My Evolution to Constraint-Led Teaching

Without much effort, I can reflect on my coaching career and create a lengthy list of on-court and off-court mistakes. One of these blunders would manifest daily in how I taught volleyball skills. I was the guy on a box hitting balls at players so they could work on digging skills. Or I was tossing perfect sets so players could learn how to hit. I would analyze every skill component and provide feedback. Was this type of approach misguided? I don’t believe I was doing anything wrong, but I’ve embraced what I believe is a more effective way of teaching.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” ~Maya Angelou

Did my players improve their defensive skills when I was standing on a box, hitting balls at them? Yes, they did get better. However, there was more potential for positive transfer from activity to learning if I included the element of reading around the block, watching the actions of the hitter, and reacting to a ball deflected off the hands of the block. Every aspect of the game is situational based on what the player sees. How can we best expose players to the various situations of play? The easy answer is to put them into playing situations a lot.

Nils van der Poel

“the main idea of my training program was that you will become good at whatever it is that you train.” ~Nils van der Poel, Olympic Speedskating Gold Medalist

The job of the coach is to be a great teacher. Every training session should aim to put the players in situations that resemble a game environment. This environment offers a more significant transfer from activity to learning and skill development. The challenge is how to create activities that are game related without losing the focus on the importance of deliberate, repetitive contacts that will challenge the player. Too often, the play activities come at the expense of focused contacts. Players will become immersed in the competitive aspect of play and lose track of specific items inside their skill set that need to be addressed.

As my coaching methods evolved, I gravitated towards a constraint-led approach to teaching.

What is the Constraint-Led Approach?

Instead of providing constant verbal feedback to the player on “how” to perform a skill, the athlete is placed in an environment that constrains or restricts the variables. The coach can control the environment by modifying the equipment, scoring, playing dimensions, and rules. By controlling the environment of the activity, the player must focus on the specific aspects of the game being addressed. The modifications a coach can make to control the environment are only restricted by their imagination and the skills that are priorities. Just take caution in not making things too complicated. You don’t want to suppress the nature of the game or have the players focus on items of marginal importance.

Here is a simple example of a constraints-led activity.

  • Game-6v6
  • Scoring: the first team to rotate six times is the winner.
  • To Rotate: The server must score two or three consecutive points (depending on skill level).
  • Constraints:
  • The serve must go to the opponent’s left-front attacker in serve-receive
  • The first set by the sideout offense must go to the left-front attacker.
  • After the first attack, both sides will play out the point in the usual fashion.
  • The opposing team gets to serve if the serving team loses the rally.

So, what is the focus of the drill? Although we are playing 6v6, it is actually an individual skill development activity.

  • The server will receive repeated opportunities to serve zone 5. The serve can force the passer to move by serving short, deep, or laterally. Statistics relative to accuracy and the effectiveness of the serve can be recorded.
  • The left-front attacker will receive repetitive chances to receive a serve. Since the serve is unpredictable, the passer must focus on visual cues and movement to the ball. Passing numbers are recorded.
  • The left front also receives the first set, so they work on going from pass to attack footwork and timing. The attack numbers are recorded.
  • The setter focuses on the consistency and accuracy of the set going to the left front.
  • The middle front blocker receives opportunities to work on blocking footwork to their right to block the attack. 
  • The right front blocker is working on blocking mechanics and positioning the block correctly.
  • The backrow defenders get repeated opportunities to work on aligning around the block to defend a left-front attack.

This is an example of a game-related activity that encourages repeated skill contacts in specific areas. The repetitive component of the activity provides the requisite opportunities to improve. The coach can only effectively observe some aspects of the action. The coach needs to pick out specific areas to critique and provide feedback.

An essential concept of continued learning and skill development is the player must be challenged to the edges of their current skill set. Too often, coaches will passively observe practice activities. The coach must join the athlete in actively participating in the learning process.

Is there still a place for single-skill repetitions with the coach hitting or tossing balls to the player? Of course! Gaining the requisite skills of the game might require extra repetitions, somewhat like doing extra problems in Algebra class. However, I only recommend a coach-centered activity for a portion of your training sessions.

Organizing your training sessions in this fashion will require a mindset shift on the part of the coach. From my personal experience, there will be a level of pain! Additional mandates require the coach to plan activities to meet specific objectives meticulously and creatively. However, I like the results of this type of approach.

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