Constraints Led Approach and Ecological Dynamics

Are any of the coaches in here following the research/theories into the Constraints Led Approach to coaching, or the Ecological Dynamics school of learning movement? I’ve been deep diving lately, and while the vast majority of the research and theory has been developed around sports that have an ever evolving field of play (baseball, soccer, tennis, etc…) there are some interesting implications for climbing.

I have only recently started down this rabbit whole of learning, after listening to John Kettle at the PCC last year. I have tried it with a few of my youth kids and for myself, and it does seem to help quite a bit. It allows them to focus on one thing instead of many.

I recently picked up “Thinking fast and slow” but was wondering what other literature is helpful to learn more?

Mostly so far I have focused on the process of footwork and arm position with my kids. For myself i have been including loose grip training, footwork, and straight arm focus while doing some endurance mileage on a spray wall. It has allowed me to really evaluate how i use holds, and focus that time on skill!

From the kids I’ve introduced it to, they have really appreciated it, as it gives them the real time feedback of when to and when not to use their feet, or hip positioning . Looking forward to learning more!

@JoKeSEnt I’m curious of your understanding of the theories and how they relate to climbing. I didn’t get to see Johns full presentation. What I saw didn’t discuss these theories, but it certainly could have been later in the presentation.

I’m not a coach, but both of those topics sound super interesting. What have you been reading about them @Kris? I’d love to dig in!

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So my understanding is very primitive, as I have not dived into “the Constraints led approach” further than what John had discussed. I started reading his book, which I know most of the drills in there are created from the constraints-led concept. From my understanding, the idea is to create limiting factors, through rules or environmental factors, and allow the body to feel the most ideal way to create movement based on that particular environment, the task being asked, and the individual themselves. For my understanding, it is a way to have our conscious brain (active thinking brain) focus on a particular action, while our subconscious focuses on all of the little factors that allow us to make the conscious focus easier. For Example, utilizing a rule of keeping your arms straight while climbing as a way for a person to work on moving their feet into better positions, or turning your hips into the wall in order to generate movement as well as minimize arm involvement when we climb.

That is my understanding and an example of it in practice, limited as it is. As I said, I have not dived in further yet and am only working with a surface level knowledge I gained from John Kettle’s lecture, but I am eager to learn more from his suggested readings of " Thinking Fast and Slow" as well as seeing if I can find a copy of the book “Dynamics of Skill Aquisition” by Keith Davids. If I am way off in my understanding please tell me, as I am always trying to level up my knowledge and understanding, in order to have more tools in my toolbox when working with kids and adults!

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That’s a pretty good basic definition. The tricky part comes in what constraints are good and what constraints are bad, as just adding a constraint doesn’t inherently improve the self organization of learning movement. Some constraints reduce learning or take it in the wrong direction.
Climbing is an interesting case, as most examples in the literature are in sports where the field of play is in constant flux, whereas in climbing that isn’t the case. Even during an onsight, the hold isn’t moving as you’re reaching. It’s still a static playing field. And then there’s the question of whether different learning theories are more appropriate for onsight climbers vs. redpointers, as there is quite a bit of literature suggesting that we learn to be more adaptable via one method, while we perform better immediately using another method.
The really good news for climbing is that it’s nearly impossible not to add constraints and good variability unless you are only climbing on a traditional systems wall all the time. Different climbs have different inherent constraints. Some of the most often used in the literature are changing distance or ball size, and we essentially do that constantly. I’m unsure however, whether changing the technique used will qualify as a “good” constraint, as it can force the climber away from the best movement solution in many cases. I’ve used similar drills, and still believe them valuable, but I’m trying to parse out how the available research supports this or doesn’t.
Ultimately though, the idea that climbing is pretty much the best way to learn climbing still stands. Our sport is pretty unique in that it’s incredibly easy to manipulate to add or subtract intensity - making it both a good thing for coaches and a daunting thing.
I’m rambling a bit, having taken in A LOT of info over the past few weeks, and not having digested it yet. But eager to keep exploring.

@json The book How We Learn to Move by Rob Gray is a great place to start, as well as his The Perception and Action Podcast.

