A Constraint-Led Approach to Coaching Cricket | ICE Education
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A Constraint-Led Approach to Coaching Cricket


The content in this post formed the basis of an article and presentation for the Cricket Australia Sport Science and Medicine Conference in 2010.

Authors were Ian Renshaw (QUT) and Darren Holder (Brisbane Grammar School)

Traditional approaches to coaching cricket:
Traditional approaches to skill development in cricket have been based around net sessions and an emphasis on developing perfect technique. Alongside nets, some coaches try to improve technique by breaking ‘performance’ into separate building blocks which can be worked on in isolation before stitched them back together again. For example, batting coaching generally focuses on develop ‘hitting mechanics’ via use of drop feeds, throw-downs and bowling machines, while, for bowlers the run-up and bowling action are practiced separately.

Criticisms of the traditional approach:
A major problem of this approach is the strong focus on technique development without consideration of the perception and decision-making skills needed to bat well. In essence, what we are saying here is that there is no point in having the perfect cover drive if you can’t see the half volley early enough to get into position. Although, for many coaches simplifying skills by breaking them down makes sense, some experienced high level coaches have been highly critical of this approach and suggested that cricket needed a serious debate to determine whether these new methods are in fact more efficient and better than the methods of the past (e.g., Chappell, 2004). Indeed, recent research has highlighting the importance of a holistic, multi-disciplinary approach to skill development (Renshaw et al., 2004). Our research on cricket batting and bowling has shown us that the development of appropriate technique requires learners to practice tasks where perception and action are maintained via environments representative of the competitive performance (Renshaw & Davids, 2006; Renshaw et al., 2007). This suggests that performance emerges as a function of the interaction of unique individuals with specific task and environmental constraints.

A Modern Way…

In the rest of this article we describe the constraint-led approach and suggest that it is a suitable theoretical model that coaches and scientists can utilise to underpin learning design in cricket.

What are constraints?
Constraints are boundaries that shape a learner’s self-organising movement patterns, cognitions and decision-making processes (Renshaw et al., 2010). Three categories of constraints have been proposed.

1. Performer constraints include physical and mental factors such as height, limb length, strength, speed, technical skills, attentional control and intrinsic motivation. All of these factors can influence decision-making behaviours.

2. Environmental constraints include: physical and cultural environmental constraints. Physical constraints include factors such as weather conditions, pitch conditions, quality of practice facilities and perhaps the structure of the backyard or locality in which a player was raised; Cultural constraints include factors such as family, team mates, the culture of a cricket club and access to high-quality coaching.

3. Task constraints include the goal of the task, rules of the game, equipment available and the relative state of the game.

What are the implications of adopting the constraint-led approach for coaches?
The ideas underpinning the constraint-led perspective have important implications for the coach. Adopting a constraint-led approach requires coaches to understand that performers have the potential to solve performance problems in a number of ways and therefore there is no such thing as one optimal movement solution. This change of thinking is perhaps one of the greatest challenges for coaches as the traditional approach to coaching is all about demonstrations and feedback. In effect we have ‘instructed’ players in how to bat, bowl or field. However, the constraint-led approach means that coaches should allow players to ‘solve problems themselves by carefully designing learning environments that ‘shape’ movement patterns without instructions. In constraints, we say that movements ‘self-organise’ under constraints.

Implicit learning is better than explicit instruction:
Evidence from motor learning is showing that the natural way to learn most movement skills is implicit and forcing players to ‘think’ via explicit instructions leads to performance decrements (Beek, 2000). Indeed, Glenn McGrath and Craig McDermott both report singing as they ran into bowl in order to “stop the voices” from interfering with performance.
If instruction is not necessarily helping players to improve, what strategies can be adopted by the coaches?

Manipulating constraints to guide discovery of effective solutions:
As movement patterns emerge as a result of self-organisation under constraints, coaches can deliberately manipulate constraints to create the conditions that lead to effective performance. For example, the coach could add rules in small-sided games to reward taking of singles or encourage bowlers to bowl in specific areas (Renshaw & Holder, 2010). However, manipulating constraints should not just be limited to changing rules. Coaches could change the environment by ‘doctoring’ specific areas of the pitch, for example, by roughing it up or leaving on more grass. These types of manipulations force players to adapt their strategies and can lead to changes in perceptual, decision-making and action skills. Similarly, coaches can change performance by focusing on individual constraints. These constraints interact with the task and environmental constraints to shape performance. So, development of strength, speed, confidence or focus of attention should not be seen as something that sits separately to technique work. For example, an apparent technical fault may in fact be caused by low levels of strength, poor concentration or faulty decision making. A common problem for many young batters is that the top-hand is ‘weaker’ than the bottom hand which leads to difficulties in ‘playing the ball straight’. Some coaches have recognised this problem as the key factor limiting performance and have developed strategies to help. For example, Indian batsman Virender Sehwag’s first coach made him repeatedly use just his top hand to swing a bat in a case filled with sand in order to strengthen the arm. Secondly, because a consequence of a weak top hand in batting is often the inability to swing the bat in a straight line, in order to make him pick his bat up straight, Sehwag’s coach stuck a piece of bamboo in the ground just outside off stump. If the bat was not picked up straight he would hit the bamboo (Renshaw et al., 2010). This practical example neatly demonstrates how a cricket coach can use an understanding of the interaction of individual, environmental and task constraints in order to shape behaviour.

Variability in movements can be functional, so practice by using repetition without repetition :
One final point that needs to be made is that the unique interactions between the individual, task and environment constraints means that variability is a key feature in enhancing performance. This is related to both movement variability and variability of practice. Contrary to popular belief expert performers are not able to ‘repeat’ their movements exactly every time, but use functional adaptability in their movement patterns to achieve high levels of accuracy and adaptability to solve problems in constantly changing performance landscapes. Consequently, practice tasks must provide high levels of variability, this can be achieved by giving players tasks with lots of repetition in terms of achieving a specific goal, but not prescribing how the task must be achieved. In essence, constraint-led coaching supports the coaching edict of the great Sir Donald Bradman; tell them what to do, not how to do it.

In summary, adopting a constraints-based perspective to cricket provides coaching with a framework for understanding how performer, task and environmental constraints shape each individual’s performance. By adopting a player–centred approach which is harmonious with constraint-led coaching, coaches can base learning design on the needs of individuals. Crucially, coaches need to understand that there is no such thing as the perfect technique and the unique interactions between individual, environmental and task constraints means that each player will solve distinctive performance problems in ways best suited to their own strengths and weaknesses.