Constraints-led coaching – WHY?!

CONSTRAINTS-LED COACHING is rather a ‘buzz phrase’ in golf coaching at the moment, as the benefits of such a style are being ever more uncovered.  In a recent article, I explained how Fundamentally Understanding Needs (click to read) was a great way of inducing FUN into coaching sessions; this article intends to show how a constraints-led approach can help meet these needs therefore resulting in more FUN for your students.



In brief, a constraints-led approach is based around the idea that movement is influenced by a dynamical system of interacting constraints on either the task, performer or environment.  By definition, a constraint is a boundary which encourages the learner to emerge with certain behaviours.


  • a task constraint relates to the activity in terms of the goal, the equipment or rules (e.g hitting over a stick)

  • a performer constraint involves unique structural characteristics including physiological, psychological and emotional aspects (e.g an injured shoulder)

  • an environmental constraint is often very difficult to change and involves gravity, ambience or temperature and socio cultural factors (e.g peer groups at school)





As discussed in Self Determination Theory, intrinsic motivation can be increased if the 3 psychological needs of competence, autonomy and relatedness are met.  Importantly for coaches, meeting these 3 needs can make sessions more FUN for students, but how does a constraints-led approach meet these needs?



Within a constraints-led approach, challenges are often set for performers to complete.  One example for an elite player may be where they have to complete 3 successive holes in level par but must lay up short of the green on each of the holes (altering the rules – task constraint).  This sort of task may not be used in order to find a new technique but to in fact ‘draw out’ a player’s short game skills under pressure.   At this point, it is important to understand that the level of challenge is important and that constant challenge can undermine long-term levels of competence/motivation.  However, if the constraints are set appropriately, the student should leave the session with a feeling of competence, after completing the task successfully.  On the reverse side of this is a student that spends 30 minutes on the short game area being told to shallow out the plane in the wedge shots (as this is deemed the key to sharpening up their short game).  As well as bearing little representation to the real game, this drill like activity can often be boring and monotonous, leaving the player with low levels of motivation and furthermore low levels of confidence after being made aware of their ‘poor’ technique.


STOP!  This is not to say that we may never need to make a technical change!  But how we make this technical change is important.  Do we need to block practice to find the new technique…..or can we design tasks that encourage the new technique/skills to EMERGE?  I would argue the latter lies in the art of coaching and in terms of Self Determination Theory, activities/games are a much more efficient way to satisfy competence than repeated drills. 


“WE SHOULD TRY TO EXPLOIT WHAT WE HAVE, RATHER THAN TRY TO FIND WHAT WE HAVEN’T GOT” – this is a great quote and typifies a constraints-led approach where games are designed to draw out skills.



Within a constraints-led approach, the coach can often take a ‘back seat’ role, instructing the player with what they want them to do and not how to do it.  This naturally encourages the player to take more of a problem solving role and allows them the freedom to find appropriate solutions, dramatically increasing their levels of autonomy.  BUT, unless the autonomy results in enhanced feelings of competence, this autonomy can be dangerous. 

A crude example of this would be if you Beginner Golfer Cartoongave a beginner golfer a lob wedge and asked them to chip the ball over a 6 foot stick into a 3 foot circle; and all you did was stand and watch.  In most cases, the player would struggle and often be left confused and de-motivated. 

In another scenario, the coach can for sure set the same task however involve the learner in questioning and discussion.  This sort of activity can still provide the learner with autonomy but also encourages relatedness as the player and coach engage in discussion.  IMPORTANTLY, the competence in this case should not be compromised as the coach will be guiding the player towards a competent stage.



Take this example, where a player has come to you with an excessive out to in swing path.  You decide that the swing path is a problem and explain to the player some basic concepts around swing path.  You then have 2 options. 

OPTION 1:  Make the player aware that their hands are moving away from their upper body at the start of the downswing and explain that they need to keep their right elbow tucked in and hands close to the right pocket on the way down in order to correct the swing path.

OPTION 2:  Place a head cover (task constraint) in such a position that if the player repeats the same out to in swing path, the clubhead with collide the head cover.  Then, simply ask the player to strike the ball whilst missing the head cover (see picture above)

In option 1, the phappy golferslayer has been dictated to (little autonomy and low relatedness) whilst also encouraged to focus very internally (ouch!). 

In option 2, the player is faced with a task, promoting goal directed behaviour and an external focus (Gabriele Wulf has a ton of research supporting this).  In terms of autonomy, this is now dramatically increased as the player must now problem solve and discover the new movement themselves, whilst relatedness is also increased by nature of conversation.  In addition and importantly for the coach and player, the desired technique will emerge from a clever positioning of the head cover!

SO…… in that very simple explanation of a task constraint, multiple advantages have been shown (self discovery, autonomy, external foci).  Task constraints are by far the easiest to manipulate and are a super way of improving technique but also importantly encourage appropriate levels of autonomy and therefore FUN.

ADAM YOUNG wrote a super article with more detail about task constraints and in particular how the equipment can be manipulated (click to read).



This photo here is a good example of how task constraints can be used when trying to teach somebody to play a ‘chip and run’  The 3 constraints of height (blue stick), distance (flags laid down) and direction (circle of cones) can be introduced gradually in order to help the player first learn height control, then distance and finally direction.  In science, this is an example of emerging and decaying constraints; as one constraint decays (the player now gets how to hit it low), another emerges (they now learn to hit it low AND control the length).

The TRUE BEAUTY of this exercise is that the constraints will act to force players towards certain behaviours – (there should be no need to reel off any script about ball , hand or shoulder position in this exercise). 

Take a moment to think yourself.  Did you learn better by being dictated to….or did you find it easier to learn by actually doing?  

Additionally, working through the difference skills of height, distance and direction will satisfy the needs of competence, whilst educated coach behaviour will help meet the needs of autonomy and relatedness.



  • Satisfying the needs of Self Determination Theory is a great way of inducing FUN into your sessions

  • A constraints-led approach, used properly, can satisfy these needs

  • The coach should look to act as a facilitator, not so much a dictator

  • Setting the optimal challenge and correct level of constraint is very important

  • Using task constraints is a great way of keeping the focus external, through goal directed behaviour

  • Students can often learn more through doing than from being told


Best Wishes

Thomas Devine

2 Responses

  1. Great article Thomas.

    As you said, ‘constraints led approach’ is a buzz word and it needs to be done properly.

    While manipulating constraints represents a great opportunity for implicit learning and skill/technical refinement, there are numerous ways that degrees of freedom can be organised in the achievement a given task. Not all of them are optimal. Leading the student to find the optimal method is the role of the coach. In my opinion, there is too much ‘mindless task exploration’ in the absence of technique parameters, that occurs in the name of ‘constraints led coaching’. I may be sceptical but it seems to me that this approach devolves the coach from taking any responsibility for technical change. A direct explicit intervention is quite often the best approach.

    • Hi Noel, thank you for your comments! You have some great points and I totally agree that the constraints should be guiding the player towards an ‘appropriate’ solution. I also think there are merits to a number of approaches (internal vs external focus as one example). After all, learning is not linear and we cannot apply the same ideas to every individual. As for a direct explicit intervention, I think this can help at times….but not always 🙂

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