How to use Constraints in Soccer Coaching

What are constraints in soccer coaching?

Using constraints within your soccer coaching sounds like a negative and difficult experience. There are so many different ways to constrain players while you are coaching them. I decided to investigate a few ways that constraints can be used to develop the players you coach and your own coaching experience.

What are constraints in soccer coaching?

Constraints are the introduction of limits or boundaries to your sessions where certain actions from the game are excluded, which leaves other actions up to the learner to explore. Manipulating constraints such as game rules can direct players towards intended behaviors thus promoting skill development and improving soccer performance.

The 3 Primary Constraints Categories

  1. The task relates to the session objectives, the boundaries of the practice, how goals are scored, how the opponent is set up.

2. The person relates to the height, speed, strength, and skill level of the performer and how they manage and use these things during the practice to gain an edge or solve a problem.

3. The environment relates to the weather conditions, the surface, and distractions around the playing area. quite often these things are out of your control.

Constraints can sometimes be referred to as conditions especially during small-sided games and these are quite often the things manipulated by coaches which fall into the task category of constraints.

Constraints are an excellent way of creating the right environment for your players. 

Coach Dave

Before You Use Constraints

Before constraints are used in your practices coaches should ensure that they have thought about the session planning and organization in terms of a session topic and how the session is going to be set up. The article on session organization can be found here.

Reading the article on practice design found here will also support a coach in terms of considerations before implementing any constraints.  Once basic factors have been considered the coach can then start to think about the task constraints such as pitch size and shape, scoring rules, and match conditions. 

For example, pitch markings may restrict players to certain areas or zones or the players may have to play through, over, or around certain areas on the pitch before they can score.

The coach can think about the players’ roles and responsibilities.  Do players play in their normal positions or are they trying to carry out a technique or tactic which makes positions irrelevant? 

Player responsibilities will link to the session theme. If the session theme was defending then the defenders in your team should probably play in their positions, however, if the theme was dribbling and running with the ball it may not be essential that players play in their normal positions.

Why are Constraints Useful?

Constraints are useful because they can be applied to some, many, or all the aspects of actual practice.  The key is to ensure that each constraint is relevant to the game and that the players can see which aspect and or area of the pitch the session is relevant to.

For example, a coach could apply a constraint onto everyone such as all players must play off two touches.  The coach could apply a constraint to a few players such as you must screen the goals in this area of the pitch, or the coach could apply the constraint to an individual, you must have touched the ball before your team can score. 

The constraints can be applied to different moments of the game as well, such as in possession constraints and out of possession constraints, therefore each team in a specific practice may have one constraint for in possession such as, the ball must pass through each third of the pitch before a goal can be scored. A constraint for out of possession could be, a regain and goal in the opponent’s attacking third is worth 3 goals.

Each of the constraints mentioned above is relevant to specific topics and moments of the game. In the table below I have summarized some useful constraints from above and some additional ones.

ConstraintsTechnical AspectsIn PossessionOut of Possession
EveryonePlayoff 2 touchThe ball must be received in each zone to scoreA regain and goal from the final third counts as three goals
FewTurning without taking a touchMust play out from the GK to progress into the next zoneYou must screen goals in this area
IndividualMust touch the ball before your team can scoreA one-touch finish counts as doubleYou can only tackle once you are in your half
Some constraints which could be used within training and game-based practices
constraints in soccer coaching?

To simplify the use of constraints further it can be helpful to subcategorize specifically what you want your constraint to do for the players. You can do this by restricting, reviewing, or rewarding the performers through your constraints. Let me explain each sub-category along with some of the positives and negatives of each.

Restricting

Restricting this would mean that within a coaching topic, the coach could limit the number of touches, the movements players can make, or the decisions players must make within a practice.  The restrictions can have a positive effect on performers in a sense of simplifying the task to them, you have three touches to retain the ball and progress up the field.

Another benefit of restrictions is that they provide players with lots of opportunities to practice due to the repetition of the constraint.  Restrictions also help to develop a player’s ability to problems solve as they have to figure out how they can be successful within the boundary of the constraint. 

Some potential negatives to constraints are that they may hold certain players back who are exceptionally good and successful for example a player who is successful at dribbling and the constraint does not allow many opportunities to dribble, they may make that individual feel that their development is being hindered due to the constraint on touches. 

The positive of only having a few things to think about as a player could also be negative because opportunities to use other correct techniques or skills may be turned down in favor of achieving the constraint.  Therefore, the normal decision-making process of a player is interrupted by the constraint. 

A final negative of restrictions is that they may affect the realism of the game.  Therefore, coaches applying a constraints-based concept need to think about the restriction carefully to ensure that game realism is minimally affected. 

Reviewing

This type of approach is more around making sure that the constraint is relevant to the real game and the player who is provided with a relevant constraint is clear on what action to take based on the situation of the game. 

This type of constraint is useful for the individual. A coach may wish to place an idea into a player’s head around what they would like them to do based on a set type of situation then review the outcome once it has been attempted.  

For example, asking an outfield player to spot opportunities to turn and face forwards without a touch.  The coach should explain why the constraint is helpful to the player so in this case, the use of a no-touch turn correctly executed means that the individual has looked for space before they received the ball and it speeds up the attack because the player is now facing forward.

