Balague, C. Torrents, R. Hristovski, K. Davids, and D. Araujo

The Big Idea

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) was a legendary Canadian poet, singer-songwriter, and novelist.  The following lyrics are from his 1992 album The Future and the song “Anthem”:

Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack, a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in.

Let’s assume there is a crack in our conventional understanding of practicing, training for, and playing competitive sports.  Not a break.  Just a crack.  These researchers and others of like researcher-minds are detecting a crack.  In this overview paper, they are reporting what they see from the light that gets in.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, getting some clarity on what they see is obscured by their imposing vocabulary.  Probably the most off-putting word for sporting coaches and players alike—besides the word “losing”—is the word “complex.”  That word is the antithesis of keeping things simple.  Another suspect word is “systems,” suggesting inputs and outputs, parts and wholes, processes and procedures—things less than human.  When tethered together, the idea of complex systems doesn’t light us up.  Hence, there’s not much interest in reading research reviews like this one.  But hold on.

The good news is, as these researchers suggest, taking a complex systems approach to sport isn’t human-defying at all.  Rather, the relevance of complex systems in sport is a healthy antidote to the prevailing reductionist, mechanistic, and cybernetics approaches to sport analysis, coaching science, and pedagogical practice.  What this paper explains is how a complex systems approach to sport phenomena can be developed in a relatively simple fashion.


  • Behavioral changes in sport are triggered by our interactions with constraints.
  • Categories of constraints include task, personal, and environmental.
  • The study of how patterns of behavior changes come and go is called coordination dynamics.
  • Constraints are not restrictions of freedoms, but challenges for developing dynamic freedom opportunities and possibilities (affordances) in the course of play.
  • Affordances are self-organizing and non-linear adaptations in the midst of play.
  • Constraints-led practices and training organization morph from merely being habit-forming and pre-existing regimens to becoming pre-emerging opportunities.
  • Adding “noise” (modifications in task and environment) enhances and multiplies best solutions to competition problematics.
  • And that’s how complex science leads coaches and players alike to the simplicity of training for the predictability of unpredictable moments in the course of play.

The Research

Brief review of the history of complexity sciences

The general idea of complexity sciences in the area of sport studies is 30 years old.  But since then most of the systematic research in the field has narrowed to what is called coordination dynamics.  When it comes to behavior changes in human beings, it is possible through field work to study how patterns of coordination come and go.

What triggers patterns of behavioral change are our interactions with what are called constraints.  There are three sub-classes of constraints:

  • Task constraints—rules, goals, practice rule modifications, even coaching instructions or cues.
  • Personal constraints—physical traits, comportment, affective state, skill level imposed by our physiology, morphology, physicality, or psychology.
  • Environmental constraints—external to our movement degrees of freedom; some are simply ambient light, altitude, temperature, surfaces; others can be sociocultural such as peer groups, societal expectations; yet others even geographical location, such as competing at home or away.

New forms of never-before emerging behaviors can appear under changing and interacting constraints.  In a sense, it is unfortunate that the “constraint” lingo dominates.  Its meaning implies restriction of freedoms, where in fact its very existence is the basis for dynamic freedom possibilities (commonly referred to in dynamical systems theory as affordances).

There are two frustrations these researchers believe are limiting truth-finding when it comes to coordination dynamics.  First, there is the history of researchers in this field preoccupied with taking things apart for study instead of studying how various systems function together—kind of a humpty dumpty problem. Decoupling perception from human action or substituting neurophysiology and neuropsychology for understanding the dynamics of human movement hasn’t necessarily brought us closer to useful findings.

Second, the favored preoccupation with the organismic parts of human action prejudices research efforts and enthusiasms away from studying organismic symmetries.  What these researchers advocate is studying the performer-environment system itself.  This is called ecological dynamics; it is the study of self-organization in non-linear systems; it is the study of integrated networks; it is taking sport settings as they are given and experienced: inter-personal and intra-personal, and the creative patterns of play produced by these dynamic interactions.

Opportunities by pursuing a complex systems perspective

There are advantages to approaching the study of the sporting life from the perspective of complex systems.  Its value is opening ways to see directly how sporting techniques, actions, tactics, and decisions emerge without heavy reliance on the typical research strategy of brain processes or motor programs.  For example, consider these kinds of applications:

  • How groups of cyclists, runners, or even sports fans are spontaneously created during practices or competition.
  • How to play with less premeditation in shooting, or passing, or dribbling to score in soccer; or to allow emerging ideas of when to advance up field, or stay back, or attack, or to feint.

All facets of sport are integrated in some way or other, whether at molecular levels and physiological sub-systems to more visible scales of interactions between athletes, coaches, members of teams or opponents.  The goal is to expand the researchable territory to discover a coherent and global vision of sport related behavior.

There is also the potential positive improvement in sport training and practice protocols to consider.  Shop-worn classical and repetitive and often-boring preparations for games and events will give way to multiple and individual learning and coaching strategies and interventions.  A constraints-led approach to teaching and coaching naturally produces a change in the behavior vocabulary to include improvisation, spontaneity, intuitiveness, things- willy-nilly.  As one world-famous soccer coach said of his players, “When I see them moving like a flock of birds, I know they are playing well.”

Practical applications to sport training

The implications of a complex systems approach to sport training may seem counter-intuitive.  For example, in traditional training regimes premeditation reigns.  That is, practices and training protocols in team sports often depend on restricting degrees of freedom for individual and team with little regard for ever-changing constraints.  Or more explicitly, the real world of constraints is mistakenly taken as static, predictable, and within our control.  Interactions between and within players are minimized.

But constraints themselves are emergent within competition.  Time and space scales constantly vary, such as distances between players—for both team members and opponents.  Anticipating these emerging constraints is impossible.  Yet the tradition is still to organize training and practices as though the sport were constraint-free.

But the research on coordination dynamics tells the coach to focus on—not ignore–task and environment constraints.  If collective competition-preparation sessions explored the small world of constraint manipulations, the pleasant surprise might be major impact on the larger world of outcomes.

Decision-making and creativity can be influenced when constraints-led training and practice sessions assist athletes to discover optimal performance patterns.  Adding “noise” (modifications in task and environment) enhances and multiplies best solutions to competition problematics.  As these researchers reiterate, “Novel actions might emerge by enabling an athlete or team to explore the metastable region of the action workspace through carefully manipulating key practice task constraints.”  Technical skill will be saturated with preparation for constantly changing conditions.  Instead of memorizing practiced, habitual rules and moves and sequences of action, athletes will learn to perceive informational constraints and adapt on-the-fly.  The future of emerging sport actions in competition will depend on the task, personal, and environmental constraints.  And coaches will be the center of preparing their athletes for the predictability of unpredictable moments in the course of play.

Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack, a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in

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