What is a ‘constraints led approach’?

A constraints led approach is a teaching/coaching method based on the principles of non-linear pedagogy. It advocates a more ‘hands-off’ approach to teaching and learning within Physical Education. Through the manipulation of certain constraints, different information is presented to the learner. In turn, the learner is then challenged and channelled to find their own movement solutions to the problems faced or the goals needed to be achieved. These constraints are the boundaries in which our pupils can search for those solutions. The literature that promotes a constraints led approach, suggests there is a close relationship between the movement of the individual and the environment they are in.  The constraints that can be manipulated can be classified into three distinct categories:

  1. Performer
  2. Environment
  3. Task


 Performer Constraints

These are individual to the children we teach. They can be physical such as somatotype, weight, height, fitness levels, muscle type or genetic make-up. Two children in a Year 8 PE class may have a height difference of over a foot. Therefore movement solutions for the two individuals maybe are very different. Along with physical aspects, there are also functional. These can include affective behaviours, motivations and their emotions. The emotional state of a child can have a big impact on the learning of a child, especially within PE. On top of the physical and functional aspects, there is also the prior skill level of the child, which is an important variable to take into account when designing an activity within a lesson. Many of these constraints we have limited control over, but awareness of them can help us as PE teachers with our expectations of pupils within our class.

Environmental Constraints

I had initially assumed these to be physical of nature and are made up of the immediate surroundings where the learning is taking place. Things like the surface of play, light, noise, temperature or altitude. However in a Player Development webinar, Jimmy Vaughan made the point that this could also be socio-cultural as well as physical environment. That the culture we create as teachers within our classrooms or PE programmes, can act as a constraint on our pupils learning and development. How would an environment which prizes learning and a willingness ‘to have a go’ above all else impact on skill acquisition, compared to one that puts winning in that place? As well as the environment created by the PE department and the school itself, it is also influenced by other factors such as parental support, peer groups, expectations, values and cultural norms. How much of what we do in lessons and our teaching is impacted by socio-cultural factors? My feeling is a quite a lot, but probably is an area for us as PE teachers to better understand and develop. How much of an environmental constraint am I, and how much do I hinder or facilitate the learning in my pupils lessons?

Task Constraints

The easiest one for PE teachers to manipulate and therefore in my mind probably the most important. Task constraints are rules, equipment, playing areas, goals, players and therefore the information that is presented by them. Control over task constraints can direct learners to acquire certain movement solutions. By manipulating task constraints as a PE teacher, we can direct our learners to acquire specific movement solutions. For example the use of modified equipment such as wider bats, shorter rackets, bigger playing balls and lighter projectiles. Changing these task constraints can allow the children in our classes the potential to learn optimal movement patterns that take into account their own variations in performer constraints as well as how they interact with the environmental and task constraints.

Silver Bullet?

Essentially a constraints led approach is about situational learning for our pupils, through manipulation of constraints, ensuring lots of variability in practice when learning. I do think that good PE teachers do this instinctively. By designing good learning environments we ensure we focus less on the amount of practice and more on the quality of practice and how representative it is of the environment it is to be performed in.  Interestingly the literature on constraints led approach suggests pupils do not require prescriptive instruction to achieve the same level of success in terms of attaining the task goals, compared with exploring and acquiring more individualised solutions. However, I still feel being explicit with our learning intentions and not being afraid to use a more direct or instructive approach to teaching and learning if required is still a necessary part of our teaching toolkit. In the end, it boils down to finding out more about our pupils. By knowing them better we can then look to make the best professional judgement and decide how to support their learning in that moment.

Further Reading:

Excellent Podcast series by Rob Gray


27 thoughts on “What is a ‘constraints led approach’?

  1. Great summation of a lot of reading I’ve been doing lately! I agree that there’s room to be explicit at the onset. I used to hike a lot in random directions and often not find anything interesting, but with someone pointing me in a general direction I’d have been more likely to find that really cool pond where the beaver lodge is or the creepy old house in the middle of nowhere in the first year rather than after 10 years of random hiking, often sticking to well-groomed trails or not venturing far off them. I see sports that way now. I want athletes to make their own discoveries, but I also want to set them on the right path toward those discoveries so they don’t miss out on anything or get lost wandering with no clear way forward.


    1. Hi Rob, thanks for the comment. I think you sum up my current thinking very well. For many years I was a reductionist PE Teacher. Breaking everything down into simple checklists and instructions to be practice repetitively. In embracing Non-linear pedagogical approaches I have moved very much to the other spectrum. Whilst I see a lot of benefit of allowing children to explore their own movement solutions to the affordances we can create through a constraints led approach, and it will probably become my dominant teaching approach, I do not see it as a silver bullet. It is not everything, for everyone, all of the time. There needs to be as you say some explicit signposting and even teaching methods. The key I’m beginning to see is to know your content, have a range of methods of delivery and to know the person in front of you the best you can. With all that knowledge you can try to make the best professional judgement you can, to best facilitate learning at that moment in time. Checklists or Complexity? I think the answer is a little more nuanced than that, but for the moment in my development, it is clearly at the complex end of the spectrum. Good luck on your own journey. Would love to hear how you are getting on in the future.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi, this is really urgent and I hope you are able to answer! I am a uni student and your work has helped me a lot. I was wondering if you could please email me your name so that I can reference your work that I have cited and used in my analysis assesment would this be possible please ?

    Thank you,


  3. Hi

    Thanks for the article, really useful read.
    Having used the CLA I would disagree that the approach is hands off… slightly misleading.



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