The constraint should help players understand what the coach would like them to do at specific times or in situations in games or training. The player’s role in this is spotting when to do it. This type of constraint is useful to help develop a player’s understanding of the game.  The coach must spot the correct time to step in and ask thought-provoking questions about the player’s decisions while it is fresh in their heads after they have attempted to use a constraint.

Questions the coach could ask the players during the previous example could be.

  • What situations did you find were successful for you?
  • When would you say is the best time to turn without a touch?
  • Are there any moments when you should not use a no touch turn?

This type of approach will make the players think and review their performance which is good for developing a growth mindset in the performers. because it helps them learn and review their successes and failures.

A negative of this type of approach is that it can take time to set this process up and also the time it takes to get the response from the player.  The questions you wish to ask them can take time away from you as the coach and practice time away from them as players. 

The coach, therefore, needs to develop the skill and ability to get to the answers quickly, without taking too much practice time away from the players and moving your attention off the other players in the team. 

Another time issue will be that the coach needs to develop the right types of challenging questions based on the constraints before they coach the session, which again takes time on behalf of the coach, therefore the coach needs to ensure they put time into this process or decide if the process is worth the time and effort for the returns it brings. I would say the time invested is worth it.

soccer coaching

Rewarding

The third category is rewarding, this type of constraint is where the coach rewards a team or an individual for attempting or completing the constraint placed upon them.  The coach must set the scene about the context of the game-based situation then they would offer the reward to the player once it has been successfully executed.

These rewards can be based on in-possession and out-of-possession objectives.  For example, in possession a coach may reward a team for scoring a goal in a certain way to encourage a playing approach ‘Goals scored from crosses are worth double’.  This example provided should encourage wing play from the teams attacking. 

Out of possession, the constraint may be ‘if you can keep a clean sheet for a set amount of time you are rewarded by that amount of goals, five minutes without a goal is worth 5 goals’ or each 5 minute period without conceding is worth 1 goal’.  This out-of-possession constraint should ensure players remain focused on defending as a main priority.   

A benefit of using the rewards-based constraint is that the task is not compulsory so players can still play the game as normal but they are rewarded if they achieve the constraint set.  The potential downside of rewards-based constraints can be around the focus of the players, if they get too engrossed in the reward they may not make correct decisions.

For the examples used above let’s say during the in possession moments the wingers may not pass because they are trying to set up an attacker for double goals or the out of possession example, the defending team just kicks the ball as high and as far up the pitch because they don’t want to concede a goal.  The key here is that the coach sets the context correctly and relates it to the values and playing style of the teams or clubs.

To simplify the use of constraints further it can be helpful to sub categorize them. You can do this by restricting, reviewing or rewarding the performers through your constraints

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Find below some ideas for game moments on different pitch shapes:

Game MomentPitch ShapeRestrictingReviewingRewarding
In PossessionLong and NarrowPlayers can only pass backward off one or two touches, otherwise, they must pass forwardsWhat do players need to think about if a ball is set back?However many passes a team makes before they score they get that amount of goals?
Out PossessionFull PitchTeams can only tackle in their halfWhich areas of the pitch should be protected the most?GK gets the ball back if they can get their whole team in their half before the opponent gets the ball in there?
Regain PossessionWide PitchOnce a ball is regained the ball can only travel forwards through a pass or a dribbleWhat habits are needed to be effective following a regain?If a team scores within 6 seconds of a regain it is worth three goals
Loss PossessionSmall PitchOnce possession is lost all players in the team must run around a cone before they can make a tackle what are good habits to get into if possession is lost?A goal is knocked off the opponents score if the person that lost it wins it back
A summary of ideas on how constraints can be used

In Summary

constraints-based approach

A constraints-based approach is a great way of challenging players around different aspects of the game of soccer.  It requires players to think and helps to develop decision-making of when and where to perform certain aspects of the game. 

Coaches just need to decide what type of constraints the players are more receptive to and build these into practices.  There is nothing wrong with working through each of the constraint categories within a session, for example starting with a restriction on your session theme then moving into an activity that requires some review followed by a reward-based constraint on the game aspect of the session.  

It is down to the coach and their understanding of what their players need and when.  The examples provided above are based on the game moments but coaches could think about creating constraints for various parts of their coaching for example they could create constraints for different themes of coaching or psychological aspects of performance.

Here are some theme-based examples:

ApproachPitch ShapeRestrictingReviewingRewarding
Forward PassingPitch split into thirdsThe ball can only be passed through the thirdsWhen is a good time to pass forwards?If a team uses three or more forward passes then scores they get three goals
Psychological – WinningLarge Pitchwinner stays on, goals count as points for winners too? How does our approach change when we must win?The team that won the last game get double goals each time they score or both teams have double goals for a set period
Theme Based Constraints

The theme-based constraints require the coaches to be creative in thinking of some ideas to support the session and the player’s development.  The psychological-based approach can be used to overload the players and increase pressure on the outcomes of certain games or periods.  Constraints are an excellent way of creating the right environment for your players. 

Related Questions

Do I need to place constraints on everything? No this is not necessary, Try to ensure any constraints are true to the game of soccer and they encourage realistic actions by the players. It’s about balance so I would recommend maybe one constraint idea per session so as not to overload the players with information.

What if my constraints don’t work? Don’t worry if it is not working, reflect on the constraint you implemented and try to refine it, making it realistic, challenging, and relevant to the player’s needs. Coaching is a journey just like playing, learn from it and action it.

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