top of page

Liberated by Constraints

Swimmers tend to swim a certain way for a reason. Coaches intuitively understand that a 5’0” female with size 1 feet can’t swim like Ian Thorpe. She doesn’t have the same tools, she doesn’t have the same options.

Her choices are constrained.

Theory of Constraints

As a brief overview, Karl Newell proposed that movement arises as result of the interaction between numerous constraints. These constraints interact to restrict movement possibilities.

They can be classified into the following categories.

Individual (Organismal) Constraints

These are constraints that exist within the individual. These constraints can either be structural (height, flexibility, distribution of mass, fiber type, etc.) or functional (metabolic factors, nervous system coordination, skill level, etc…). An important constraint is the degree of fatigue a swimmer is currently experiencing. As all coaches who have seen an unprepared 200m butterflyer understand, fatigue definitely affects movement structure.

Using the example above, Ian Thorpe and our theoretical 5’0” swimmer have different individual constraints on performance. Different ways of swimming will be most effective for different swimmer due to the constraints their own body places on them.

Task Constraints

In swimming, tasks consist of the distance of the swim, the speed of swim, etc. It also consists of the rules of competition. Butterfly races create different constraints than backstroke races.

To understand the impact of task constraints, simply watch a 50m and 1500m swim. They look different. Why? Because the task shapes the motor solutions that are most effective for completing that task. Some solutions just don’t work.

Verbal instruction can also constrain skill. When you ask a swimmer to move in a certain way, you are constraining the possibility of moving in a way that doesn’t include moving in that manner. However, verbal instruction is not always a powerful constraint, as there is opportunity for misunderstanding as well as a lack of clear and immediate feedback as to whether the constraint is being observed. This is one of the reasons I am not a huge fan of instruction-based skill acquisition.

Environmental Constraints

The aquatic environment places specific constraints on movement possibilities due to the physical properties of the water. Certain solutions are more or less viable because of how we interact with the water. Further, where swimming takes place impacts movement as well. While the differences may be subtle, swimmers use different strategies depending on pool length, as well as in open water situations.

Importantly, there are interaction between all of the different levels. A pure sprint swimmer and a pure distance swimmer will react different to a change in task that triples the training distance. A change in velocity (task) requirement interacts with the physical properties of water (drag is much higher at higher velocities) to change the skills that still allow for successful task completion.

The big takeaway? When considering how a swimmer moves, consider why they are ‘choosing’ to swim in that manner, and consider whether the constraints they face really allow for any choice at all.

Again, many of these relationships are intuitively understood by coaches. However, by making these relationships explicit, coaches can actively explore how to manipulate constraints to influence performance and effect change.

Constraints in Practice

With a concept of how constraints affect movement possibilities, we can begin to manipulate those constraints to shape movement in a way that can positively affect performance.

By using constraints, we can remove movement solutions we find undesirable. In contrast, effective use of constraints push swimmers towards desired ways of moving. In both cases, swimmers are exposed to and required to search for new solutions. By constraining options, swimmers are free to explore new ways of swimming.

Individual Manipulations

  • How can you influence anthropometry through the use of training equipment (paddles, fins, tennis balls, t-shirts, weight belts, etc…)? What would the effect be? Why would you use a given training aid? What would be accomplished?

  • How can you manipulate fatigue (increase OR decrease it) to challenge skills, allow for really fast swimming, or alter skills by fatiguing certain body parts?

  • How can you remove physiological constraints over time by positively influencing physiology?

  • How can you build strength by increasing the resistance an individual creates moving through the water?

Task Manipulations

  • How do the tasks assigned alter the skills that are learned?

  • How can you manipulate the requirements for velocity, stroke count, stroke rate, breathing, dolphin kicking, etc. to shape skills?

  • How can you manipulate repetition distance, rest intervals, etc. to better achieve your goals?

  • How can the instructions you use and how you say those instructions influence movement?

  • How can you add small twists to standard tasks to further nudge swimmer’s closer to effective racing skills?

Environmental Manipulations

  • Is short course or long course more conducive to what you’re trying to accomplish?

  • How can you better use your environment under the surface?

  • When would it be good to swim in a pool shorter than 25 yd/m?

  • How would taking a group to altitude create some change? What about swimming in 90-degree water? What about a swimming flume?

  • How else can you change the environment to change the possibilities?

Here’s a practical example familiar to all. By placing a parachute on a swimmer, you are constraining movement possibilities. You have altered the individual’s drag profile (individual constraint) which interacts with the environment. This constraint requires more effective force application to accomplish the task, which is to make it to the other side of the pool. You can further constrain behavior by requiring the swimmer to use tennis balls or paddles (individual constraints), or by altering the task through velocity or stroke count requirements. The constraints will all shape movement possibilities. Done effectively, you can move swimmers towards the movement patterns most conducive to fast swimming.

The value of constraints is in the reduction of unwanted movement patterns without one word of instruction. This creates a much better environment for coaches to do what they do best, coach. It moves you much closer to the goal before you even start, and provides the swimmers with clearer feedback about how effectively they are swimming.

Start thinking about how your practices are constraining swimmers, either negatively or positively. Then consider how you can move closer to your practice goals be effectively manipulating those task, individuals, and environmental constraints.

With appropriate constraints, we are free to explore new movement solutions. To some extent, coaches already do this intuitively. With conscious awareness, you can turn it up to 11.

bottom of page