Why there should be no limit to constraint

The dictionary defines a constraint as “a limitation or restriction”.

We are constrained as a person, such as being a slow runner. The game of soccer is constrained by its laws, such as offside, and we are constrained by the environment each person plays in – the noisy nature of some parents, for example!

However, whatever it is that constrains each of us is also an opportunity. It supports us to find a solution within those limitations.

To support learning, we should think about, understand and plan for the players in our team, the ways we would like those players to play and the environment that those players and that game of soccer is contending with.

Personal preference is that the environment is designed to be representative of the game of soccer, through the use of games. However, that can appear quite abstract and be perceived as just ‘letting the game be the teacher’.

The unfettered game has some natural propensity to support learning, although how we as coaches consciously construct aspects of the environment can further this in line with our and the players’ beliefs.

The illustration, below, is an example of a session that some coaches who I am familiar with delivered to a group of teenage boys.

This example reflects how coaches can practically bring to life and integrate the things we understand about the players with our agreed playing style.

This game encompasses:

1. The positioning of the players, both their position on their team and who they were positioned against, reflects the perceived needs of both the team and the individuals playing within that team.

For example, the red number 7 is a skilful winger who finds it challenging beating defenders and delivering crosses when there is limited space behind the defensive line as he was less likely to be able to push the ball past the defender and run onto it. The coaches provided less space behind the opposition defence to afford him the opportunity to solve the problem.

2. The nature of the task; size of pitch and positioning of the goals afforded the players certain opportunities, for example, defend the full width of the pitch; stretch the pitch in attack and be patient when building attacks whilst protecting the space that might be exposed in transition.

3. The way the coaches parameterised the duration of the games and the scoring Score in the first or last two minutes of each game and it’s worth two goals, supported the players to practise across all their human systems as they were able to practise scoring at key moments.

4. The organisation of the players is representative of systems that the players are learning to play in and continues to layer many of the commitments into everyday practise that are agreed within the longer-term planning for player development.


Pitches can be artificially stretched or shortened by the addition of cones to add constraints or afford players opportunities

Planning for development

If we have developed longer-term plans and agreed commitments to support player development, this backdrop then acts as a map to enable us to collectively seek to integrate all of the experiences we design for the players:

1. Along the player development pathway (e.g. connecting a player’s under-14s experiences to what went before and what may come after) and;

2. Through what might be known as ‘disciplines’ (sports science, psychology, recruitment, )

These longer-term commitments support discussion as to how both players and coaches build experience that may best support us all to adapt and respond to the demands of the game of soccer.


“Considering the things important to players is challenging yet worthwhile…”


These ideas on environment design from early in the last decade prevail in my approach to coaching.

While principally my beliefs around learning and development have been resolute, it is necessary for authenticity that the application of these principles occurs in response to the environment that we populate. This is because it will be populated with other human beings who have their own beliefs.

Continuing to consider who the players in our care are, the things that are important to them and synthesising those cares and characteristics into the way we play football is a challenging yet worthwhile commitment.

Any training session or practice we share and enjoy with our players can then support learning to be a reflection of what the people in our environment value, rather than following an off-the-shelf playbook.


Ben, an experienced Uefa Pro Licence coach and coach developer, is currently employed leading the integration of coach and player development at Fulham FC.

He has written Constraining Football to explore the designing of coaching environments that are responsive to both you and your players.

It is available in print or e-book format – to order your copy, visit

Share this
Follow us