
  • The specific intentions/directional aims of each opponent during the activity
  • Movement skill-sets/styles of the respective opponent(s)

3. Communication and Guidance
What you say, and how you say it, matters significantly. Why? Well, the communication and guidance that you offer as a Sport Movement Specialist end up being an augmented informational constraint that can dramatically change how the athlete may solve the movement problem.

Remember, your goal as a Sport Movement Specialist is to be a facilitator, rather than a dictator, of the athlete’s movement problem-solving process. Thus, the way you center your communication should reflect this objective.

A few practical points about this communication (pertaining to both instruction and feedback):

  • Say more…by saying less! The more you begin to limit the words you allow yourself to say, the more attentional capacity that you potentially allow the athlete to connect to the information present in the world and to become more sensitive to it themselves. Try to limit yourself to one main overarching idea delivered to the athlete for each rep.
  • On that above note, within the context of agility movement skill, I often strive to tell players where I believe they could look, but not necessarily what they should see. By doing this, it begins to allow the athlete the room to explore their perceptual degrees of freedom for themselves to adequately find the information in the problem that is most specifying for their movement skill.
  • Try changing what you say and how you describe aspects of the athlete’s movement problem-solving process for them. Though it’s well beyond the scope of this short blog post, experiment with the use of both external focus of attention cueing as well as for instructions/feedback which is more intrinsically-driven. From there, note how each type of cue may resonate for the particular athlete and pay close attention to how it may be impacting his/her movement performance.

Overall, as you take this step to start manipulating constraints in each of these fashions, you will begin to notice that a whole host of things begin to change within the problem-solution dynamics (aka the interactions between the problem presented to the athlete and the perception-action processes of the performer), the information being thrown at the athlete to connect to (which serves to assist the athlete in the movement they organize in relation to the problem), and the level of complexity present in the learning environment (aka more interacting component parts). Essentially, you will see that the constraints manipulation brings a little different slice of the game for the performer to get accustomed to solving problems within, as well as new opportunities for their movement skill within those types of problems.

*Bonus Note: I would also say that if you take the “drills” that you currently utilize (even if they’re of a more ‘closed’ or ‘sterile’ distinction), you can add a significantly different feel to them by changing any of those three factors listed above, repetition to repetition (so it will play out in a ‘repetition without repetition’ fashion). Doing so would bring ‘aliveness’ to the activity and turn it from a drill with rote repetition to a problem that must be actively solved.

If you’re like so many, who are looking for more practical recommendations and/or you’re just looking to get yourself rolling, I hope today’s blog post helped you take the next step you’re looking for.

We encourage you to read back through the blog, take the time to design some of your own movement problem-solving activities, and then list out the ways that you could manipulate constraints as it fits within each of those three areas to change the space, the opponents, and your communication within the respective activity. Of course, this process wouldn’t be complete if you didn’t actually put it into action with individual groups of athletes in your unique, peculiar learning environment.

Once you do that though, we want to hear from you! We would encourage you to join us by jumping on our next Movement Meet-up call taking place via Zoom on Wednesday, July 29th at 1 pm CST. (Click to sign up) This will be a perfect opportunity for us all to learn from one another around this all-important topic (of constraint manipulation) and so much more!

Additionally, if you want to learn more about the ins and outs of constraint manipulation to design more effective problems depending on the intentions of your sessions, each course we have released over the last year will address this in a slightly different fashion.

Ecological Dynamics for Dummies
Approaching the Weight Room from an Ecological Dynamics Perspective

Shawn is the Co-Director of Education & Co-Founder of Emergence. He developed content for the educational brand, Movement Mastery, from 2014 till the formation of Emergence, with the sole purpose of helping to enable a deeper understanding of the processes involved in the acquisition of more masterful movement for athletes in sport. Shawn has served primarily as a Personal Performance Advisor & Movement Skill Acquisition Coach for National Football League (NFL) players since 2008, working with approximately 12 players each year.