A constraints led approach in designing flow activities

One of the key benefits of a constraints led approach is the supposed enhancement of motivation on the participants. The literature that supports a constraints led approach focuses around two theories of motivation. Achievement Goal Theory and Ryan and Deci’s Self Determination Theory. The latter I feel provides a very good model to use in the context of physical activity, physical education and sport.

However Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi, a pyschologist, perhaps suggests a sound alternative theory on motivation through his research on flow – the positive aspects of human experience – joy, creativity and the total involvement with life. In Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, Csiksgentmihalyi, states that happiness or optimal experience is something we can make happen. Optimal experiences are those moments when we feel in control of our own actions and that there is a sense of enjoyment linked to them. Thankfully an optimal experience is something we are able to design and possibly control. Therefore as a teacher or coach we have the potential to design a learning environment that allows the children participating to find reward in what they do. A constraints led approach may provide the teaching method needed to achieve that.

Csiksgentmihalyi’s research found a number of elements of joy. The combination of these elements caused a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding that people will expend a great deal of energy to be able to feel it. When these elements are achieved, it brings about an optimal experience or flow, for that participant. Those elements are:

  • A challenging activity that requires skill – enjoyment is achieved at a very specific point. When the opportunities for action, perceived by that participant, are equal to their capabilities.
  • The merging of action and  awareness – people become so involved in what they are doing the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic, they stop being aware of themselves as separate from actions they are performing.
  • Clear goals and feedback – it can be varied and presented in many forms and ways, but when achieved it creates order for the participant.
  • Concentration on the task at hand – that  participants to forget all other aspects of their life at that moment.
  • The paradox of control – there is a sense of control by the participant through not worry about losing control, which is typical in normal situations in life.
  • The loss of self consciousness – that the participant is so engrossed with the activity, they become one with the environment in which they are participating.
  • The Transformation of Time – that time no longer seems to pass the way it ordinarily does when engaged with the activity.

Flow activities are ones that are designed to make optimal experiences easier to achieve. The primary function of a flow activity is the provision of an enjoyable experience. On top of enjoyment they try to provide a sense of discovery and a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. A constraints led approach has the capacity to achieve this in a dynamic environment such as sport for each participant and allow that participant to to grow and develop.

Let us take my U13 Football team as an example. Last week I was working on possession, with a focus on minimal touches and decision making. I had set up 7 v 4 keep ball game. The letter A represents Adam. Adam is a novice player and it is his first year playing for the school football team. A1 represents where Adam is now. A4 is where as a coach I would like to help him to move to. As he spends time in the game he either moves to A2 or to A3. A2 means Adam has the required skill set to complete the task easily. It isn’t a challenge for him and therefore he gets bored leading to demotivation. By changing the constraints of the game for Adam I can make it more of a challenge and move him back towards a state of flow A4, but a more complex one. However he might have found the game difficult because the challenge is too high for his current skill set. This might lead him to become anxious and again lead to demotivation. Here I have two options; firstly I could change the constraints of the game to make it easier and allow his skills to improve, but there might be the chance he moves back to A1 again. Or I could withdraw him from the game and provide a different activity that works on developing his skills. This might be another small sided game or something more personal and explicit in nature. Eventually when I finally help Adam to reach A4, it is only a temporary state, as boredom or anxiety begins to set in again.

It is this dynamic nature of why flow activities and therefore possibly a constraints led approach can lead to discovery, growth and motivation of the participants. We cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for a prolonged period of time. We grow either bored or frustrated leading to demotivation. Either we give up or the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills or discover new opportunities for using them. This is a key responsibility as a PE Teacher, to try and understand the individual nature of our students and ensure we can try to give them activities that keep them as much as possible in a state of flow. Every child in our care can, no matter what starting point, can perform a little better, jump a little higher, run a little faster, throw a little longer or grow to be a little stronger. A constraints led approach could provide the elements of enjoyment and ensure that the participants develop and learn at the same time.

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