Learning to be adaptive as a distributed process across the coach–athlete system: situating the coach in the constraints-led approach

Dominic Orth*, John van der Kamp, Chris Button

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Background: The constraints-led approach was first proposed to capture how movement solutions are shaped and organised without being prescribed. It has since been extended as a suitable framework for informing coaching practice. The contemporary view of the role of the coach in the constraints-led approach characterises them as a monitor and manipulator of constraints on the learner. In essence, the coach is a designer whose role is to shape constraints such that practice consistently improves the learner’s capabilities to perform in a range of different contexts. This objective reflects what the coach aims to establish with the learner–an increased capability to adapt to new circumstances, such as improved performance in a competition or better learning in a training camp. Even if constraints manipulation performed by a coach is not necessarily prescriptive, this viewpoint suggests the effective coach acts as a change agent, who, through constraint manipulation, can orchestrate the learning process. Arguably, the conceptualisation of the coach as a constraints manipulator, has typically been misinterpreted as meaning that they are relatively disengaged (and at worst absented) in the learning process where their primary role is the gate keeper to variability in constraints and behaviour. Aims: Our aim is to re-emphasise the role of the coach in the constraints-led approach by exploring the idea that the coach and the learner(s) together, situated in a learning environment, constitute a learning system. Here, the coach forms a co-adaptive relationship with the learner, making adjustments to constraints on practice based on emergent relation dependent information, where the learner and coach mutually constrain each other’s behaviour. In doing so, the coach and athlete form temporary couplings from which new information and opportunities for action, learning, and creative behaviours can form. An important consequence of this reconceptualisation is that emergent, adaptive, and creative actions are somehow distributed across the coach–athlete social system. Implications: It is neither the learner nor the coach, but, the processes shaping their interactions that should be at the heart of applying the constraints-led approach. For effective coaching, it is essential that the coach is tuned in to the learner’s current capabilities and skill level and adapts practice accordingly. In doing so, setting up constraints to interact in a manner informed by representative design facilitates opportunities to learn to adapt skills that can support performance and learning. Hence, representative task design is not only crucial for athletes’ learning, but for the coach’s learning as well.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)146-161
Number of pages16
JournalPhysical Education and Sport Pedagogy
Issue number2
Early online date13 Dec 2018
Publication statusPublished - 4 Mar 2019


  • coach–athlete relationship
  • constraints-led approach
  • distributed creativity
  • Perceptual motor learning
  • representative design


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