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Here’s a page that explains a lot. Constraints Led Approach to Coaching (CLA) Resources – The Perception & Action Podcast

Ordered the book! I can’t wait to read it :sunglasses:

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The page I linked above has a bunch of definitions of the terminology involved. I’m not a huge fan of some of the terms (including “constraints”) but it will be helpful to know some of them!

Going a little deeper on this - the Ecological Dynamics approach has a lot more in common with the road I’ve been going down on my own of thematic learning rather than “technique” - a word I’m actually not a big fan of . Ideas like self organization, there is no one best way to do a movement (the movement solution emerges as a result of the affordances and action capabilities of each athlete), and that exploration of movement is better than learning a single “technique”, are all right in line with what I’ve been calling thematic learning.

However, I’m still trying to tease apart the parts of a more linear pedagogy that I believe in. There seems to be a lot of semantic issues between the two I’m trying to understand better. For instance, the ED and CLA theorists believe a movement can’t be an automatic response to a stimulus - but I think this is because their definition of automatic is very strict. I’ve always viewed an “automatic” move as requiring a minimum amount of cognition rather than zero cognition that they define it as. They also believe that you shouldn’t deconstruct a movement and understand it’s parts, which I partly agree with, except when it relates to things like tension, precision, position, effort, etc. the more nebulous “themes” I’ve been working with. We’ve all tried a move, “forgot” to continue driving through our legs, and had to put our attention there a few times to make the move work. So maybe this “deconstruction” is more about learning to move your attention around as needed? Does that fit within the Ecological Dynamics framework?

Lots of questions. I’m going to see if I can get Rob Gray on the podcast.


For climbers without a broad depth of experience I’d even extended this comment to only climbing on some of the popular commercial boards like Moon, Tension, Kilter etc.

One benefit of standard gym sets there is often loads of variability in angle, hold type, etc. It is easy to be a newer climber and here/see a lot of advanced climbers spending loads of time on commercial boards or spray walls and think that is the best way to progress. What is often forgotten is that these more advanced climbers have a broad depth of experience and spend huge chunks of the year climbing outdoors on varied angles and rock types.

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@Lowballtraverse absolutely. I’ve been thinking a lot about this as one of the potential downsides of board popularity.

Is there a side of this to discuss having to do with to making up your own problems?

My thinking is…

  • is very much “constraints” -based as the holds you have to work with are fixed.
  • requires at least a basic concept of how movements work within those constraints to be able to ~find them, especially if you go into it with a concept. I.e., “I’m going to set a hard match move”, “I’m going to set something Ondra would set”, “hard toe hook kick” etc.
  • maybe isn’t exactly the same as actively finding beta or letting the body find the optimal position within some other constraints*, but is maybe a deeper level of “learn by doing” than this anyway?
    *All climbing problems essentially involve figuring out the best way to navigate static constraints, as I believe has already been said.
  • Regarding the (potentially pedagogy rooted) debate about whether responses cannot be automatic, I think this will naturally circumvent this. At least for me, even if I’m making up the most basic possible movement -twistlock right hip, reach right hand- because I’ve made it up myself I’ve had to really visualize it and consider if it will work within the holds I’ve chosen, and will still be actively be feeling out the move on the wall more often than not. This is especially true if it’s also near my limit.

This is interesting to me because where the standardized boards can fail people I believe (fail HARD even) is how they require very little user input (esp. with beta vids linked now) while also fixing the wall angle, hold style in some cases (KILTER), and movement style in most cases. Conversely I have found success and seen (even greater) success in younger outrageously stoked and creative climbers on non-standard spray walls when their focus is on creating “interesting” problems without constraining movement rules (like no matching, heels, toes etc.) that are also brutally powerful. The wall angle and hold distribution in a given period of time is still fixed obviously, but the exploration it requires to fully utilize these walls seems to make the transfer better to rock or competition.

Or maybe I just kind of think the standardized walls are no fun at all cause I’m old and miss the old days when every wall in the boulder area turned into a spray wall after the 2nd month without a full strip. That’s probably my tl;dr.

