Drill Manipulation (the tip of an ice berg in the Constraints-Led Approach)


Are there times when you ask your players to scale back their play to facilitate the drill?  How often do you tell your jammers to “play dumb” or “go at 50%”? 


Don’t do that.


Not only does it frustrate skaters who feel like they don’t get a chance to give it their all, but what on earth does “go at 50%” really mean?  50% of what I’m capable of?  50% of what I have the energy for right now?  50% of what the other skaters can handle?




What should you do instead?


The shiny lovely concept of Task Constraint Manipulation!   Such a snappy title.

It’s a small part of the wider idea of Constraints-Led Approach (CLA) which is (at it’s very most fundamental-ness) a coaching approach that is learner-focussed and non-linear. 

In plain speak – it’s not all about you and the information you want to give.  It’s all about them and how they perceive the drill and the action they take as a result.  That’s what develops appropriate movement and decision-making.  

Instead of telling them what to do, you set problems and let skaters solve them.  Your role as coach gets really full on before the session, when you have to think about what exactly you need them to train and how you can best set up a drill to encourage that learning out of them.      

There’s about 50 blogs’ worth of things to say about CLA so I’m going to focus in on the most tactical bit that we can do as coaches:  using constraints within our drills to set a problem for the skaters. 


There are three key types of constraints that impact how a skater will achieve a skill or engage in a drill. 


Performer constraints (body size or shape, skill level, skill preference, motivation, emotion) – all important to be aware of and support, especially in terms of how we engage with and feedback to athletes.  

Environmental constraints (both the physical environment like lighting, noise and altitude as well as the social environment of expectations and social values).  We can adjust for some of these elements in training and in how we run our sessions and our approach to games.

Task constraints – these are everything from team size to pitch size and the rules of the game. 

As coaches we have control over how we set tasks in our sessions (except, perhaps when it comes to numbers of skaters at training!).   Manipulating drills using task-based constraints helps us design training to be appropriately challenging AND create decision-makers on track. 

How does it work?

Remember, the coach is the problem setter rather than the guru that tells you how to do things (though it’s ok to give hints sometimes).

When you set a task or drill, you place a constraint on skaters in that drill, common ones are skater position, speed, or actions.  

By using different constraints on the same drill, you can create myriad variations of the drill. 

Variations allow us to structure athlete learning.

1)      Building up skills.  Varying the constraints to allow for early successes and to develop different parts of the skills.

2)      Isolating different game scenarios.  You know, all those “hey but what if” questions that come when you present a drill.  This is your way to focus on a particular what if.

3)      Have athletes focus on one element of game play.  For example, changing pack definition to five foot rather than ten increases physical game play and different approach to managing offense.


Reasons I love this approach

1)      No one else has to “play dumb”.  Instead, all your skaters can practice at 100% within the parameters set.   It helps us create a ‘train the way you play’ mindset.

2)      Coaches can target problem areas. It allows us to create conditions within a drill which focusses on a part of the whole. 

3)      We can harness the power of progress.  By using constraints to build skill elements, skaters find smaller successes sooner and use that positive energy to drive themselves to the next phase.

4)      Skaters find their own solutions.  Working within set boundaries gives skaters the space to find their own solutions to specific problems (or game scenarios) – this allows for individual thinking and individual responses.

5)      Skaters build game memory.  It creates variability within practice which sets them up to better recognise and respond to game play situations

Example skill-based constraint development

Chest catching

Objective:  Skater learns to catch skaters on their chest

Use constraints to manage the speed, impact, engagement location, and tracking. 

Phase 1 : Chest pushing in pairs, pop off and reengage through the exercise.

Phase 2a : Jammer starts at 3 foot, must engage and stay square on chest, pushing for 5 seconds after the catch.  No lateral movements.

Phase 2b :  Jammer starts at 3 foot, must engage square on chest, then can include lateral movement.

As you build the skill, you continue to alter each constraint in turn, allowing a greater distance (which would translate to more impact) or allowing the jammers to engage anywhere on the chest.  

From the point of competence with the fundamental concept, you can create variances in the drill to include juking or driving or adding in an offense.  Though you might need to constrain their role.


Quick tips

Set aside more time to plan   

When you’re not used to setting up drills built around a constraint, this may take extra thinking time to create a scenario that will give you what you want to achieve.  But the more you start your planning with that approach in mind, the easier it will come and, also, you’ll likely realise that a lot of your drills were already set up with task constraints and you can take the opportunity to make those more intentional.

Use friend brains

It’s not all on you.  This type of thinking is great in collaboration.

Be aware of the Goldilocks’s factor 

You have to be careful not to over-constrain or under-constrain the drill.  The constraints need to be representative of game play or movement to ensure that we’re not reinforcing an action that will undermine actual game play. 

That’s one reason “play dumb” isn’t particularly savvy.  Also, NO.

Use your words
Practice how you’re going to articulate it to the skaters.  Give them a clear task, clear constraints, and link it to the game in as few words as possible so they can crack on a do it.  (Less talking from you, Coach, thank you.)

Sometimes it doesn’t work

You’ve got to watch the drill unfold and if it doesn’t work the way it did in your head, don’t be afraid to change it.  Or move them on to the next level.  Or just scrap it and move on and come back to think about it later.

 Have fun!



References (by learned people) and also some of my related blogs

Towards a Player-Environment Centred Approach- some theory and practice FootBlogBall 07 February 2019

7 Principles of a Non-Linear Pedagogy My Fastest Mile, December 2015

Just Shhhhh by Hydra #56  - on not talking so much when coaching

Training Strategic Thinkers by Hydra #56 (Prime/ Apex collaboration)  - what it says on the tin