Natalia Balague, Rafel Pol, Carlota Torrents, Angel Ric, and Robert Hristovski

The Big Idea

This is an opinion paper.  The opinions herein revolve around how the components of complex systems self-organize.  In particular, the authors propose a more streamlined approach to what is called the constraints-led approach to understanding restrictions to the degrees of freedom in complex systems. 

The uptick in the popularity of the study of constraints as a unifying framework is proving to be useful in understanding the learning/training process in the complex system of sport performance.


  • Coaching and playing sports are transformative.
  • A constraints-led transformation values experience over information.
  • The interplay of constraints and affordances define the transforming sport experience.
  • Task constraints are distributed between the person and the environment.
  • Task constraints are emergent entities.
  • Constraints are nested in timescales.
  • Constraints are correlated through emergent entities.
  • The authors propose to modify the conventional number of constraints from three (organismic, task, and environmental) to just two, organismic and environmental.  The task constraints then emerge from the interactions between the two and their subsets. 

The Research

Definition of terms

The conventional take is that there are three categories of constraints (limitations) on sporting humans: organismic, environmental, and task related.

  • Organismic constraints are either structural or functional.
    • Structural constraints are mostly constant over time: body composition, anthropometrics.
    • Functional constraints are faster rate changes: fatigue, motivation, physical condition.
  • Environmental constraints are external to us.  Examples include climate, temperature implements, apparatus, even social pressure or game scores.
  • Task constraints are defined by the task performed, such as ball size and shape, playing field dimensions, number of players per team, general rules and instructions.

The authors of this opinion paper are focusing on the relational and nested nature of constraints.  To bring home the nature and significance of constraints, they make four claims: 1) that task constraints are distributed between the person and the environment; 2) that task constraints are emergent entities; 3) that constraints are nested in time-scales; and 4) that constraints are correlated through emergent entities.  Let’s review each claim separately.

Task constraints are distributed

Constraints of whatever definition are always relational.  A “what” is constraining a “what”.  A soccer ball, along with its distinct features (such as size, or color), is just a ball—until as an object of the environment, it only becomes a task constraint when a person (organism) interacts with the ball related to a goal-directed purpose.  As these relations come and go in the course of play, the task constraints come and go. 

And what complicates the distribution of task constraints is this: Organismic constraints simultaneously belong to the organism and to the organism-environment system; likewise, the environmental constraints belong to the environment and to the organism-environment system.  These inseparable components of the organism-environment system mean there is no possibility of a third, separate entity outside the system interacting with the unionized system.  If you can visualize a Venn diagram, task constraints are represented as the middle-shaded area of interaction of the organismic and the environmental.

Consequences of this distribution between the person and the environment include:

  • The playing environment is not perceived in terms of mere objective properties (such as angles, spaces, distances) or in terms of mental expectations or representations aimed at performance solutions.
  • Instead, the useful properties of the objective environment are trimmed to affordances.  That is, the environment is perceived in terms of the possibilities for action that a player can do, with and in that environment.
  • Thus, informational constraints depend on interactions of the organism with information from the environment which define the affordances.
  • These action solutions (affordances) are mostly spontaneous solutions.  They arise from the player-environment interaction.  All these perceptions are needed for an action—player interpersonal distances, distances between feet, relative speeds—but only become task constraints when perceived by a player.

Tasks and task constraints are emerging properties

Thus far we have noted that these authors understand tasks as a set of interacting task constraints.  As such, tasks and task constraints are distributed between the organism and the environment.  In other words, they are emerging.  They emerge either by way of instruction or by self-organization.  In social systems, emergent properties are planned or designed by a coach; generally self-organization is the rule in other systems—biological, chemical, physical.  Yet in small-sided games in soccer emergent properties often arise spontaneously by self-organization. When interactions change, the task changes as well.  These task constraints may also have a non-linear effect on the players actions.  Imagine when a small deviation in a ball trajectory can quickly produce ball recovery and an entire re-organization of both teams—the small changes create the continuous and discontinuous ebb and flow at the macro level.

Constraints Act at Different Timescales

These authors argue that there are slow-changing constraints and fast-changing constraints.  They offer-up a chart to explain these different timescales.  In an outline, here are some examples of different rates of change for organismic and environmental constraints.

Organismic constraints:

slow changing: somatotype, personal values, personality, chronotype

fast changing: fatigue state, mood state, internal workload

Environmental constraints:

slow changing: gravity, social values, rules, equipment

fast changing: game situation, referee decisions, fan support

There is no escaping constraint in either category (organismic or environmental).  As the authors point out, “… personal values and competition rules may change over decades, fatigue state and supporters’ behavior may change within days or months, and internal workload and game situation may change within seconds or minutes.”  What is more, the perception of affordances (possibilities) “may occur within fractions of a second, task goals within minutes, team strategies within hours, and competition rules within decades.”

Multilevel and Nested Organization of Constraints

Things get murky regarding the nested organization of constraints in levels and timescales in human systems.  These researchers found no previous studies focusing on nesting of the entire set of constraints (organismic, environmental, and task).  This is not surprising given the expansion of nesting constraints beyond task, to include all constraints.

Here is an example in their words of the sheer complexity of non-linear nested experiences:

Values (lasting decades) constrain competition motivation which varies over a faster timescale (e.g., weeks, months), which in turn constraints short-term goals (e.g., days or weeks), and competition strategies (e.g. lasting hours and minutes—a whole match).  These constrain the performer’s attention (e.g., minutes, seconds) and, in turn, the perception of his/her affordances (from fractions of a second to seconds), and other muscle processes defined at an even smaller timescale (e.g., metabolic pathways).

Practical advantages

The primary result from this opinion paper was to define task constraints as relational and emerging.  The authors propose to modify the conventional number of constraints from three (organismic, task, and environmental) to just two, organismic and environmental.  The task constraints then emerge from the interactions between the two and their subsets. 

The interdependence of constraints and their nested organization in levels and timescales offers advantages for newer interventions in the complex system of sports performance.

Practically speaking, interventions in slow-changing constraints at the upper levels (e.g., personal values) will have a cascading effect on lower-level constraints (i.e., motivational, attentional, conditional, biomechanical).  The example given is if a team highly values active sports participation, the motivation to practice is also high; which in turn makes possible manipulation of workload (volume, intensity, complexity); which also enhances learning from affordances.  With this increase in workloads and fast and accurate perception of affordances, there would likely be an increase in goal constraints achievements (performance level).  Given the circularity (or reciprocity) of the system, the low-level success reinforces and enhances motivation and gives bottom-up increased perceived value of sports participation.

But this result comes with a warning.  Should there be reduced long-term personal values toward sports practice, there will be reduced motivation to practice, slower learning/performance, general performance stalemate, and eventual bottom-up negative impact on personally valuing sports.

Consequently, coaching instructions as an environmental constraint should rightly begin with focus on the longer-term timescales of values, goals, and strategies.  Failing that, expect a negative cascading constraint.  The authors advise: “The correlation of goals, intentions, and strategies at different timescales (e.g., short-, mid-, and long-term) seems crucial for long-lasting performance results, either defined at individual or team level.”

Image Source: Alex Sajan on Unsplash

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