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@Djkatsaros This is one of the biggest reasons I’m a fan of spray walls over boards, and of people making up their own boulders and exploring that movement space. It’s the entire reason we made our Boulder Builder course.

I’m with you almost 100% here. The one thing I’m unsure of is the implication of

I do agree that it helps to have a basic understanding of how movements work, but I also think there is value in going in with a concept you don’t understand and then trial and erroring your way through it, or having to discover movements that you didn’t plan. Takes much more time of course, but I think there is value there.

Going in with a concept, and then not using rules to force a sequence is one of my favorite challenges. If I want someone to do a specific move, and not find other beta, my knowledge of the potential movement solutions needs to be high - and I have to explore beyond it every time. Could be a fun game to have climbers set boulders and then have others try to find new solutions. Everyone wins!


I feel that! I think in reality it “… better forces them to leave with some understanding…” of whatever they were supposed to experiment with was more what I have seen anyway as well. One of the things I have kids do is group up and show each other a bunch of heel hooks (etc) that they go find throughout the gym which seems like a nice way to get them to actively seek out this skill on their own projects .


Under what circumstances would climbing a lot over a long period of time NOT lead someone to develop good technical skills?

Interesting question. There are lots of extremes we could come up with, I’m sure, but I think a realistic answer depends on how we define technical skills. For instance, I know a climber (of 30+ years) who everyone praises for their technical skills, but put them in front of a move that requires any sort of square or powerful technique, and they literally go from mid 5.13 to mid 5.11 at best. I consider that poor technical skill.

So in my opinion, climbing in one area, on one board, or maybe even worst of all, always climbing in the gym with open feet, will lead to having a very narrow skill set. For my money, no matter how good your one skill is, if you don’t have access to other movement solutions, that’s poor technical skill.

I think we could then say given sufficient volume and variety good technical skills will emerge? I think this is what the ecological approach would conclude?

I think I’d generally agree with that but even with a good bit of variety I could potentially just get stronger and use the same solutions to complete harder climbs less efficiently.

I think that’s an oversimplification. Volume and variety might be requirements, but certainly won’t always lead to good technical skill on their own.

Like I said before, I think that part of the trouble is in defining “good solution” vs “bad solution”, using “solution” as the term for technical skill or form or technique or whatever. The definitions I’ve seen for bad solution in ecological dynamics are either a solution that is more predisposed to injury (often used for baseball pitchers because there is so much literature on elbow issues there), a solution that doesn’t get you to the goal, or one that doesn’t fit the uncontrolled manifold hypothesis, which really only works for very simple actions.

We don’t really know what might cause injury (though we have lots of guesses, and if I look at them all I’ve probably never found a good solution), and should we assume all completed movements are good solutions? I’m not going to.


Here’s a video from my recent trip to Vegas, of me doing a 10/11 called Margin of Error (very appropriate name) that is a fantastic example of how constraints can lead to creativity.

The constraint: The boulder is VERY low to the ground, so you have to stay very tight. Any sagging results in dabbing. As a result, I had to pull out all of the tricks, heel and toe hooks, recycling a hold to check a swing, and even making up a move I’d never seen.

For the first move, in order to stay tight, I had tried several methods I didn’t like, so I sat back and rethought it. I mentioned to one of my partners, who has climbed v14, that I was going to try something that I envisioned but may not work. I did the move using that method, and his response was “Wait… you’re going to have to explain that to me because I’m not sure what just happened.” After I explained it, he tried it and ended up sending using this method as well. We called it the Figure 6, because neither of us had seen it. It’s essentially a cross between a Figure 4 (the setup) and a Drop Knee (the finish).

Had I been able to sag, I’d have done the move differently, so the constraint of a “smaller playing field” forced me to be creative and come up with a different solution.

Another interesting takeaway from the experience: You can see in the video that I want to setup with a normal dropknee rather than the Figure 4 setup. This happened to me several times. When Josh did it, he never made the mistake, even though I was the one who came up with the move. Somehow, he was better able to override the natural inclination, which might point to the beta retention/execution capability of a V14 vs. a V11 climber. Spitballing, of course, but possible.